Saturday, March 7, 2009

Gabriella's Voice: The Serial Novel

Chapter Four, Part I

Potato Voice

It was nearing seven o’clock on a Thursday, and I was flat-footing the pavement down Fifth Avenue, seeking out the sci-fi Polaris of the Space Needle to guide me. For the last few blocks, I’d been back-watching for a cab, but by now I felt like I must be pretty close, so I continued pacing and sweating. This was not the way I wanted to make my debut at the Seattle Opera.

The needle-ray August heat had given way to waxy balls of September humidity, the skies a long white shadow borne down with barometric pressure. I held my shirt away from my torso and flapped it like a fly-line, trying to keep cool but unable to slow down this power-walking that was causing the problem in the first place. I would rather be anything, anywhere, than late to an opera.

It could be that this was my punishment for deceiving my muse, my Euterpe, my Santa Cecilia. Refusing to admit that I was now residing on Bainbridge Island, I had told her that I would be doing some book-hunting downtown, and would prefer to just meet her at the Opera House, rather than having to plod back uphill to the Sheraton. I thought that I had left myself plenty of operating room, but the ferry I was supposed to take out of Winslow had a breakdown, and I had to wait for the next one, the Wenatchee, which arrived forty-five minutes later.

My next mistaken assumption was that once I found the Space Needle, and thus the Seattle Center, finding the Opera House would be easy. The lady at the Opera had told me that it was on Mercer Street, so I figured I would just keep walking north till I ran into it, but I didn’t figure on a couple of things. For one, the Center itself is about the size of a small city; for two, that city contained more opera-size buildings than two square blocks of mid-town Manhattan. I made my way like a cockroach under the kitchen light, scattering one way to the Pacific Science Center, the other way to the Key Arena. Even after I conquered my XY chromosomes and asked for directions, I passed the Bagley Wright Theater, the Intiman Playhouse and the Exhibition Hall before I finally blundered into the Opera House.

And, of course, I was too late, anyway. The lady at the entrance handed me my tickets, informed me that the overture had just ended two minutes ago, and signaled me downstairs to the buffet room, where my fellow delinquents were watching the first act on a trio of television monitors.

When I rounded the corner, I noticed two things: the picture on the monitors was coming to us courtesy of a fixed camera at the very back of the hall (a Ken Doll-size Cavaradossi, applying swipes of paint to a postage-stamp portrait of Maria Maddalena); and every single one of my fellow patrons, no doubt blessed by the ocean-breeze transport of air-conditioned automobiles, appeared to be five times as well-dressed as myself. I even spotted a couple of guys in tuxedos. Catching a glimpse of my blue jeans and wrinkled khaki shirt in the mirrored wall, I thought, great, even here among the lepers, I’ve got bubonic plague.

Then I spotted Gabriella dolled up in a flouncy black pantsuit with sharp white piping and a crushed-velvet wrap, and felt even worse. Then she smiled at me, embracing the length of the room with her teeth, and I immediately felt better.

She waved me into a seat at her table and whispered, “What happened to you? You look like you took the underside of an escalator.”

“Unexpected distances,” I answered, and prayed the response was sufficiently vague.

“Well here,” she said. “Sit down, sip some of this water, watch Carol Vaness waltz around the stage in that floral red dress (God I’m jealous!), and I’ll get you a cappuccino. The big advantage of being late is the ol’ downstairs espresso bar.”

“Thank you,” I said. I wrapped my palms around the glass of ice water and applied the cold moisture to my forehead.

After watching the nondescript figures of Tosca and Cavaradossi wend their way into their confluent fixes, Gabriella and I wandered up the wide, golden stairway and down to our seats.

“It’s the biggest house I’ve ever seen,” said Gabriella, noting the way my head was pivoting from wall to wall. “The local singers call it The Barn. I think that’s why they do so much Wagner here; it’s the only stuff that’s loud and obnoxious enough to fill the space.”

The bells rang, the crowd reassembled around us and the curtain rose to reveal an impressive but ridiculously ornate rendition of Baron Scarpia’s apartment, featuring Greco-Roman touches like twenty-foot Ionic columns and a humungous frieze of a glowering Zeus. The audience reacted immediately with that amusing, only-in-opera phenomenon, an ovation for the set. I’m surprised the designer didn’t come out and take a few bows – and perhaps the audience could throw blueprints at his feet. Gabriella was apparently having identical thoughts; she turned to me and half-whispered the word “money,” then repeated it a few times: “Money money money.” Then added a self-amused “moooooooooo-lah!”

“What are you trying to say?” I asked.

All through the second act, as poor Cavaradossi got the blood squeezed out of his forehead, then, as the Baron and Tosca did their little boss-and-secretary decathlon around the furniture, Gabriella would wait for high soprano notes and dig her fingers into my forearm, then lean over and whisper the words “po-ta-to voice.” Not wishing to disturb those around us any more than we already were, I took the phrase as some kind of derogatory reference to Irish singers, and chose to withhold response. After about ten of these instances, however, Gabriella having worked her way to simply mouthing the words and hiding her face in her hands, I will admit I was getting a little curious.

After Scarpia was safely dispatched with a kitchen knife to the heart, two Catholic candles burning vigilantly over his corpse, I turned to my red-headed companion and asked, “Okay. What the hell is a ‘potato voice’?”

“Follow me,” she replied. “And I will tell you.” She performed a neat spin and led us into the aisle, waiting until we were again side by side, descending the golden staircase into the lobby, before she explained.

“Potato voice, my friend, is when ill-trained singers attempt to produce big, dark shouting-in-the-cave sounds by dropping their jaws to the turf and making an exaggerated vertical shape with their mouths.”

I was beginning to catch on. “So... their mouths are making shapes... like a big long Russet potato.”

“You are shoh clevah,” she lisped. “Yes. And somewhere along the line, some highly paid voice teacher told our Tosca that if she wanted to make it to the big time, she was just gonna have to show some molars. You’ll be big and loud and impressive, you will frighten children and small dogs, and you will get lead roles at the Seattle Opera, where Microsoft executives will throw roses and laptop computers at your feet.”

“So in a sense, at least,” I said, “the potato voice works.”

Gabriella came to a parade halt at the precise center of the lobby, patrons cutting cowpaths all around us, and put a hand to my shirt pocket. “Yes,” she said. “But it’s ugly, ugly, ugly, and it cuts years off your singing career, because no one has a throat that can handle that kind of punishment. Except Domingo, perhaps, and he’s a freak of nature.”

I hitched my thumbs into the pockets of my jeans and made a conscious decision about my friendship with Gabriella Compton: we were comfortable enough now that I could pester her with some willful irritation. “Let me try this out on you, Rosina. Yeeeeeew... want nothing more in this life than to put on big, filthy-expensive costumery and sing on stages like the one past those stairs – am I right?”


“Soooooooh, given your Kryptonic natural talent, couldn’t you adopt the potato voice, just for a while, to appease the lions of fashion, and then, as you get more and more successful and pri-ma-don-na-esque, slip your way right back to bel canto?”

Gabriella took on her customary squint (more and more, with those almond-shaped eyes, this gesture was reminding me of a young Lauren Bacall – which, if you think about it, is not at all a bad thing to remind someone of), then opened her eyes back up with ideas and gave my shoulder a triple tap, like a conductor on a music stand. “Come with me.”

She escorted me to the northeast corner of the lobby and past an easel and placard marked Press Room. As we entered, she put a hand over her mouth and said, “If anyone asks, you’re Harvey Glassenderfer from the Santa Barbara Gazette.”

It was a spacious room with that typically ecumenical decor of Northwestern interiors, though the ornate wallpaper and broad-striped armchairs were trying really hard to speak French (parlez-vous armoire?). A Bosendorfer grand was squatting all over the southeast corner like a big black musical rhino, while along the opposite wall stood various underdressed media types (professorly tweed, diagonally striped ties from college graduation, loose cotton pants, never ironed), grazing from a modest buffet table.

Gabriella split the crowd like a power fullback, leading me straight through to the object of her intentions, a twenty-foot-long wall covered from stem to stern in signed black-and-white photographs. She pointed them out like a school teacher explicating phonetics.

“Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. Tito Gobbi. Richard Tucker. Oh, and here’s Licia Albanese – ain’t she a babe? Then some older ones over here – Lily Pons! Mary Garden, Enrico Caruso, Pauline Viardot-Garcia. Ezio Pinza. Um, Luisa Tetrazzini – that’s the chick the Italians named their white sauce after – and Beverly Sills. Joan Sutherland, Claudia Muzo, Anna Moffo. Oh, and, of course,” she turned to a picture of Renata Tebaldi, dressed alpine-style for “Guglielmo Tell,” made a respectful curtsy, and laughed. “Sorry. I always feel the need to genuflect. But are you getting the picture? The pictures?”

Not having fully comprehended that this was part of her answer – in fact, most of her answer – I gave Gabriella no more than a dumb stare.

She let out a frustrated yip that almost turned into one of her renegade notes, then rolled her eyes artfully heavenward. “Must I transcribe everything for you, Billyboy? You see, I am a good soprano, right? I am aware of the fact that I do have some substantial raw material tucked away in this throat o’ mine. So, I’ve got a choice here, two roads diverging in a yellow wood. I can take that talent, pump it up with that cartoon jawdrop orangutan steroid therapy, and make of myself a dandy little mediocre barking diva. Pay all my bills on time, play places like Seattle, scare ninety percent of the audience into thinking that I am one of the damned finest, loudest, most alarming singers they’ve heard... why... in the last month or so, and hey! that’s jes’ fine.

“Or... I can stay true to my art, I can focus on exactly what it is that I and only I want out of the music, I can spend hours at the Trademark Cafe making bucks so that opera will not be my sole source of income, and I can work my ass off on the bel canto treadmill of infinitely subtler and subtler vocal gradations.…” She raised a finger and dropped it down on the marcato beats of her conclusion. “And - get - my - pick - shure - on - that - fuck - ing - wall!” then hitched a thumb to the sea of portraits behind her.

Gabriella froze for a moment, like any great performer waiting to read the reaction of her audience, then smiled with great affected charm and said, “Question answered?”

“Oh my, yes,” I said. “And we’d best get back to our seats, because I hear the bells a-ringing.”

Gabriella took my hand and led me from the press room. “Okay. I wish I didn’t have to listen to that potato voice, though. She’s giving me a headache.”

Next: Trauma at the Space Needle

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Image: Joseph Wright and Deborah Berioli in Opera San Jose’s 2004 production of “Tosca.” Photo by Pat Kirk.

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