I am on the Flanagan deck, where Colin and I are conducting a war with Mother Nature. With mid-June temps edging into the 80s, Colin has decreed that not one ounce of stain strike that deck in direct sunlight. This means a day-long dance in which I hopscotch from one surface to the next, following the squares of shade meted out by house and tree.
I am utterly behind schedule. The clock edges past six and I am still on the upper deck, applying a second coat that simply has to be finished today. And Maddalena Hart calls to me. I foxtrot our thousand-bristle brush across the final foot of plank, unscrew it from the broomstick and drop it into a bucket of water. Then I race downstairs to my car, grab my evening clothes and retreat to the back of the house, where the hillside offers some visual shelter.
That’s the thing about working in the mountains: you can get away with stuff you wouldn’t dream of doing in the city. I remove every stitch, grab a hose, brace for the shock, and crank the spigot. I give myself a thorough soaking, then I use my work shirt as a towel, drying off as much as possible before I start in on the evening wear.
I am trousered, shirted and ready to go when I pass by a large black pipe and hear the sound of descending liquid. Uh-oh. This is the sound of a toilet flush. Looking up, I see a small window with a light on.
I run up the steps to the driveway, toss my work clothes in the back seat, and am just pulling out when I see Mrs. Flanagan’s silver LeMans in the garage. I discover our 82-year-old client at the kitchen window, and give her a friendly wave. She waves back, wearing a smile that is equal parts flustered and amused.
A half hour later I am NASCARring along the sweet swath of Interstate 280, the fog drifting over Crystal Springs Reservoir like an army of cotton balls. My refrigerator-level AC has finally deactivated my pores, so I drop in at the Burlingame rest stop to assemble my dress shoes and tie. I pull into the Civic Center garage with minutes to spare, sprint up the urine-smelling exit and circumnavigate City Hall, the frigid municipal wind blow-drying my deck-hair. I arrive at the side entrance of the War Memorial Opera House and give a wave to the spry, ginger-haired gentleman who serves as my gatekeeper.
“Mister Siskel. Go on through. Delores is hosting tonight.”
Four of my favorite words. With her cutesy black-Irish features, youthful figure and actual personality, Delores forces me to keep an eye on my dirty-old-man alarm system. I cross the south hallway to find her in the press room, talking to the usual vaguely European assholes.
“Oh! I went to the Los Angeles premiere last autumn. They have a new artistic director. Dennis McClintock. Used to be with Glimmerglass?”
I have never heard one of these industry whores actually talk about an opera. They chatter like a squad of thirteen-year-old girls in a cafeteria. Delores has spotted me and is giving me one of her profoundly genuine-seeming smiles.
“Mickey! Let me find your ticket.” She shuffles her envelopes, poker-style, and hands one to me. “Oh, and the info sheets are tucked into the programs.”
I head for the coffee and add a ridiculous amount of cream to bring down the temperature. I know it’s Mozart, and staying awake is not a problem, but I want Maddalena’s voice to stream along my synapses on wide-open channels.
Delores leans over my shoulder. “By the way, Mickey, you know you could have a second ticket, right? It’s been five years – you’ve definitely passed the test!”
“To be honest, Delores, I am surrounded by people all week. If I can go on pretending that those tightwads at San Francisco Opera just won’t give me a second ticket, I may continue to use this as my personal retreat.”
She swats me with her envelopes. “No, Mister Siskel! You may not have a second ticket, and please stop asking!”
“Thank you. I mean, curse you, you miserly press relations… person!”
Her eyes light up, then she looks closer and develops a concerned expression.
“Oh, um… You might want to check your forehead.”
I head for the mirror over the refreshment table and discover a slash of golden stain over my left temple. I dip a napkin into my coffee and manage to scrub it away. The chimes go off in the hallway, so I head out, whispering a thanks to Delores.
There is not a square inch of the War Memorial that I do not adore. The gilded florets that look down on the cavernous lobby. The red-carpeted steps that lead to the auditorium; the scroungy standing-room-onlys shuffling for position behind the back row. The Olympic-sized gold bricks that cover the north and south walls. The spiky gardenia of chandelier that shuts off in a dazzling spiral.
My ticket says row L, fantastically close. I wait next to my aisle seat until my row fills up, then sit down and applaud the conductor, Patrick Summers, he of the silver mane and ruddy complexion, who should probably be astride a horse in an Eastwood movie. The burgundy curtain rises to the heavens.
Cosi fan tutte is the ultimate romantic farce. Rascally bachelor Don Alfonso scoffs at his youngers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, as they brag on the beauty and fidelity of their fiancées. He then concocts the juiciest of wagers: the two will pretend to leave the country, then return in disguise to test the faithfulness of the other guy’s chick. Make this a mid-century American film, and the women are tempted but not won; the assembled cast laughs and smiles for the final scene as someone plays Cole Porter. In the hands of Mozart and his librettist, da Ponte, things are never that comfortable.
The folks at SFO have gone for a modernized production. The purists hate these kind of things, but then I hate the purists. The sneaky fiancés traditionally come back as Albanians, all facial hair and Middle Eastern robes, but here they’re long-haired ‘70s-era rockers. The baritone wears skin-tight leather pants, a copper-colored duster and no shirt, revealing an impressive set of abs and an eagle tattooed across his chest. The supertitle translator is in on the joke, as well. When one of the sopranos catches sight of their weird-looking suitors, she asks, “Where are these guys from? Haight-Ashbury?”
Speaking of sopranos, I have found myself in a kind of sonic heaven. They have paired Maddalena with a Dorabella whose mezzo is forceful and vibrant, a perfect match. Equipped with Mozart’s harmonic magic – long passages of girl-on-girl singing – the two are sending out chill after chill to give my spine the beat-down.
And then there’s Maddalena, and since I do go on about her, perhaps I should give you a summary of her talents. Her voice is huge, and powerful, but never forced. She manages to maintain the buoyancy of the category known as lyric, showing a gymnastic agility that should be impossible for someone with such a broad, buttery tone. Her delivery comes with impossible ease, her tone spinning into the audience like a million tiny Frisbees. And her top notes are absolutely secure, the dynamics of her phrasing always thoughtfully dramatic. She also has that rare ability to appear as if she’s simply talking – as if we should all go around singing our conversations – when in fact she is launching pyrotechnic displays of sound that mere mortals may only dream of.
What’s serving to intensify my obsession is the present-day clothing. They have dressed her all in white – befitting Fiordiligi’s chaste attitude – a flowing pantsuit with a long jacket that flits here and there with her movements, revealing contours that one might not expect from an opera singer. The generous knockers, yes, the stout ribcage (an occupational hazard) – but the ass on this girl! Medium to generous, as befits a diva, but possessed of a round shape and firmness that would give your average construction worker hours of material. Throw in those oversized emerald eyes, a head full of blonde Monroe ringlets, and those inflatable, flexible lips that they emphasize for every album cover. By the time she arrives at the big second-act aria, I’m already a mess, my heart on a platter, waiting to be frappéd by her performance. But more on that later.
At the end of three hours, I head downstairs for my pre-drive restroom stop, stopping at a portrait of Renata Tebaldi from 1968 (in Andrea Chenier) to run my thumb across her name plate. Maddalena has been compared with her, and don’t go thinking that I disagree.
On the drive home, I pop Maddalena’s rendering of Dvorak’s “Song to the Moon” into the cassette player (it’s an old car), and then I cleanse my palate with some AC/DC. I picture the modernized Ferrando and Guglielmo onstage with Angus and Malcolm Young, as young opera fans flash their tits at the stage.
The drive is long but not difficult. Mozart to me is like crystal meth, and also I have my nightscapes. My favorite arrives at Stanford, between the satellite dish and the linear accelerator. The surrounding land is a green vale, dotted here and there by live oaks and cows, painted silver by three quarters of a moon.
Twenty miles later, I’m approaching the evergreen mountains behind Saratoga, speckled with the lights of houses belonging to the rich – who spend most of their daylight hours denying that they’re rich at all. But this is a previous lifetime, and I’m just passing through, into the long ascending stretches of Highway 9. The deer population keeps me alert, chewing on the roadside grasses perilously close to the asphalt.
The final directions are a little complicated. Half mile past the fire station, first Ped Xing sign to your right, through the gate with the combination lock. After that it’s a full mile of downhill dirt and gravel, the rain channels beating up the suspension, and finally the much-anticipated left-hand sweep that signals home base, ancient orchards to the right, cabin of Trey the Fish to the left. I park between two redwood trees, take a moment to breathe the mountain air, check out the moonlight sliding through the trees in dull metallic streaks, then reach back in for my program and make my way to the steps.
It’s Katie. She’s on all fours in the entryway, and, yes, as my eyes adjust to the dark I see that she is wearing a dog suit: floppy black ears, big round nose-cap, and a furry white beagle onesie with built-in paws and a springy spike of tail.
“Pretty cute, Katie. Could you maybe call next time so I don’t have a freakin’ heart attack?”
“Hawroof!” She shuffles forward and leaps on me. I pat her on the head and she pants her approval, then adopts a cartoony growl-voice. “Mrrickey bring bone? Katie want bone!”
“No Katie, I didn’t bring you a bone. Now let’s get inside and…”
She snarls (as menacingly as a four-foot-ten blonde can) then pads her way down to my crotch and snuffles around like she’s hunting for kibble.
“Oh! Okay. I getcha.” I drop my program on a filing cabinet, undo my belt and drop trou to reveal that yes, the dog has given the man a bone. She gives my dick a few exploratory licks and then engulfs it with a messy, dog-like blow job. I grab her floppy ears and endeavor to get into the spirit of things.
“Katie, you sexy bitch!”
After a minute she pulls away, circles around and raises her tail into the air. “Rrowf!” she says, what sounds like a canine command.
Ah, thinks I. I believe she wants to do it doggie-style. Access is a bit of a puzzle, until my initial butt-squeeze reveals a pair of large buttons. I quickly undo them and pull up the panel, revealing Katie’s round, plump cheeks. I dip a hand between them to find that she is well-lubricated, then I insert a finger, enjoying the vision of her bare pussy in the moonlight. My cock is about ready to launch itself right off my pelvis, so I take it in hand and guide myself home. It’s a grand feeling, but her tail keeps whacking me in the face.
An hour later, we’re back to human form, entwined beneath a couch blanket as we enjoy a small summer fire. I cannot usually tolerate such lengthy stretches of personal-space invasion, but Katie fits into the curve of my frame as if she were designed for the purpose. She also has this natural taste and smell that I never tire of, augmented by spearmint gum, vanilla shampoo, milk-white skin, bubble-gum nipples and labia – she is my candy girl. Too bad she’s so fucked up, but it’s really not her fault.
“How was the drop-off?” I ask.
“Oh God. Same old shit. I thought I was getting away clean, but then he calls me and says that Sara needs her Hannah Montana sweatshirt. ‘Just pull up,’ he says. ‘I’ll come to the car and get it.’ Always trying to get us alone together, like I find him so fucking irresistible I will me mesmerized by his manly presence and decide not to divorce him. For seven years I told that asshole we needed to work on our marriage, for seven years he didn’t do a goddamn thing, but now, now that I’ve left his sorry ass – now he desperately wants me back. Oh God, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be so pissy. But you shouldn’ta got me going.”
I stroke her hair, the way she likes me to.
“Y’gotta dump on somebody. It may as well be me.”
She gives me a kiss. “Thanks, honey.”
“As long as you’re bitching about other men, I could listen for hours! It’s just the price of admission. And what a show you put on tonight.”
“I’m a creative little slut.”
“What do you say to popcorn and a movie? They’re playing an old Hitchcock.”
She gives me that priceless, impish smile, eyes the color of a spring sky. “Sounds fab, honey. You’re a great fuck, ya know?”
“Thanks.” I give her lips a proper chewing and head off to the microwave.
I have a life-long habit of dating brunettes, so it’s still a surprise to find this golden-haired creature sitting on the edge of my bed, doing her best to work out the morning tangles. She is a small sun over my nightstand.
The hour is another thing. Ungodly. Fifteen minutes later I am re-awakened by a toothpaste kiss, and wet hair that smells like peaches. I do my best to smile, and then I assemble enough clothing to ward off hypothermia and walk her out to her car. The morning is sharp and beautiful, lemon slices of sun cutting through the trees. A pair of Steller’s jays wing in front of us to carry their squabbling to a small madrone. I lean Katie against her car and do some more work on those lips.
“So I was wondering… where did you get that outfit?”
“Our church did a production of ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.’”
“I was fucking Snoopy? Good grief!”
“This is Charles Schulz, spinning in his grave.”
She bites her lip. “I better go. Air kiss?”
I wrap my arms around her back, lift her into the air and apply lips liberally, then I spin her a couple of times so we can look like a scene from a screwball romantic comedy. Or Cosi fan tutte. Then she’s gone, up the road, down the mountain, off to pick up the kids for church. I must be a good fuck, for all the trouble she goes to. And I am profoundly impressed at her ability to compartmentalize between Saturday night and Sunday morning.
I indulge in a couple more hours of snoozing, but it’s not going to be more - I’ve got too many ideas circling my bloodstream. My agenda begins with a long sit on the pot as I read every shred of SFO’s program, including a seriously well-written piece on the friendship between Mozart and his librettist, da Ponte.
Second is a long soak in my most excellent clawfoot bathtub. I am a connoisseur of luxury soaps, and this morning I am breaking in a French-milled Shea butter bar with the deeply sweet aroma of linden blossoms. Over the next two weeks, this scent will suffuse the entire cabin. I lather it between my hands, hold the suds to my nose and then begin with my left foot before the water gets too high.
After that I’m raring to go, so I keep the breakfast simple: two pieces of toast with butter and strawberry preserves, followed by fresh-ground Ethopian coffee. I head to my writing table, positioned before a window view of my twin redwoods, to the right a deep hollow covered in madrone. To the left is the cabin of Trey the Fish, with yet another topless woman flouncing on the deck. I make a mental note to thank him. I position myself before a circle of books – a Mozart biography, Grove’s Book of Operas and the SFO program (the cast page covered with written-in-the-dark scrawls) – set down a spiral-bound notebook and pick up a cheap powder-blue stick pen. I don’t play any music, because already I can hear Maddalena singing.
If you were a singer in Mozart’s company, you really couldn’t lose. He would write the role to accentuate your strengths, and dance artfully around your flaws. Thus was created one of the scariest roles in the canon: Fiordiligi of Cosi fan tutte, her stunning rollercoaster vocal lines inspired by the awesome high and low registers of Adriana Ferrarese.
It’s quite possible, however, that that’s all she had. Other than Fiordiligi and a few productions as Susannah in Le Nozze di Figaro, Adriana had a pretty lackluster career. This came from two important shortcomings: she couldn’t act, and she couldn’t do comedy.
Aha! you say. (Go ahead – I’ll wait.) So why was Adriana so successful in the decidedly farcical Cosi? Excellent question, and here’s your answer: because Fiordiligi is the square peg, holding firmly to her church-girl principles even as all around her are screwin’ around. This custom-crafted role came about either through good fortune or because Adriana was sleeping with the librettist, da Ponte. The torridness of the affair (owing largely to the married status of both participants) doubtlessly contributed to the libretto’s conflicted views on love and fidelity.
Regardless, given the way that Mozart treats Fiordiligi as his own personal yo-yo, any normal soprano should be forgiven for not being entirely up to the part. Fortunately, we’re not talking about normal sopranos – we’re talking about Maddalena Hart. Hart’s easy top notes are the stuff of legend, and her bottom end is not to be disregarded. For recorded evidence, note the low sobbings at the denouements of Boito’s “L’altra notte” (Mefistofele) and Dvorak’s “Song to the Moon” (Rusalka) from Hart’s Favorite Arias album. The depth of these passages has won the singer much-deserved comparisons to Tebaldi.
Naturally, it’s not just having the notes, it’s how the notes are deployed. Many a singer has come to these clifftop drops and landed on the low notes with all the tender sensitivity of a professional wrestler. Hart manages to make the descent more deftly, like a hang glider, dipping her toes to the precise mid-point of the pitch before catching the next updraft. Not once does this seem like work, and not once does she lose her supremely intelligent sense of dynamic flow. Hart often creates the impression that none of this is so unusual, that these are just everyday conversations that decided to take wing.
Since my rough beginnings, I have made major strides. I am now able to complete a review in a matter of one longhand draft, one computer draft and a final read-through. Considering the fact that I’m not getting paid a cent, this is good. I head for my blog, Operaville, paste in the article, and then I go to the SFO site to shop for a photo. The images there are sharp, and beautiful, and provocative. I always feel like I’m cheating, like I’m applying Chanel No. 5 to a pig. This time I settle on something comic: rocker-dude Ferrando hauling Fiordiligi over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, her mouth open in a gasp of surprise. Maddalena is so freakin’ gorgeous all the time that it’s hard to catch her being cute. I download the image to my desktop, upload it to the blogsite, add the IDs and photo credit, and press the magic Publish button, committing my words to public consumption.
I celebrate by preparing my slow-cook goulash, an olio of red peppers, onions, cabbage and potatoes over a bacon stock, and spice it with oregano, cayenne pepper and some pomegranate molasses that I discovered in a high cabinet. While that’s brewing, I sit on my porch in the twilight treeshade and light up a cigar – a low-priced maduro from Honduras. I have set my computer to let out a chirp when anyone responds to my blog, and am pleased, halfway through my smoke, when DD rings in with her first comment. She’s like clockwork, that girl. I finish the cigar, consume a bowl of the goulash with a dollop of sour cream, and respond to a text from Katie that reads, simply, Arf! (I respond with U r 1 fine piece of tail.) Then I mix up some mango nectar with yogurt (a trick I picked up from an Indian friend) and park it next to the computer.
DevilDiva: You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a modernized opera these days. I take it from your review that this doesn’t bother you?
Mickey: I always wanted to start a jazz band called Swing a Dead Cat. But yes! As long as a modernization makes sense, I’m all for it. Whenever possible, opera should be fun.
DD: But infidelity, illicit sex, the fickle ways of love -–how can a modern audience possibility relate to these things?
DD: Thank you for not responding “LOL.” I hate that shit.
DD: Smartass. But I’m afraid these progressive ideas of yours will never do. Opera is nothing but an excuse for fusty 70-year-olds to impress their friends and obtain valuable tax writeoffs. Fun is utterly out of the question.
M: Sorry. I had fun, and I make no apologies. And the thing with the rockers? Hilarious.
DD: Yes, the Haight-Ashbury joke. Audiences love that stuff. It is a bit unsettling, though, how often they laugh at the supertitle before you actually get to the line. I once had a director who brought in students for dress rehearsal and instructed them to laugh at the funny supertitles right when they appeared on the screen, just so we could get used to it.
M: Good idea!
DD: But darling! Let’s talk about this segue from the historical to the musical, from Ferrarese to the way Maddie handles those intervals. You are a magician, my dear. You are a singer’s dream. If I ever get a chance to sing Fiordiligi, I’m definitely using that hang-glider visual. Why are you not writing for Opera News?
M: A late start. I am the Satchel Paige of opera criticism. And alas! I turned down that scholarship to Julliard.
DD: Okay, I’ll go along with the mythmaking process. “Siskel left a promising career in professional tennis to write a blog about opera.”
M: Hey! I’ve got a pretty decent serve.
DD: Okay. But tell me, honestly. Is Signorina Hart really that good? Or are you just buying into the hype?
M: Sometimes I read the stuff I have written about her, and I think, Come on! You’re going too far. And then I see her again, I hear her again, and I realize that I am not exaggerating at all. It’s this combination of intelligence and vocal power. Intoxicating! I find myself holding my breath when she’s singing. And you’ve read my other reviews – I’m really not a gusher.
DD: No. You’re amazingly even-keeled. And fair. So, did you discover anything new about her?
M: You’re really digging today.
DD: Hey, if you want to be the best, you study the best.
M: Okay. You know how most opera costumes entirely obscure the body? Décolletage excepted?
DD: God yes! When I’m doing Mozart, I feel like a freakin’ parade float.
M: Modern dress, of course, is much more revealing, much tighter to the silhouette. And this first-act pantsuit… It turns out that Maddalena Hart, in addition to killer top notes, a beautiful passagio, and a divine sense of phrasing, has an incredibly fine ass.
I sit there for a couple of minutes, and I’m getting nothing. This is not unusual. Out here in the boonies, I am a prisoner of ancient dial-up technology. Perhaps a squirrel is sitting on the wire. I have half a thought that I got a little too saucy, but DD and I have “gone there” before, so I can’t imagine she would take offense. I take a break to clean my dishes. When I return, sure enough, she’s back.
DD: Sorry. Life intercedes. So why no mention of derrieres in the review?
M: Do you not recall the phrase, “…her bottom end is not to be disregarded”?
DD: That is so bad, on so many levels.
M: I save the R-rated stuff just for you, honey.
DD: You do recall that this is a public forum we’re chatting upon?
M: You kiddin’ me? I’m counting on this stuff to get me some page-views. In fact, I think I’ll plug in a search tag for “Maddalena Hart’s ass.”
DD: Yeah, operatic porn is big these days. And what kind of sleazy readership will that get you?
Cordell: Somebody call?
M: Cord! Good to hear from you.
DD: Time for Diva to Di-part, hon. But one last thought: I think you’re in love with Maddalena Hart.
M: Well who isn’t?
C: I’m in love with her, and I’m as queer as a three-headed monkey.
M: Cordell! Nice bon mot.
C: Thank you. I saw an Oscar Wilde play last night.
DD: Ciao, belli.
M: Buona notte, signorina divina.
C: Not break up this little love-huddle, but rocker duds? They really did that?
M: You woulda loved the shirtless baritone.
C: Please! I’m strictly about the art. Can I get a photo?
M: Ha! I’ll smuggle you one from the website.
C: God bless you, young hetero.
The Olsen house lies near the southern tip of Skyline Boulevard, at the far reaches of a well-organized mountain community. After a confusing series of forks, I pull onto a hilltop hosting three large homes under a canopy of live oak. The center house, rather Frank-Lloyd-Wrightish with all its natural touches, is one that we did last summer. I recall a terrifically hardy species of lichen that took forever to pressure-wash, as well as impractical white carpeting that we had to cover with adhesive plastic runners. But we must have done a good job, since we’re now putting in stakes with their next-door neighbors.
The Olsen estate is an assemblage of blue-gray boxes – pretty jarring next to the chaparral, but they’ve done their best to soften it with modern sculptures and fountains. My favorite is a jumble of steel rods at the entryway that seems to represent a pair of figures in erotic embrace. I find Colin piling equipment along the front steps, his early-Dylan hair bobbing and weaving as he moves.
“Ay! San Franciskel. Right on time as usual. You are a marvel of punctuality, my friend. Ready to spend the day on your hands and knees?”
“It’s my natural position.”
He joketh not. Our clients, a geeky software exec and his intermittently sexy wife, are inordinately fond of their deck. They insist on preserving it with an organic mineral-based stain so benign that it must be reapplied once a year. It feels more like we’re sautéing the deck in teriyaki sauce. But I’ll give them this: at twenty years of age, their deck is in immaculate condition.
The process is one royal pain in the tuckus. A glacial drying time means that we must wait three days between coats. It also means that, after laying the stuff down, we have to crawl around wiping up the excess with rags. The rags must then be deposited in buckets of water, lest they inspire spontaneous combustion. You don’t even want to whisper the word “fire” in these parts. This very mountain range has hosted three major blazes this year, and it’s only June.
Our starting point is the back deck, which offers one of the best views I’ve ever seen: a steep grassy downhill that disappears into mile after mile of evergreen mountains, followed by the faint low buildings of Santa Cruz (the white-steepled Holy Cross Church) and the Pacific Ocean. I take a mental note to take occasional viewing breaks; in the throes of labor, it’s easy to forget.
I position my trolley – a flat wooden board with wheels – set down my paint tray and fill it up with stain. Then I screw my thousand-bristle brush onto my broomstick, dip it in and start laying it down. Colin takes up shop at a walkway, three feet down, that rings the edge of the deck. We’re separated by a long limestone bench, but still in easy conversing distance. Colin is a painfully social creature, and not about to pass up the opportunity for a chat.
“Have a good weekend?”
“Yes. I saw Maddalena.”
“Ah! Is this a new one?”
“This is a soprano.”
“Ah yes – the one you’re so keen on.”
“That’s the one.”
“Did she fulfill your every desire?”
“All that I could ask for and not be arrested.”
“Well! Much as I appreciate a fine voice, I hope you’re having occasional meetings with actual women.”
“Oh, I did. Katie popped in on me.”
“Ah! The blonde midget. Guerrilla booty call?”
“Dressed in a dog suit.”
Colin replies in the long-voweled manner of the titillated Brit: “No-o-oh!”
I answer in the falsetto voice adopted by every American boy who grew up watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus. “She’s a saucy little bitch, she is!”
“Well I wish she would have a word with my number three. Fantastic woman – absolutely passive in the sack. May as well be inflatable.”
I stop, mid-dip. “You actually call her ‘number three’?”
“Not to her face. But she knows she’s number three.”
“How’s a girl going to improve unless she knows her ranking?”
“I wish I had your cojones.”
“Is that some sort of Spanish dish?”
Colin is a committed follower of Burning Man, a group that assembles a small city in the Nevada desert each summer for the purpose of burning a giant man. One of the offshoots of the group’s libertarian leanings is a population that practices poly-amory – committed couples who give each other permission to screw around. Colin refers to these types as “polys,” and I cannot help but picture horny men and women dressed as parrots. It’s clear that he means this expression dismissively, which is pretty funny coming from a man who numbers his girlfriends. On the other hand, my dismissal of Colin’s approach has less to do with principles than laziness. I have a hard enough time managing a single booty call; I wouldn’t know what to do with a harem.
“So this Katie sounds like great fun, actually. Why don’t you get involved with her?”
“She’s too busy going through a terrible divorce.”
“Ah, yes. Nuclear fallout.”
He works his way around the corner, but returns to work on some side panels. It’s been a half hour, but he takes up the conversation as if we haven’t missed a beat.
“Anyone else in the picture?”
“I have this online pal, DevilDiva, who claims that I’m in love with Maddalena Hart.”
“Ah, yes. You do wax poetic. But that’s sheer fantasy, correct?”
“Yes. I do not believe in the celebrity fuck.”
“I know who’s in love with you, mate.”
“Classic female stratagem. She accuses you of being in love with Maddalena Hart, because she wants you to say, ‘Why of course not, DevilDiva – I’m in love with you.’”
He delivers this with a swooning passion that truly cuts me up. I gotta say, it’s good to have a boss with a sense of humor. But I’ve got no answer for his hypothesis.
“Well!” says Colin, happy to have planted a seed. “I’d best fetch the rag-box. Hellish job, this, but we do need the work, eh?”
I repeat his favorite mantra. “It’s a slog.”
Colin abandons me at lunchtime to go wrangle up some new clients. I have no complaints, because him dealing with the clients means I don’t have to deal with them. All I want to do is work. Besides, as much as I enjoy our gossip sessions, Colin has a bad habit of micromanaging.
It’s a warm day, and with no one around I can take off my shirt and collect some rays. I slip into the rhythm of the work, and am pleased when I reach that state where I can think without thinking.
A few hours later, I have reached the shaded steps near the garage, and am about to slip my T-shirt back on when I hear a door. Misty Olsen stands on the top step in an elegant ensemble: chocolate-brown dress, gold earrings, a copper-colored scarf. Misty is the epitome of the mousy brunette, but like I said she can be unexpectedly sexy. Something about my midway-dressed state puts a weird charge in the air. She gives me an embarrassed smile.
“Hi. I’m meeting Mac for a fundraiser in Los Gatos.”
“You look good,” I don’t say.
“Oh,” I do say. “Have a good time.”
“I hope you finish soon! It’s got to be hot on that deck.”
“That’s all right – I’m in the shade now.”
“Well. I brought you a Coke from the garage. I’ll just leave it on the ledge here.”
Truth be told, I’m pretty well-stocked. Colin once had a scary brush with heat stroke, so he’s pretty insistent on throwing Gatorades at me. But still, as soon as Misty drives off, I go for that Coke. Soda isn’t even all that good for hydration, but when you’ve got one fresh from the fridge, little beads of sweat on the can – oh, there’s nothing like it.
Clients of contractors should understand this. I know you’re paying good money, and honestly there’s no time that Colin and I aren’t shooting for the highest quality, regardless. But with this single 50-cent Coke, Misty has purchased gratitude and loyalty, and a good feeling that will enable me to work that much harder on her deck.
As it turns out, I need every edge I can get, because the finishing slog is brutal. In the shade, the deck drinks up very little of the stain, which means more wiping. But I’ve got no choice; I’ve got to finish this first coat or our schedule will be all screwed up.
Finally, as the sun lowers over the ocean, I finish the last few planks. I take care to get all the rags into the water-buckets, and I take a look down to discover that I am a complete mess. So here I am stripping off again, a little spooked at Misty’s previous entrance. I use the few remaining rags for an all-over wipedown, then I take my softball gear out of my cleverly concealed duffel and get all suited up. I may be utterly destroyed at all available joints and tendons, but it’s time to play.
I cruise the familiar downhills of Highway 9, locked in on a Giants game, the delicious roll of Jon Miller’s baritone, Tim Lincecum casting his usual spell on opposing batters. I arrive in time to get in a few warmup tosses and then we’re playing. Truth be told, I have my best games when I am utterly exhausted. I think it’s because I truly couldn’t give a shit, and there’s something about apathy that makes for good softball. I am retired to second base these days, and the position suits me. During twenty years at shortstop, my fondness for diving brought fair-to-middling results – the throw to first is just too long. But at second I’ve got all the time in the world, time to gather myself, get to my feet (or at least my knees) and make that throw.
Tonight, however, I am merely the sidekick. Doug, the Japanese fireplug with the surprisingly wide range, is nabbing everything. He feeds me two perfect double-play balls in the first three innings, and in the fifth we are offered the chance to achieve the unthinkable. With men on first and second, the batter strokes a hard grounder that brings Doug into the baseline. He tags the lead runner and flips it to me at second. In the slow-mo nature of moments like this, I know immediately what’s up: we’re going for a triple play. In his rush, however, Doug has tossed the ball too far from the bag. Instead of stretching for it, I try to pull it back toward me for the throw to first, and it drops to the dirt.
At the end of the inning, I join Doug on his trot to the bench.
“Sorry, man. I could have stretched for the double play, but I could see that look in your eyes.”
“Oh, you read me right. Triple play or nothin’. You don’t get too many chances at greatness. And I totally choked on that flip.”
“A little excitement is a dangerous thing.”
We call our team the Bums, and we too often play like it. At 47, I am a master strategist (at 47 I have to be), and it drives me crazy, the stupid things we do on a regular basis. Like Marcus, our blowhard left fielder. Good with the glove, impressive arm, no more brains than a sack of caramels. Gets up with the bases loaded, one out, and rolls one down the line for an easy third-to-first double play. Hit that ball anywhere else on the diamond and you’ve got at least a run.
We lose by the usual brutally small margin, and I walk with Doug to the parking lot.
“Kids still small? No one in college yet?”
Doug chuckles. “The oldest is four. The youngest is still in diapers.”
“Good. I’m tired of finding out my friends’s kids are graduating Princeton.”
We walk a few feet in silence. I take note of Doug’s new-style softball backpack, two bats pointing skyward in their holsters. He looks like Clint Eastwood, riding into town with a pair of shotguns. Doug is my only teammate anywhere near my age – maybe 38. Thank God, because all these youngsters make me feel like an alien.
“How’re things with you?” he says.
“Oh, same ol’. Lotsa work, which is good. Couple of operas. Occasional bouts of sex.”
“Ha! You make it sound like boxing. You oughta be a writer.”
“I’ve thought about it.”
I haven’t told Doug about the blog. Hell, he’s the only one who knows about the opera thing at all. The field lights blink off. I have to slow down while my eyes adjust.
“I have the feeling that something extraordinary is about to happen. I have absolutely no basis for this. But you get these… signals.”
“I get those. Until I choke on the throw to second.”
“Ah, but what I’m envisioning is even bigger than a triple play.”
“Nothing’s bigger than a triple play.”
“Welp. Here’s my car. See ya next week.”
“See ya. And for God’s sake, clean off that nasty arm of yours.”
Sixth inning. Grounder to my right. I take a full-on dive. The ball ticks off the edge of my glove and heads for center field. My throwing arm lands on a gravelly patch of dirt. In the dim light of the parking lot, I touch my arm to my softball pants, leaving a Rorschach blotch of red. I laugh. It’s good to be a guy. It’s good to bleed.
For once, my opera-day schedule is devoid of adventure. A half-day pressure wash above the Lexington Reservoir, top of a freakin’ mountain, it’s hard to believe that places like this exist. Much as I hate driving that dirt road to my cabin, I cannot resist the chance to get myself clean. So I take my clawfoot bath, sunlight ticking in through the madrones, doll myself up in the usual black suit, then pick out a striped burgundy tie that Katie gave me.
So I’m all moussed up and back on Interstate 280. It’s pretty hot outside, so I’ve got the AC blasting away like a Wagnerian tenor. I slip in a Foo Fighters cassette to give myself some audio contrast, and I’m feeling good.
The luxury of time allows me to scout the curbside parking spaces, and I nab one just outside the Civic Center garage, with a meter that stops nicely at 7 p.m. I arrive at the press room a half hour before curtain, and I relish the chance to sit on a couch with a coffee as I scour the program. This one’s got a vastly entertaining piece on the life of Alexander Pushkin, although the language drifts into that neo-Dickens that opera writers feel obligated to adopt.
Just across from me is a television monitor showing the stage. They’ve given the production a full-size title screen, a Russian village in the style of Chagall, Yevgeny and Tatyana drifting overhead, accompanied by a flying cow and a violin. I’ve always wondered if they use this monitor just to track the show, or if they force late-arriving critics to sit here and watch the first act on TV. Fortunately, I have yet to test the system.
I finish my coffee and article and head for the refreshment table, where Delores has arrayed a fine selection of crackers and spreadable cheeses. It’s good to be a critic. Delores is occupied with her twenty-some guests, so I finish my munchies and slither into the hall.
Tchaikovsky is such a mixed blessing he’s almost a frappé. The orchestrations are lush, the vocal lines soaring and graceful, but he’s certainly in no hurry to tell a story, and not overly fond of quick tempos or jaunty rhythms. I saw Joan of Arc last year, and it literally put me to sleep. “How could you possibly make Joan of Arc boring?” you ask. Mostly by following that brilliant Russian tradition of keeping all the action strictly offstage. That way, all the characters can gather to discuss it after-the-fact. It’s like skipping the football game so you can get to the exciting post-game wrapup.
Pushkin was hardly innocent of this himself ; his works are more dependent on social commentary and descriptive details than plot. But somehow his verse novel inspired Tchaikovsky’s most entertaining opera. Perhaps because the composer and his co-librettist, Shilovsky, preserved much of Pushkin’s language and were happy just to skim the cream from his story. They didn’t even call it an opera, opting for the phrase “lyric scenes” and trusting that their audience had already memorized the original novel.
The cast is certainly promising. The title singer is Jesus Cortez, a Venezuelan baritone who came up through SFO’s residency programs and is threatening to become the company’s biggest find since Anna Netrebko. Playing Lensky, Yevgeny’s best pal, is Ramon Vargas, a tenor who utterly knocked me out in last year’s Elixir of Love. That pure, lyric – dast I say Pavarottian – tone, delivered with such ease, and a remarkable level of comfort on stage. With the two of them, the papers are calling it “the world’s first Latino Tchaikovsky,” but of course at the opera it’s just another night.
The most preposterous role is Tatyana, a teenager who is rarely played by anyone under 30. It takes at least that long just to develop the required vocal skills. But for once it’s not Maddalena’s singing that’s impressing me so much as her acting. I’ll save the details for later, but her handling of the Letter Scene is a revelation.
It’s a traditional production, sometime in early 19th-century Russia. They’ve outfitted her in a white country dress with floral patterns in blue. Her honey-blonde hair hangs long down her back. She’s gorgeous, as usual.
At the end of the act, I’m entirely wired on the performance. I’m loitering between the lobby and the south hall when I find a woman in a beaded silver-blue dress advancing my way. It’s Delores.
“Mickey! I’m so glad I found you.” She hands me a blue envelope. “Sorry, have to run. Ta!”
She heads off to the lobby, leaving me feeling like the straight man in a Neil Simon play. I open the envelope to find a photographic note card portraying a collection of pineapples, mangos and bananas in Mozartean gowns and waistcoats. The caption reads Cosi fan tutti-frutti. Inside is a handwritten note in a smooth cursive.
Would love to talk with you about your writing. Please meet me at Jardiniere one hour after curtain.
Grazie – Maddie
I scan the walls, looking for hidden cameras.
The rest of my evening is its own rather enjoyable brand of hell. I need to take in enough to support a reasonably intelligent review, but how is one bit of it going to penetrate my brain when I know that I will soon be talking to Tatyana herself? (She turns down Onegin, standing in her regal scarlet ball gown, nicely married to royalty, every woman’s dream revenge for a first love scorned. And yet, she is heartbroken.)
The worst part is that post-performance hour. I understand all the cleanup, undressing, meetings with friends and fans, but it leaves me with sixty absolutely unkillable minutes. The ushers are eager to clear everybody out, so all I’m allowed is my visit with Miss Tebaldi and the adjacent men’s room. Five minutes. After that, I figure it’s a good idea to fetch my car and re-park it nearer to my final destination. Ten minutes. Then I take a stroll around City Hall, but it’s getting cold. I am downright euphoric to find a copy of the Bay Guardian, sitting alone in its box, and I make my way to the bar to sit and read.
Jardiniere is like the most elegant retro-‘60s Eichler living room you’ve ever seen. Entering the double glass doors, you encounter a wide curve of staircase to your left. Straight ahead is a horseshoe bar with cut-glass ornaments, and along a brick wall to your far left you’ll find a series of long, straight couches with square leather cushions, the seating enclaves marked off with armchairs and glass-topped coffee tables.
The hostess, a young brunette dressed in black pants and shirt, leads me to one of these couches, nicely sheltered by the bottom of the staircase. Looking up, you can see dining-room tables next to the upstairs railing, patrons peering over as if there’s some kind of a show down here. A nice-looking redhead in the same black uniform perches on an ottoman and takes my order, a lemon-drop martini. But no appetizer. I’m hungry as hell, but I don’t think my stomach would be able to handle it.
The place is pretty full, but not packed. It’s hard to figure the demographics – locals? business types? tourists? – but the clothing and hairstyles project a general air of wealth. I open my paper and pretend to read, but the final fifteen minutes are horrible. Every voice that jumps out of a conversation, every opening of a door yanks on my strings. I feel like an actor doing his first Hamlet. I can’t pull this off! They’ll never buy it. What’s my first line? Oh shit. Why couldn’t Maddalena Hart remain in the comfortable realm of mythic figure? What the hell does she think she’s doing, fraternizing with commoners?
She’s wearing blue jeans. Black pumps, a gray suit jacket over a black blouse. And a gray fedora with a silver band. She stands in the open area, looking around, and her gaze settles on me. She smiles. Why the hell would Maddalena Hart know my face? Perhaps I’m mistaken, perhaps I’ve got myself thinking that every woman who comes through that door is a diva. But here she comes, and those enormous green eyes cannot possibly belong to anyone else. I rise from the couch and I manage not to fall on my ass. She smiles and takes my hand. I hope I’m not sweating. I hope my breath doesn’t stink.
“Hi.” One word, two letters. That’s all I’m going to venture.
“Excuse the film-noir hat. I don’t exactly have a Britney Spears paparazzi problem, but we are near the opera house, and for some reason the hat seems to throw them off.”
“Oh. Yes. I…” Three words. I’m useless.
She nods toward the armchair. “May I?”
Silly question. She can sit wherever she wants. She can set fire to my hair. What am I, the armchair police?
“Yes,” I say. “Please.” Okay. That was pretty good.
She sits down and crosses her legs. Her face is very large. That sounds odd, but I have heard that it’s advantageous for performers to have large heads. I’m sitting across from an album cover. Cripes. The waitress arrives and asks about a drink. Maddalena is wearing pink fingernail polish. She dangles a hand over her knee. Her hand is very white.
“Whatever he’s having.”
The waitress leaves. Maddalena studies me, as if I’m supposed to say something. She has heavy eyelids, a sleepy look. Bedroom eyes. Lauren Bacall.
“Lemon-drop, Mickey? Isn’t that a little gay?”
“Well, I’m… I guess… Sweet tooth.” I’m pathetic.
She runs her left ring finger along her lips, done up in a subtle pink, almost mauve. Her lips are almost as pillowy as on the album covers, with those little crinkles at the edges. Her speaking voice is husky, tired from the night’s work, though clearly soprano, her accent that enunciated American that verges on European. No trace of her native New York.
“God, Mickey. How do we get you past this celebrity thing? I know there’s a real person in there, and I want to talk to him. But you’re all decoupaged into place, like I’m talking to a Rodin. Would it help if I farted?”
She leans forward and lowers her voice. “Opera singers have tremendous control. It’s all in the diaphragm. Backstage at the Met, we have competitions. Watch out for that Samuel Ramey. If he’s had cabbage or Brussels sprouts, he has been known to fart the overture to Giovanni.”
It’s that last image that gets me. I chuckle.
“That’s it?” she says. “A little snort? This is some pretty top-notch material, buddy.”
I attempt to sip from the lemon-drop, and I realize what a precarious vessel is a martini glass. But the sweet and the cold of it does me well.
“I’m sorry. It’s just… you’re stupendous. You’re everything I…”
Maddalena places two fingers to my lips. “No! Don’t even start. I know exactly what you think of me, so… just… No!”
Maddalena Hart’s fingers on my lips. I’m going to pass out. She sits back and gives me a sly smile, a little wider on the right. She flicks her tongue along her front teeth. I’ve heard that singers do this, always adjusting the equipment.
“I get more flattery than a person should. There’s a certain pressure, having to answer to all that admiration. As for tonight’s performance, I’d rather read about it on your blog.”
The waitress arrives. Maddie gives her lemon-drop an appraising sip.
“Mmm. The citrus feels good on the throat. And, where was I? The blog! The level of understanding, so much more important than flattery. It’s like this: I’ve been reworking Fiordiligi with my voice coach, Luigi Corazonne. I do this every few years; it keeps my performances fresh. So I asked the staff at SFO to gather all the reviews for me. I wanted to see what kind of impression I was making.
“Most of them? Garbage. Either critical for all the wrong reasons or favorable for all the wrong reasons. Drives me insane. But way down at the bottom I find a printout of your blog, and I am mesmerized. This historical/critical hybrid, I’ve never seen anything like it. And all these connections between Adriana and the role. We all know the basic story, especially the loony tessitura, but I have never seen all the threads drawn together like that. The affair with da Ponte. The custom-composing by Mozart, Adriana’s lesser-known shortcomings.
“I felt like I had never fully understood why the part was written that way. And your description of the drops – the hang-glider, the toe-dipping. That was so affirming, because that’s the flaw in almost every Fiordiligi I’ve ever seen. I was so determined not to stomp those notes. Visualization is drastically important to me, and now I have this lovely image to help me whenever I sing the part.
“I’ll tell you, Mickey, most of the critics out there are so damn sure that they know everything about opera, and never do they land on something like that. It’s all bluster. When did they all give up on learning? I didn’t. You didn’t. And no offense, but I get the feeling that your operatic knowledge is anything but encyclopedic. But maybe it’s the humility, the not knowing, that opens the way to discovery. Where did you come from, Mickey, and how do you come up with this stuff?”
Maddie Hart the opera star is tapping her finger into my chest. I cannot force a word past my mouth. I’m an imposter. She immediately makes matters worse by taking off the fedora and unpinning her hair. She shakes it out with a hand and lets it settle along her shoulders, revealing subtle gradations of platinum, straw and sand. An elderly woman in a black sequin gown creeps up from behind, program in hand.
“Ms. Hart? I hate to interrupt, but you were fabulous tonight! Could I trouble you…?”
She hands Maddie the program and a pen and waits as she signs the cover.
“Thank you so much!”
“Thank you for coming to the show.” The woman walks away, and Maddie turns to me with a smile.
“You see what I mean about the hat? It’s like an invisibility cloak. But opera singers have the most well-behaved fans in the world. I would hate to put up with those obnoxious movie fans. I asked you a question, young man!”
She slaps me on the knee, another injury to my sense of reality. In doing so she leans forward, allowing me a generous view of her cleavage.
“I’m sorry. What was the question?”
She gives me a broad stage laugh. I can see the little wrinkles at the corners of her eyes.
“Let me rephrase it. How did you arrive at this unique approach to critiquing opera?”
“Oh. Well… I…” Hell. I was just going to have to tell her the whole mediocre truth. It has to be some sort of felony to perjure yourself to a diva. I take a deep breath.
“Absolute ignorance. I came to opera late in life, with little musical knowledge. So I listened to everything I could get my hands on, and I read everything I could. But still, it wasn’t enough. I had to see it firsthand, but I couldn’t afford the tickets. I have this friend who works at a community newspaper, and she said the local performing groups were always offering her free tickets, whether she wrote about them or not. With print media dying off, and arts coverage being hacked to pieces, they’re desperate for any recognition they can dig up.
“So she told me I should start a blog about opera, and request comps from the regional companies: Opera San Jose, West Bay Opera, Mission Opera. If they gave me any trouble, she could vouch for me. But they gave me no trouble at all. Fortysomething guy, corporate demeanor, no problem.
“After that, however, came the real puzzle: how was I supposed to write about these operas? I didn’t have enough expertise to offer much of an opinion about the singers. Or the production values, or the directing. So I covered my tracks with research, and I discovered that almost every opera ever created has some fascinating backstage story. So I connected that to my reviews, and I came up with something that was, at the least, entertaining.
“The rest is in the details. I had my newspaper friend hack up my stories until I became a decent writer. I learned to upload photos, and made sure I got the credits right. I double-checked the calendar and ticket info. Then I sent an email to the opera to make sure they read it.
“A year later, I began to find my reviews being quoted on singers’ websites, and on the season brochure for West Bay Opera. I sent a query off to San Francisco Opera and was absolutely shocked when they gave me tickets for the entire fall season. The second production was Figaro, with Maddalena Hart as the Countess. But that’s the story. I’m an imposter. I snuck in through the back door. And now I’m sitting here talking to my favorite singer.”
“Favorite singer?” she says. “Or most famous singer?”
“Absolute favorite.” I’m about to tell her the car story, but I decide that it would be too much. “How far back in my blog did you read?”
She gives me an embarrassed smile that takes off twenty years. (Perhaps embarrassment is a youthful endeavor.)
“Okay. You got me. I searched your blog for every reference to me, and I didn’t read about any other singer. But I was pressed for time! Honestly!”
I raise an accusing finger. “Aha! So you are a soprano.”
Now that our flaws are on the table, the conversation rambles freely, and it’s easier to forget the golden identity of the person with whom I am speaking. And I have always found this to be true: find two people with a passion for opera, and the time melts away. In this way, Maddalena Hart is everything I have wished for: an intensely focused performer with a need to constantly poke and prod at the secret meanings and nuances of her craft, to do anything to increase her understanding and sharpen her skill. I try my best not to sound like I’m interviewing her, but I do pick up some tidbits that are bound to pop up in my review.
Maddie and I close down the bar, and we find that my car is parked directly behind hers. She opens her door, tosses her bag and fedora inside, and turns to receive whatever farewell I might offer. The lights of City Hall strike the low overcast and fall over her in a soft mist, spelling out the brighter tresses of her hair, glimmering in the corners of her eyes. Even if she were not Maddalena Hart, I would be in love with her. I take her hand and bring it to my lips. Being a diva, she knows how to accept this, with a smile and the subtlest dip of her knees.
“I can’t even tell you,” I say. “So I won’t. Thank you for appreciating my appreciations.”
“Thank you, Mickey. I can’t wait to read your…”
Maddie stops and looks down, rubbing her eye as if a piece of dust has landed there. She looks up with tears on her cheeks.
“Don’t ever stop writing, Mickey. You do lovely work.”
She kisses me on the lips. Then she gets in her car, gives me a wave and drives off. I wave back. Maybe five minutes later, I remember to get in my car and start it up. I doubt very much if I will have a problem staying awake.
On the lips. I wait until I can see the Stanford dish, and then I play “Song to the Moon.”
“Continue straight for the next fourteen miles.”
There’s no way I could have written that review last night. And this morning, I didn’t really have the time.
“Continue straight for the next thirteen point eight miles.”
But between Maddie and Tchaikovsky and the Latino Brothers Karamazov, I have enough raw material for a novella, and the first paragraph is pounding on my mental front door like an angry landlord. Write me! Write me!
“Continue straight for the next thirteen point six miles.”
“Hey, Larry. Any chance you can get this bee-acch to shut up?”
“Oh, sorry.” He hits a button on his navigation screen. “After a while, you don’t really hear it anymore. It’s just like being married – and you so totally didn’t hear that from me.”
Between the wife, two daughters and what you might call an actively present mother-in-law, Larry is gynecologically surrounded. But he’s got a fantastic degree of patience and a wicked sense of humor to help him deal.
Despite the over-persistent vocals, the navigator is a fascinating little gizmo. I watch the little dot that is us as it crawls past the junction of I-280 and 92.
Me, I’m a terrorist. I’ve got this gorgeous little nugget of plastic explosive sitting in my pocket, next to my cell phone. It’ll only work if I find the right target, and the right time. Larry’s not it. As father of two rambunctious girls and builder of Silicon Valley startups, he’s got way too much on his plate to keep track of my musical obsessions. We are alike in so many ways, but we are outfitted with vastly different lives. I leave the explosive where it lies, and I keep the conversation light.
“Pretty good. Still in the development stages. But our investment capital is super-solid, and I got a nice deal on the new facilities.”
Larry’s sort of a CFO, although his companies are never quite large enough for him to cop to the title. Gotta love the names. The first was InSync, one letter away from a boy band. Next was Expedion, three letters away from an online travel site. The new one, Calypto, sounds like a foot fungus suffered by Harry Belafonte. But I shouldn’t make fun. I’m the one who gets the logo golf shirts when the companies get sold.
Carla and Linda are in the back seat, maintaining a heavy chatter. The subject, as usual, is education. It seems like every one of their kids is headed for college, so they’ve become experts on the new generation of SAT scores, the balancing of tuition costs with scholarship offers, the all-important question of How far away? and the more important question of Why didn’t we have our kids further apart?
“Oh! The campus. No kidding – it was actually named one of the top ten best-looking campuses in the country. Gorgeous. And I really do think she’ll prefer going to a smaller school.”
“Still playing ball?” asks Larry.
“Amazingly enough. All these young punks tryin’ to push me out, but they didn’t count on my craft and guile.”
Larry laughs. “Sounds a lot like Silicon Valley. Oh, geez. I better reactivate the bee-acch.”
He presses a button and gets immediate results.
“Turn right, Sneath Road exit, two point four miles.”
“Well, at least she’s got a new song.”
We’re into the North Peninsula – Colma, Daly City, South San Francisco – about two-thirds along my opera commute and deep into Cemetery Central, where the dead outnumber the living. We swing through the arched gates of the military cemetery and find infinite rows of white crosses – enough to fill a stadium. Our arrival, as usual, finds the place in rare form, fresh flowers everywhere, small American flags planted at five-foot intervals. It’s not really our choice – Mom’s birthday just happens to be May 31 – but it’s nice that the place always looks so festive.
We take a left and spiral up the hill to the cemetery’s central feature, an enormous flagpole surrounded by commanders, privates and sergeants. Her stone is modest and horizontal, etched with the words Grace M., wife of LCDR Harold J. Siskel. It’s funny that she’s lodged in such a boys’ club, but she certainly put in enough time as a Navy wife to qualify.
After sixteen years, we have all developed our rituals. I brush away the grass clippings that have fallen into the engraved letters, then pull out any roots invading the edges. Carla manages to find one of the military-issue flower holders – a metal cone attached to a stake – plants it into the lawn and works an arrangement of roses. They come from her house and Linda’s house, descendants of the bushes from my mother’s garden. I would leave the house late in the evening and use my car key to cut off a blossom for my date. My favorites were orange with swirls of yellow; they smelled like citrus and vanilla. A year after she died, my father discovered an enormous purple iris in the center of the garden. “Don’t know where that crazy thing came from,” he said, but of course we both knew where it came from. My mom had planted it the previous spring, even as the cancer moved from her colon to her liver.
Sixteen years later, we are beyond much need for reminiscing, much more apt to sit around Mom’s name and talk about the kids, the jobs, the A’s, the Giants, our much more entertaining cousins – sort of the same stuff we would be telling her about, anyway. In California, it’s second nature to steal ideas from other cultures, and in this my Scots-Irish clan is very Latino, very Dia de los Muertos.
A few minutes later, we have entered our quiet phase – each of us, perhaps, trying to bring up an image of her face, wondering what she would have looked like if she had attained the old age she so richly deserved, and trying to recall what life was like before we learned how to pronounce the word “metastasize.” Linda retells a piece of the family liturgy, how she took a walk on Mom’s beloved beach, the day of her death, and found that someone had written the name Grace in the sand. I follow with one of my own, Mom’s habit of pointing out her favorite women to Dad and saying, “If I die before you, you can marry her.” One of those women was Sharon, who eventually became our stepmother. How we decided that the siblings should meet every year on Mom’s birthday, and visit her gravesite. And then it gets quiet again. I shuffle a hand into my pocket and pull out my grenade.
“Last night, I had a date with Maddalena Hart.”
My principal target is Linda, she who retains an innocence that can break your heart. She lets out a gasp (God bless her) and looks at me with wide eyes.
“Oh my God! Isn’t she that opera singer? What do you mean ‘a date’? You mean you got to meet her?”
“She asked me to meet her at a bar after the performance. We talked for three hours.”
My next respondent is big sister Carla, who is most up-to-date on my opera life. “Wow! That’s like… Wow! Were you nervous?”
“I was pathetic!”
“Was she nice?” asks Linda.
“Nicer than I could have dreamed.”
I realize that this level of celebrity gossip is too good not to make use of, but my bragging has left me feeling a little tawdry. I already miss the sense of anticipation, the lump of explosive that I have now squandered.
“Hey!” says Larry. “I think I saw her on PBS once. She’s kind of a babe!”
“Oh Larry!” I protest. “Maddalena is such an amazing artist that I would never even notice such a thing!”
And now we all laugh. Because siblings know better. And now I feel less tawdry.
We head across the freeway for lunch and pie at Baker’s Square, and by the time I get home I’m beat. That lead paragraph is still parked on my brainstep, ringing the bell like a Jehovah’s Witness with a quota. I, however, am too tired to lift a finger, so I take a swan dive onto the bed and I don’t get up.
Is there anything worse than the overlong evening nap? When you get up it’s dark outside. At first you assume that you’ve landed somewhere deep in the night. You feel this awful regret over the loss of time, and then you realize that it’s eight o’clock and you have an entire Saturday night in front of you. Then you hear the sound of a car pulling down the dirt road and stopping at the end of the drive. And then, for a long time, nothing.
I stumble from the bed, fully clothed, and peer out the window. Katie’s out there, but why hasn’t she knocked? In the faint light from her dashboard, I can see that she has buried her face in her hands. I make my way outside and cross the front yard, redwood twigs snapping under my bare toes.
When she sees me coming she waves me off, as if she wants me to go back to the house and pretend I’ve seen nothing. Yeah, right. I open her door and kneel on the ground so I can pull her to my shoulder. She doesn’t look like she’s been crying for long, but the moment she pulls the key from the ignition, it all comes out.
“No it’s not,” she sobs.
“I mean it’s okay to cry.”
So she does. This may sound odd, but there’s are few things more beautiful than a crying woman. Because this is real, this is what matters. I suppose this is one reason that I love opera. All that raw emotion.
Five minutes later, I grab her weekend bags and head for the living room, where she gives me the full account. Katie has landed herself in a nice little torture chamber. Given no choice but to move out of her house (she mentions police visitations, implies abuse), she moved in with her sister’s family. This means Katie and her two daughters stuffed into a single room, this means imposing on a sister with her own children to raise – but this is the only way she’ll be able to get the teaching degree, and be able to support the family on her own. This afternoon, as I was dining with my sibs, Katie’s sister was giving her the dreaded speech: “You need to make plans for moving out.”
Katie sits on my couch, nursing her nose with a Kleenex. “I can’t stand being in that house! I can’t breathe, I feel so bad – but what else can I do? I have to think of my girls.”
I have no answers, but that’s not my job. I’m the safe harbor, the weekend retreat. I toss a Duraflame into the fireplace and light it up.
“Have you eaten? Can I make you something?”
She waves a hand. “I had some McDonald’s. But I brought some brownie mix. Can you make me some brownies?”
“Sure.” I pour some red wine and hand her the remote.
“Make sure you undercook them by a couple minutes. I like them nice and gooey. And bring me the mixing spoon. I want to lick the leftover.”
She gets into this bossy mode sometimes. But that’s okay. She spends every day on a carpet of eggshells, so I don’t mind her roughing me up. Besides, I’m still pretty fuzzy from my nap, so clear instructions are helpful. Amazingly, I have everything the brownie mix demands – one egg, cup of milk, baking powder. I pop the tray into the oven, then I run a finger through the mixing bowl and lick it off. Yowza!
We spend the next hour consuming the entire tray, along with a full bottle of Cab. Katie’s feeling good, and kissing my ear. I warned her about that. It drives me insane, and should only be undertaken with serious intentions.
“Mickey? I want you to make it all go away. I want you to destroy me.”
She pulls my hand inside her shirt. She’s a nipple girl, and can sometimes reach orgasm with nothing else. Between red wine, luscious brownies and Katie’s tits, all thoughts of Maddalena Hart and that first paragraph have escaped my mind. Now it’s my turn to be bossy.
“Go to my bedroom, take off all of your clothes, but don’t get on the bed just yet. I’ll be right in.”
“Oh-kay!” She hops up and strips, leaving a trail of laundry as she crosses the room.
I race outside to the car and dig around until I find a brand-new dropcloth. When I return to the bedroom, Katie is seated on a chair, wearing not a stitch, legs daintily crossed. I open the plastic packaging, unfold the dropcloth and spread it over the bed.
“Lie down, honey – face to the mattress.”
She squeals and takes her position, the plastic crinkling beneath her.
“Now close your eyes and don’t open them until… Well, you’ll know when.”
I dash away to the kitchen, where I pour an entire quart of olive oil into a pot and warm it to the temperature of a hot tub. Then I take the pot to the bedroom and slowly empty its contents over Katie.
“Oh my God!” she moans. “That is so… That is so…”
I strip off and saddle her butt so that I may embark on a full-body massage, working every muscle from head to toe. I manage to keep this going for a half hour, as Katie maintains a rumbling moan beneath me. My muscles are getting a little sore, but I don’t care. My cock becomes so rigid that I can no longer ignore its pleas, so I insert myself into Katie’s pussy as I continue to massage her back. I didn’t actually think I could do this. The inside/outside rubdown has an immediate effect on Katie, whose moans are growing in pitch and frequency.
After a few minutes, I get another idea and run outside, erection bobbing like a diving board, to dig up a box of rubber gloves. Katie is mightily curious about my disappearance, but it helps that she’s halfway to a coma. I pull her hips until that gorgeous white bubble-butt is pointed skyward, and insert one, two, then three fingers into her pussy, her breathing working into an excited pant. Then I pull on a glove and insert a finger into her anus. She tightens up, putting some impressive pressure on my second knuckle, but then I put my ungloved hand back to work on her pussy, and soon she’s accepting my multiple intrusions with glee. I’m a freakin’ gynecologist, and a minute later Katie is bucking.
She collapses, my hands still inside of her – but I’m not done. The word was, after all, “destroyed.” I pull a butt plug from my nightstand – a beginner’s model, three inches long – and work it into her asshole. Then I collect some oil from her calf, slather up my dick and re-enter her pussy. After all the attention, she’s hot as a sauna, and I have to stop for a second before I go spurting out all the fun. From behind, I can fuck her in standard doggy fashion as my pubic bone pushes against the butt plug, sending both pistons in and out of her at once. She starts ramming her ass back against me, slamming the headboard with both hands and screaming all manner of high-pitched, unintelligible filth. That’s what I like about the woods. Nobody hears. Except for Trey the Fish, who’s probably shocked that a 47-year-old gets this much action.
Katie comes violently, then yells at me to keep going, and thirty seconds later is coming again, letting out a series of glissandos that would make Maddalena proud.
I can take no more. I pull out, stand up on the bed and jerk off as Katie waves her much-abused ass at me. I shout as loudly as I please and send sprays of semen over her back. Then I collapse next to her and rub the whole messy vinaigrette into her skin.
She turns, eyes wide with energy. “Y-yes.”
“I’m going to pour you a bath, honey.”
When I look at her again, she’s crying, but I think I know what she’s trying to say.
“You’re gonna be okay, honey. Just hang in there.”
I kiss her, fill the tub with hot water and bubble bath, then I carry her from the bed and settle her into the water, like a baby at baptism.
The straw-colored sun at my bedside. Fifteen minutes later, she’s back, fully dressed, damp hair, ready for church. I walk her out. She looks tired. Destroyed. I give her a kiss and say, “The next step. That’s where you keep your focus. Just get to the next step.”
“What is the next step?”
“Pick up your kids, take them to church. And don’t let them blackmail you.”
“Right. Thanks for last night. It was a nice trip.”
I kiss her again and watch as she drives away, raising a parade of dust. I would tell her that I love her – because I’ve been where she is, because I understand. But I won’t.
My third wake-up comes early: ten o’clock. The lead paragraph is back, knocking at my cerebellum like a Girl Scout with a cart full of cookies. Still, I’m going to insist on the ritual. I have some new soap that I’m dying to open. French-milled with Shea butter and mango butter. It lathers up in a yellow cream, with a ripe tropical smell. I raise my hands to my nose and take it in.
Twenty minutes later, I’m at my writing table. Across the way, Trey the Fish is setting up for a party. He’s an international spear fisherman. No kidding. I went to one of his barbecues and found myself chewing on a zebra-stripe manta ray from New Zealand. But even exotic grilling and topless women will not stay me from my appointed rounds.
I first learned the immortal Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin through recordings. I had little idea of the text, or the context, but I loved the passion of its vocal lines, the uplifting breeze-like woodwinds, the life-transforming back-and-forth of the character’s monodrama.
Which is why my first encounter with an onstage incarnation was so unsettling. The regal music was there, as were the dramatic vocal lines, but the supertitles stripped away all the mystery. Basically, you had a teenage country girl attempting to write a crush letter to her hunky new neighbor, and tormenting herself with a night-long oscillation. “OhmiGOD! What do I do? I mean, like, if I tell him and then he doesn’t like me, that would be like a totally wicked bummer! Does he love me? Does he not love me? Argh!”
The biggest news about SFO’s production is Maddalena Hart’s innovative approach to this scene. Hart manages to take Tatyana’s irritating indecisions and paint them with a tennis-match conviction – as if every flip-flop is, in fact, a solid, committed step in the advancement of her argument. She does this by delivering each new flight with a distinct attitude, expression or movement, helping us to step inside the actual crazymaking mindset of a teenage girl, for whom each new thought marks an entirely new direction in the course of her life, on par with the discovery of Relativity. The ride is vastly entertaining, and brings a palette of new and vivid colors to Tchaikovsky’s legendary scene.
I had a chance to talk with Ms. Hart post-performance, and she confirmed my impression. Every few years, she refashions her roles, going back to square one and seeking new revelations about her characters. With the Letter Scene, she began with the translation, imagining how each sentence would feel, mapping out her reactions, and using certain keywords as guideposts. She wanted to be sure not to have the same exact feeling or reaction more than once. Hart also credits stage manager David Cox, who designed a choreography of movements to go with these reactions.
And now for the history. In 1877, as Tchaikovsky embarked upon the project, his sympathies stood firmly with Tatyana, whose first confession of love meets with a heartbreaking failure. Although Onegin handles the situation with sufficient tact – saying that he can offer nothing more than a brother’s love – he later proves himself a crass, shallow schmuck.
During the composition of the Letter Scene, Tchaikovsky found himself in the exact position of his title character. He received a crush letter from a former pupil, Antonina Milyukova, a young woman he barely remembered. His dismissal was much more brusque than Onegin’s, including an instruction for Antonina to “quell her feelings.” After completing the Letter Scene, however, he reconsidered his rude behavior and decided to make up for it by marrying the girl.
This was a huge mistake. Tchaikovsky quickly discovered that he was repelled by physical contact with a woman, and celebrated his honeymoon by hurling himself into the Moscow River. The anticipated pneumonia failed to arrive, so instead the couple separated. Tchaikovsky paid her off at the rate of 6,000 rubles a year. Despite all of this trauma, he finished Yevgeny Onegin in the span of eight months.
Despite bearing three children by another man, Antonina refused a divorce. Sixteen years after the wedding, Tchaikovsky was caught flirting with a duke’s nephew. A court of colleagues issued a secret missive ordering the composer to kill himself. His death, soon after, was blamed on the ingestion of tainted water. More recent biographers conclude that he was, in fact, carrying out the court’s instructions. Antonina outlived him by 24 years, drifting from one asylum to the next.
The creation of the Pathetique Symphony, one of the most melancholy pieces of music ever written, is often credited to Tchaikovsky’s lifelong struggle with his homosexuality. The piece debuted in 1893, nine days before his death.
I upload a photo of Maddalena in her Letter Scene nightclothes, wearing one of her well-designed expressions: utter radiance, her eyes raised to the light as she considers the possibility that Onegin’s feelings might be equal to hers. Her hair looks like spun gold. I press Publish, and I take a beer out to the porch. I’m surprised to find that it’s only midafternoon. Trey’s party is going strong, a dozen rascally young guys, a trio of girls, drinking and laughing and eating God-knows-what from God-knows-where. The road is packed with vehicles; I’m not sure if I could get out of here if I wanted to. Then I remember that I forgot to set my computer’s response-alarm. When I go back in to check, DD’s already there. That girl really needs to get a life.
DevilDiva: Um… Hello? Am I reading this right? You met Maddalena Hart?
Mickey: Yeah, I did.
DD: All right, you’ve earned your coolness points for playing it low-key. But please! A few details for the groundlings?
M: She liked my Cosi review, so she asked me out for a drink. I’m still a little in shock. Three hours! We talked for three hours.
DD: Did you sleep with her?
M: OMG! You little drama queen. Are you trying to create a viral rumor?
DD: Couldn’t hurt your numbers, honey. So what was she like?
M: I told you I didn’t sleep with her!
DD: I sorta meant, ya know, personality-wise.
M: Doh! Charming as all hell. So much as I imagined her that it sort of surprised me.
DD: You were surprised by the lack of surprise.
M: Well, no one’s as perfect in person as they are on stage. But I rather like the little flaws. Less goddess-like, more human. Those eyes, though. Wow.
Cordell: I find that her eyes are even better in person.
DD: Jesus! Am I the only one who hasn’t met her?
C: I’m a voice coach, honey. I meet ‘em all. But I wanted to thank you, Mickey, for that story about Tchaikovsky. I’ve heard little bits of it, but I’ve never seen it spelled out in such a beautifully tragic arc. And the secret suicide command! Is that new?
M: Yes, it is. It was discovered in somebody’s archive, and reported in a biography a couple years ago. Of course, it might also have to do with the increasing openness about homosexuality.
C: Amen for that. Meanwhile, so glad you got to meet Maddie! She is a delight. A bit mad-making sometimes, how neurotic she gets about the details – but that’s what makes her the best.
DD: Yes, and now I have an additional reason for disliking her. She’s met the legendary Mickey Siskel.
C: Maddalena is not our only green-eyed soprano. Mee-ow!
M: I’ll meet with either of you, anytime. I shan’t forget my roots, now that I’m hangin’ with the stars.
DD: You got a deal.
C: Come up to Seattle and see me sometime.
M: Thank you, Mae West.
I have successfully given birth to the lead paragraph, and everything that follows, and once the gang leaves the comments page I realize what a weekend I have had, and how exhausted I am. I dial up a baseball game – one that I have no intention of watching – and I collapse on the couch.
Hours later, I awake, and I realize that I’ve done it again: the accursed evening nap. It’s dark outside, a whisper of sunset still in the heavens, and Trey’s party is down to a handful of smokers, a string quartet of glowing orange tips. I notice that the baseball game has become a soccer match, and that my computer is running its screen-saver, a labyrinth of colored pipes building and unbuilding itself on a gray background. I roam across the room, hit the space bar to clear the plumbing, then click the refresh button on my comments page.
Mad Huntress: You are a poet. I have never heard the story of Antonina and Pyotr told so well. It is excruciatingly sad. I’m certain that Ms. Hart had a splendid time speaking with you.