Friday, January 2, 2009

Gabriella's Voice (The Serial Novel)

Chapter Two, Part II

Puccini's Granddaughter

The day felt extraordinary, so I sought to make it more so. After donning my tidiest leisure clothes, I took the ferry to Winslow and, heading straight for the docks, found a nice seafood place called the Madrona. I sat beneath a royal blue umbrella on the back deck, ordered a martini straight up (two olives), a bowl of cream-of-mushroom soup, and a plate of steamed mussels. I directed my gaze out over the silver-plated water.

One directionless hour later, I migrated the few yards next door to the Pegasus, a comfortable-looking brick building with a side patio bordering on a construction site. Not exactly picturesque, but I needed that shorefront breeze to keep me cool.

Gabriella arrived an hour later, giving off charged ions from her meeting. Our conversation began something like Carmen feeling for the sore spots in Don José, only what she seemed to be looking for in me was not blind devotion but a certain set of opera aesthetics. For an even half an hour we discussed the major sopranos of the 20th century, and I learned to watch for the pointed dagger of her opinions. After having a couple of my favored singers labeled “shouters and screamers,” I opted for a more passive approach, sitting back while Gabriella gave her opinions first, then wedging mine in alongside, wherever they might fit. (After all, I might have my paltry opinions and my well-trained ear, but I didn’t have her voice.)

After dispensing with the prima donnas (a mere ten percent of whom met Gabriella’s standards), we ran through a long menu of operatic debates: musicality versus theatricality, verismo versus bel canto, German versus Italian (she fell strongly in the Italian camp), the viability of placing classic operas in modernized settings (a practice she was strongly against), and the eternal struggle between conductors and singers. An hour later, I finally got to my point.

“So, no offense to the State Ferry Opera Company, Gabriella, but what are you doing here?”

Gabriella gave me that squinty-eyed stare again (this was obviously her trademark gesture); after an hour and a half of carefully paced confiding I had nevertheless managed to trip a switch. She broke off a chunk of raspberry scone and placed it in her mouth, chewing it slowly while she added up my motives.

“Why would you ask me that?”

I ran a finger across my sunglasses on the table. “Because your voice... and I’m sorry, I don’t know how to say this without gushing, and I swear I am not a man who gushes. Your voice is an immaculate instrument, divinely played. You do things on a stage I’ve never seen or heard before. Your performance contains all the adrenaline and vigor of your youth, and yet you seem to approach the score with all the craft and forethought of a singer ten, fifteen years older. Talent like that appears out of place at the State Ferry Opera Company, no matter how noble their ambitions.”

“Well,” she said. “I will tell you. But it’s not a simple answer.” She crossed her legs and leaned back in her chair, eyeing a French cabaret poster above my head. “Reason One: sheer numbers. Sopranos are a lira a dozen in this bidness, and Lord knows you’d better get used to the burn of the branding iron before you throw yourself into the herd. Reason Two: politics. In case you hadn’t noticed, I use some old-fashioned coloratura techniques that don’t always fly these days.”

“Yes. I wondered about that. Where did that come from?”



“Giuseppe Umbra, my teacher. We call him Maestro. He is ninety-three years old going on twenty-four, and he used to work with Puccini.”

I thought I had missed something there. My eyes began to blink without my permission. “You mean... he specializes in Puccini.”

“No,” she said. “He worked as an assistant to Puccini during his last years at his summer home in Torre del Lago. Puccini was working on ‘Turandot’ at the time – and dying of lung cancer. Isn’t that hideous? It was cigars that did it. I have nightmares about that.”

“No doubt.”

“Yes. And singers were flocking there from all over to learn Puccini’s vocal methods. He could no longer demonstrate his vocal lines for his students, so he used Maestro’s voice instead.”

I ran a hand through my hair. “So let me get this straight. Your training basically comes directly from Puccini, and yet the folks at the operas don’t like the way you sing.”

Gabriella put a hand flat to the table and fixed on me with wide eyes. “I have scores that I work with, that have notations written in the margins by Puccini himself. And nobody likes my voice.”

“Well I certainly do.”

“Grazie. But the big companies, they want belters. And shouters. They want rock stars, they want big jumbo-jet sopranos who can stop traffic, cause sonic booms and fill up stadiums.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Yes. And that’s why I’m here. Maestro has his studio here on Bainbridge, and he’s the artistic director of the company. I’m here to learn roles, and get better and better, and maybe return a little bel canto to the big opera houses.”

“Excuse me a minute,” I said. “I’ve been here for three hours and four drinks, and I need to.…”

“See a man about a horse?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” I said with a broad smile.

When I returned, Gabriella was scanning a book I’d picked up about Pacific Northwest history. Without looking up from the page she asked, “So what are you doing here?”

I had neglected to think of an answer ahead of time, so the one I gave sounded very hollow and left a gummy film on my teeth. “I’m visiting some friends in town.”

“And where are you visiting from?”

“Back east.”

“Where? Korea?”

I watched her until she set down the book and granted me her eyes. “Can we go back to opera trivia?” I asked.

“Well that’s a hell of an attitude. Here I am pouring out my little coloratura heart for you, and you can’t name me a state of origin?”

“Try something else.”

“Okay.” She held an arm up by the elbow and tapped a finger against her cheek. “What do... or did, you do for a living?”

“I’m an umpire.”


“An umpire. Baseball? Balls and strikes?”

“Yeah, right. And I’m Sam Ramey.”

“Care to try another?”

Gabriella turned to look inside at the clock above the kitchen, hiding her face behind a letter-size sheet of red hair. “Actually, I have to get going. The next ferry leaves in fifteen minutes.”

“Can I come with you?”

“I don’t know. Are you becoming a creep yet?”

I ran a hand over my mouth and jawline. “I don’t seem to be sprouting fangs. And my facial hair appears to be growing at a normal rate.”

“Are you a tenor?”

“I am but a weak baritone.”

“Okay. A baritone I can trust. And an umpire, to boot.” Gabriella let out a “Die Fledermaus” stage laugh and headed into the cafe, leaving me trailing in her wake.

Find Gabriella’s Voice at:

Photo: Giacomo Puccini

Next: Divas on Ferries

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