Monday, March 26, 2012
The Story so Far
a novel by Michael J. Vaughn
For Barbara Divis
With thanks to Rochelle Bard and the opera companies of San Francisco, San Jose and Seattle.
Cover art: Lightness, manipulated photograph by
Divis was divine, endowing the opera’s most empathetic character with a gentle strength. To picture her lush descending tones at the finish of “Bei Mannern,” please visualize a silk burgundy scarf wafting from a third-story window.
If last season’s Lucia weren’t proof enough, this Juliet removes any doubt about Divis’s remarkable range and agility. One minute she’s tossing off poofy florist-shop cadenzas, the next she’s unfurling streams of triple-forte agony at the news of Romeo’s poisoning. And her top notes are downright captivating.
Barbara Divis has a way of turning opera critics into gushing adolescents. Especially me. In September 2008, when Barbara returned for Opera San Jose’s 25th anniversary. I looked at my old reviews and began to question my judgement. Could anybody be that good?
At the Silver Gala, Barbara and tenor Christopher Bengochea performed the garret scene from La Bohème. And yes, it turned out I was mistaken. She was even better. Here’s how I described it in my 2009 novel, The Monkey Tribe:
“As her singing rises in force Jack notices something extraordinary about the woman’s voice. It’s nearly radioactive. It doesn’t merely slice the air like the man’s voice, it spins wildly, like those whirligig rockets that shoot away from the center of pyrotechnic explosions. The woman shapes her phrases like the other singers – lessening, growing, slipping away, returning from nowhere – but she gives no indication of working at this, and somewhere through the Italian words, Jack understands her completely.”
Barbara has a huge voice that is miraculously nimble – a 747 that navigates like a hummingbird. Match that with an immaculate attention to dynamics and phrasing, a thorough understanding of character, and a determined professionalism (she once sang for five people at one of my book readings), and you have the ultimate soprano.
Barbara and I long ago broke through the critic-performer divide, thanks largely to tennis. (My job is to run her ragged, so that she may continue to fit into her costumes.) Acting as my primary consultant on this novel, she provided invaluable insights on technical matters, backstage culture and role interpretations.
Strangely, it was only during final edits that I thought of Barbara’s two marvelous CDs, and realized that they included nine arias featured in Operaville. I was elated when she agreed to let me use them. But there was one more step. Understanding that the book’s explicit sex scenes are not everybody’s cup of tea, I asked Barbara to review the manuscript. She wrote back to say that, yes, the early sex scenes did make her uncomfortable. But that she believed in artistic freedom, and didn’t want to unduly influence the way I wrote my book.
Not many people can make that distinction, and Barbara’s answer only added to an admiration that was already canyons deep.
(Look for track listings in brackets for best times to listen to particular arias.)
1. Song to the Moon, from Dvorak’s Rusalka
2. “Come scoglio,” from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte
3. “L’altra notte,” from Boito’s Mefistofele
4. The Letter Scene, from Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin
5. “Mi chiamano Mimi,” from Puccini’s La Bohème
6. Musetta’s Waltz, from Puccini’s La Bohème
7. Doretta’s Song, from Puccini’s La Rondine
8. “Je dis que rien ne m’epouvante,” from Bizet’s Carmen
9. “O mio babbino caro,” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi
Piano accompaniment by Thomas Webb (tracks 1, 5, 6, 7, 8 & 9) and Irina Prilipko-Morgan (tracks 2, 3, & 4).
“Voice is breath transformed.”
-- Maestro Salvatore d’Aura
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.
One thing I love about our decking business: I’m always discovering little enclaves of civilization that I never dreamed existed. Today I stand atop a sunny hillside next to Summit Road, ten miles east of Highway 17. Looking at the uninhabited mountains to my north, it’s easy for me to imagine that I’m in the middle of nowhere. Fly a chopper over that ridge, however, and you will find the million-plus inhabitants of Silicon Valley.
Colin is a magnet for UK clients. Today’s deck belongs to a Welsh couple, high-tech immigrants who seem intent on re-creating their agricultural homeland. The fenced-off slope beneath the deck plays host to two horses, four goats, and a quartet of peafowl – two cocks, two hens. As I’m off-loading the pressure-washer, I look across the property to find one of the cocks perched on the branch of a pine tree, thirty feet off the ground. I never knew that peacocks could get to such heights. Nor that they produced piercing calls that could eat your brains out. I’ll bet that’s real popular with the neighbors.
Colin’s in a hurry to get to another client, so he sets me up with Gatorade and beef jerky and heads out. The message is clear: I am to stay on-site with my survival rations and get this deck cleaned up.
The job presents immediate obstacles. A small balcony means that I have to set up the washer just below, start up the engine, then climb a ladder, wand in hand, and hop over the railing. Performing the precarious trip back down, I recall Colin’s favorite cautionary: “Now don’t go breaking your neck. That would be horrible for business.”
The shaded balcony railings are thick with moss, and already my clothes have developed a layer of pond scum. Things get worse on the main deck, where the cracks are filled up with dog fur and dirt from wintertime puddles. Running the stream into the cracks, I am blasting myself with black muck.
Fortunately, it’s a sunny day, so it’s simple enough to ignore my evolution into a street urchin and enjoy the vista. I am forever delighted by the landscapes that accompany my work, and I laugh when I think of all those years I wasted in cubicles.
With the assistance of Colin’s generous provisions, I am able to work straight through, and am about to turn the corner onto the last run of railings when I come face-to-face with an enormous peacock. He has perched on the railings and raised his tail feathers in a regal display.
I am half-dazzled and half-petrified. Understanding this posture as a mating ritual, I fear that the peacock has taken me for a rival, or worse, a potential partner. The majority of my concern lands on that long beak, which looks like it could be razor-sharp. This was not in the company guidebook.
This calls for a jerky break. I back away, switch off the engine and head for the cooler. There’s still a little ice in the water, and that first swallow of red-punch Gatorade is a fantastic sensation. I grab a strip of jerky and plop myself on the grass next to the driveway. The two goats – ugly, ugly creatures in the grand British tradition – stand at the fence watching me with soulless eyes, stretching their necks between the wires to nibble on the grass.
Once I am sated, I look back toward the deck to find the peacock still there, feathers at attention. I extend my break a little further by going to my car and checking my cell phone. There’s a message. The voice is young, female and nervous.
“Umm… Geez. Hi, Mickey? This is Delores, from San Francisco Opera? We’ve got a bit of a crisis here, and we were hoping you could help us out. Could you possibly meet Ms. Hart this evening? Um, tell you what. If the answer is yes – and I really hope it is – just give me a time and location and I’ll look it up. I’m really sorry for intruding like this, but I figured at the least I shouldn’t go around handing out your phone number. Well. Thanks.”
This is the single most preposterous thing I’ve ever heard. Give her my Social Security number, my credit cards, my left kidney, what the hell do I care? I text her back: Coffee Society, Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino, 6 p.m.
The response is immediate: Thanks. I return the cell to its nest and I look to the railing. Goddamn peacock still in place. Goddamn peacock about to meet up with 2600 pounds per inch.
I’m screwed. I’ve got the station wagon packed and ready to go, but it’s 5:30, which leaves me barely enough time to get to the coffeehouse. Problem being, I’m a mess, and I’ve got no change of clothes. Perhaps I should just show up naked. I take off my Wellies (the Brit term for galoshes), revealing a distinct line across my calf between mucked-up and not-mucked-up. Well, screw it. If this is truly a crisis, she’ll have to take me as-is.
The Coffee Society is a habit that goes back to my previous incarnation. It’s part of the Oaks Center, one of the few survivors from the early-‘70s trend of landscaped outdoor malls. The buildings are modestly proportioned, topped with clay-tile roofs, marked by beamed overhangs, pebbled walkways and fountains. And oaks, lots of oaks. The specimens out front are old, sprawling live oaks that give the place the feel of a private university.
The Society resides in an airy space with angled, open-beam ceilings that give it the feel of a mountain chalet. The south and west walls are made entirely of glass, providing a good view across Stevens Creek Boulevard to De Anza Community College. The college supplies the place with lots of students and a young, funky energy to go with the laptop techies and the groups of immigrants who gather for boisterous chats. The college also provides artworks, currently a collection of airbrushed celebrity portraits that includes a gigantic painting of Heath Ledger as The Joker.
Although my cabin has turned me into something of a recluse, I still come here to fight off cases of lead-block (the inability to come up with that all-important first paragraph) or to digest a Sunday paper. I also have the occasional need for a really well-done cappuccino, and the Society is one of the last places in the Valley to get one. My favorite source is Caleb, a slim twentysomething baristo with curly blond hair and a ready supply of rhetorical jibes. When I arrive looking like a kelp monster, I’m an easy target.
“Didn’t I make it clear that this establishment has a dress code?”
It’s easier to play along than to explain myself. I adopt an abject expression.
“I’m very sorry, sir. But a group of ruffians made off with our washing machine.”
“Russians you say? Damn those Russians! I suppose you’ll want your regular?”
I slam the counter. “Yes! And I want it now! And a banana!”
Caleb mutters into his T-shirt as if he’s wearing a wire. “Suspect is ordering a banana.”
I hand him my money and switch to the pick-up counter so I can watch the production. He pours the standard rosetta figure in the foam, but first he mixes cocoa powder into the espresso, which gives the image an extra sharpness. The effect is almost a little Van Goghish.
“I’m waiting for a diva,” I say, attempting nonchalance.
“Aren’t we all?” He hands me my drink and dashes off to the next customer. I head for the patio, a railed-off area out front. I’m barely four sips along when I spy a silver Lexus with Tatyana at the wheel. Since when are prima donnas on time?
And how does one greet a superstar when one is covered head-to-toe in algae and dog fur? The quandary is eliminated when Maddie virtually trots to the patio and lassos me with a hug.
“Hi Maddie. I’m sort of… I’m filthy.”
“Don’t care.” She’s not letting me go. This makes me oddly uncomfortable. All I can see is that pile of lush hair, the straw, the wheat, the honey. I think she’s afraid to let me see her face. Is she crying? Do I have another Katie on my hands? I hope to God Caleb’s watching this.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “All I was sure of was that I needed to find Mickey and give him a hug.”
“That’s okay. Can I ask…?”
She finally pulls back so I can see her face. No redness, no sign of tears, but a tightness in her features, a pinched anxiety.
“No. I can’t. Can we go for a walk somewhere? I need to walk.”
“Sure.” I give a longing glance to my half-finished cappuccino. Maddalena Hart fits her fingers into mine, and I lead her across the street to Memorial Park.
The park is a magnet for waterfowl, particularly Canadian geese. The resultant glut of fecal matter necessitates a chemical treatment that turns the water hunter green. We walk the asphalt path that circles the pond. I seem to be compensating for Maddie’s silence by relating a rambling story about duckherding.
“I just didn’t think that Mama and her kids should be wandering around next to an intersection, so I decide I’m the freakin’ Duck Whisperer and I start walking them back toward the pond. We’re halfway across the field – and I’m feeling like I need some really tiny cowboys on the backs of dachshunds – when some five-year-old kicks a soccer ball at them. I coulda wrung his little neck. And then finally, when I get them to the pond, this big old mallard comes out and pecks Mama right in the forehead! And I’m thinking, Jesus! These animals are savages. So I scare him off, and I manage to get them to another pond, but then I’m thinking, Do we have any business pursuing these St. Francis fantasies? Are we just screwing with Darwin? Do we have any idea that what we’re doing is helping at all? Maddie, really – are you okay?”
We stop at the entrance to a gazebo. Just across a narrow channel of water is an amphitheater of terraced lawns. They do free Shakespeare there, and it’s pretty cool, watching a play across a moat.
Maddie looks at me as if she has no idea how I got there.
“It looks nice over there. Let’s go sit on the lawn.”
We settle on the third terrace. I sit with my back to a low wall. Maddie takes off her silver-gray jacket, sets it over my dirty shorts and lies on her side with her head on my lap, looking toward the gazebo. She’s wearing a gauzy mauve blouse, the fabric done up in stripes of different widths. I work up the nerve to run my fingers along her hair, the way I do with Katie. I feel like I’m breaking a law, like a commoner daring to touch the queen. She sighs and takes a long breath, and sighs again.
“Even here, even in my escape, I end up at a theater. It’s beautiful, though.”
In my head, I’m trying to pull up the calendar on the SFO website. I saw her on Friday, then probably a Sunday matinee.
“When are you singing again?”
Another sigh. “Never.”
Oh no. Not on my watch. But I remind myself that she’s a diva – literally, a drama queen – and given to exaggeration. I spread my hand across her forehead and use my thumb and ring finger to rub her temples. It’s a trick I learned from my ex.
“What happened, Maddie?”
She hums contentedly. “Won’t tell you. But keep doing that. It’s divine. I love you.”
Exaggeration, I repeat. But Maddie Hart just told me she loved me. Jesus. Bring on the kryptonite. I focus my superpowers on the tips of my fingers. I can’t remember the last time a woman gave me a massage. I have become a healer. I will soon have rock singers, ballerinas and movie stars lined up at my cabin, seeking asylum. Maddie speaks as if she’s dictating a dream.
“I realize you’re a fan, a devotee, and that I am taking complete advantage of your feelings for me. But I had to get away, and I… I can’t tell you right now.”
Just over the gazebo, I see a groundskeeper dragging a square of chain-link fence over the infield.
“Maddie, I do have one… obligation.”
I take her to a grassy mound just above the bleachers, and leave her there while I fetch the car. I give her a clean dropcloth to serve as a picnic blanket, and a stain-speckled Giants sweatshirt in case she gets cold. Then I take my bag to a nearby men’s room and change into my uniform (wondering why I didn’t change into it before – duh!). Maddie’s eyes light up at my return.
“Well! Mickey Siskel leads a double life.”
I adopt a baritone radio voice. “Effete opera critic by day, at night Mickey Siskel becomes Softball Man!”
“Yeah and you’ve got the tights for it, too. Nice codpiece, by the way.”
“Round these parts we call it a cup.” I demonstrate by rapping my knuckles against it. “You wouldn’t want me to go castrato on you.”
She gives me a stage laugh, a Merry Widow laugh. Pure manna.
“Of course not. I don’t need the competition.”
I descend to the field, feeling like a doctor abandoning his patient. Doug’s doing his pre-game stretches along the right-field foul line. He gives a look past my shoulder.
“Jesus! Who’s the babe?”
“I’m not sure if you’d believe me.”
“Biggest opera star in the world.”
“You’re shittin’ me.” When I don’t say anything, he gives me a serious look. “Wow. You’re not shittin’ me.”
“Nope. Hey, let’s warm up.”
I have this ham instinct that kicks in when someone comes to see me play. Where a normal person might get nervous, I get phenomenally good. With Maddalena Fucking Hart in the stands, I am destined for greatness. On the first pitch of the game, their hitter strokes a ball up the middle. I’m heading that direction when the ball glances off our pitcher’s glove and heads toward the spot where I started. I stop and sprawl back toward first to knock the ball down, then I grab it with my bare hand, lunge forward and backhand the ball to first just in time to beat the runner. Maddie’s soprano whoop fills the field. I clamber to my feet and give a small bow.
At the plate, I take a pitch down the middle and push it a little too much toward right, causing it to elevate. I am so focused on hitting line drives, I’m muttering curses as I jog toward first, until I realize that the right fielder has stopped, that the ball is rolling toward the duck pond, on the other side of the fence. I try my best to fake a home run trot, pointing a finger to my one-woman fan club as I cross home plate, and make a mental note to never try that again. The temptations of Lady Home Run can be as fatal as Delilah, especially to a leadoff hitter, and this one was just a glorious mistake.
Four-for-four, two double plays (one started, one turned), five RBI, four runs. We win handily, and on the last play of the game I sprint into right field to catch a shallow fly over my shoulder. Much to my chagrin, my soprano audience lets out a resounding “Bravo!” I suppose it’s payback.
After running the line of hands at the pitcher’s mound, I climb the steps, bag in hand, and she greets me with a hug.
“You’re so good!”
“Ooh. You’re bleeding.”
It’s the scab from last week, which I probably re-opened on that first play. I blot it against my thigh, adding to my collection of Rorschachs.
“God, Mickey. You’re so butch, I’d swear you were latent.”
“If that were true, I probably wouldn’t go to the opera so much.”
She grabs my hand, which still puts a shock through me.
“I don’t want to stop, Mickey. I don’t mean this in… the usual way, but… could you take me home?”
I’ve had enough of being cowed by royalty. My answers are getting clearer.
“Yes. Anything you want.”
“That’s what I like to hear.”
I’m careful to explain to Maddie about my cabin, so she doesn’t think I’m abducting her. She makes me stop on the dirt road at the first overlook, where the lights of Silicon Valley look like a patch of luminous gladiolas. I’m trying to ignore the gasoline smell of the pressure washer, the piles of decking supplies, the dozens of empty Gatorade bottles, but I suppose if she can hug a man covered in algae, she can put up with a few alien odors. But that’s the part I’m not quite getting. Why does Maddie Hart seem to have so much faith in me? She’s behaving as if she’s known me for years.
When we pull in at the twin redwoods, Maddie wanders toward the orchard, where the full moon is painting the field in silver. She stands at the edge of the road and reaches up with both arms, as if she’s greeting an old friend. Her hair creates a dazzling silhouette. As I come behind her, she takes a deep breath, drawing in air with the entirety of her frame, and she does the most remarkable thing. She sings. She sings the opening lines of “Song to the Moon.” In person, without an orchestra, the sound is rough and raw. It is the voice that I have depended on for a thousand small salvations, contained within this physical vessel, this woman I have spent the evening touching and talking to. She approaches the refrain and I close my eyes, anticipating Dvorak’s ethereal turn, the musical equivalent of moonbeams, expecting my heart to collapse right here in the field – and then, suddenly, she stops, turns, and laughs.
“I’m being a very bad girl, singing in the cold air.” She gazes back toward the moon. “But how could I not?” Then she turns back to me, notices something, and reaches out to touch my face. “Mickey? You’re crying. Does that song make you cry?”
“When you sing it.”
She places a hand against my cheek. “Good answer. Now let’s go inside before I do further damage to myself.”
I collect her bags from the car and walk her up the steps. I soon have her settled on the couch with a glass of pinot noir and a plate of macadamia/white chocolate cookies. I light up a couple of Duraflames. She twirls a lock of hair with a finger, which I guess means she’s comfortable.
“If you don’t mind,” I say, “I’m tired of being filthy in your presence. I’m going to take a bath.”
She smiles. “A bath? Not a he-man shower?”
“A bath. Would you like to watch TV?”
“No thanks. A little silence would do me well. In San Francisco, they don’t have silence. They’ve outlawed it.”
In the bathroom, out of Maddie’s presence, I can feel myself aging. My 47-year-old body has suffered much abuse. But the water and the mango soap are magical, and soon I’m feeling better. I slip on a pair of jeans and a golf shirt and return to the living room.
She’s asleep. I should have expected it. Whatever affliction has driven her my way is exacting a toll. She is curled sideways, her head on the arm of the couch, her jacket folded across the adjacent armchair. I take a blanket from my closet and drape it across her, pulling it up to her shoulders.
I fully expect to lie awake for hours, riding the celebrity buzz, but the body is wise. I’m two pages along on a biography of Rossini when my eyes begin to droop. I switch off my bedside lamp and drift away.
Next to me, something is moving. I squint at the ceiling, pull my arms under me and roll over. It’s Maddie, in striped yellow pajamas.
“Mickey? Are you awake? Are you conscious?”
I’m self-conscious. Because I tend to sleep in the nude. But I notice that she’s lying on top of my comforter, so we still have one degree of separation. A whisper of light seeps through the windows. I’m guessing it’s six, six-thirty.
“Hi.” She’s wide awake, full of energy. “I owe you an explanation. But I can’t tell you unless you’re fully conscious.” She taps a fingernail against her teeth, perhaps the habit of a reformed chewer.
I rub my eyes, throw out my arms and stretch everything else, gaining an immediate preview of all the aches that will follow me for the rest of the day. I manage to generate one-half of a smile.
“It’s those goddamn minor characters. I’m rushing through costume changes, making my way to the stage, running parts through my head, and I pass the green room, where I see Monsieur Triquet and Olga and they’re playing cards with the techies and laughing, and I’m thinking, Why do I have all this freaking stage time? This is crazy! Why am I doing this impossible thing? I have placed myself in a position where the Sunday afternoons of thousands of people, the day’s wages of a couple hundred musicians, ushers, administrators, et cetera and a notable percentage of the local economy depends on my doing this horribly difficult thing. Stepping onto that stage is like a bungee-jumper stepping off the platform. Every instinct of self-preservation tells you that you are putting your trust in a thin elastic band – your training, your memorization, your rehearsals, your stage skills – to prevent you from becoming a messy smudge on the rocks below. But I do it. I take that leap and these sounds fly from my mouth and I fill the artificial soul and emotions of this fictional character. And I do understand that I’m very good at what I do, but sometimes I don’t really understand how I do what I do. What I’m afraid of is…”
An idea lands on her satellite dish, her eyes widen. She grips my shoulder.
“When I was a kid, I would watch these cartoons where the character, let’s say Daffy Duck, would be thrust out over the edge of the cliff. But he wasn’t aware of it, so he would just hover in mid-air. However, the second he looked down and realized where he was – that’s when he would fall. (Of course, part of the joke was that Daffy kept forgetting that he was a duck, and could fly.) But here’s the lesson: it’s not the gravity that makes you fall, it’s the realization of gravity.
“On Sunday, during the final act, for the briefest of moments, I realized that I didn’t know my next line, and for just a moment I froze. Jesus, bless him, saw my predicament and bought me a second by kissing my hand. Then the conductor, Donald, slowed the tempo just a bit – a grain of sand, but just enough for me to recall the next line and smuggle it into the flow of the music. I’m sure that no one in the audience knew a thing. But for me, for just that one lightning-flash, a chink opened up in my little world, and through that chink I glimpsed the enormous void of gravity and impossibility that underlies everything I do. It scared the hell out of me.”
I fully expect her to break into tears, but this is not a crying thing, it’s something closer to the brain. Anxiety. Fear. She tucks her head into my shoulder, I wrap an arm around her as best a civilized-but-naked man can, and I stroke her hair. I am Mickey, who solves all problems by stroking hair. We lie in pools of faint light for fifteen minutes. Maddie’s breathing slows to a regular pace and she says, “Mickey? Could you make me some breakfast?”
Last Thursday’s inspired round of grocery buying has left me in good stead. I lay down a base of sausage, wait till it’s sizzling in grease and then slice in some onions, red potatoes and Yukon gold potatoes. When everything’s fried up, I stir in six eggs, and dish out our portions when they’re still a little undercooked. When I deliver it to the coffee table with a pre-sliced grapefruit and fresh-ground coffee, Maddie looks at me as if I’m Onegin, and I’ve just said yes.
“My God, he cooks too. Why have you not been snatched up by someone?”
I laugh. “That requires an answer of Wagnerian length. I’ve got a simpler question for you, though. When do we need to get you back to the opera?”
She gives my query a long, thoughtful blink. “Thursday. My final performance.”
“Tata, Tatyana. Then I start on Mimi.”
“Really?” I take a forkful of my scramble and chew.
“I’m a little old for Mimi. I have to find a way to use that.”
“Oh come on, you’re not…”
“Of course I am. A singer spends her entire life playing teenagers, being constantly reminded of how old she is. And then, when her career is just about over, they let her play the Marschallin. Finally! Someone her own age. But then that scares the hell out of her, and she wants to go back to playing the teenagers.”
I point a fork at her. “You are involved in a weird industry.”
“Indeed I am.” She takes a sip of coffee and gives a satisfied sigh.
“So I take it,” I say, “that by recruiting me as your rescuer, you have given me responsibility for getting you back on that stage.”
“This is what I do. When my cup of stress runneth over, I gleefully share it with others. I’m lucky to have an occupation where I can get away with this.”
“So you’re in my hands? I can do with you what I will?”
“That sounds a little provocative, but yes. I give you the reins.”
“Are you a hiker?”
“Yes. I started to look like Montserrat Caballe a few years ago, so I hired a personal trainer. She works me so hard that a critic recently made flattering remarks regarding my derriere.” She gives me a look that threatens to melt me into the floorboards.
I pretend to take a long time chewing a recalcitrant pepper. I really have no good response.
“It’s all right, Mickey. It’s more than all right. It made me feel 14 years old. Maybe that’s why I thought you could save me from the Daffy Duck Syndrome. And I was right. Last night, watching you hurl yourself around the infield, that was… thrilling.”
“I’m a ham.”
“Oh, and I’m not? Maybe that’s why we understand each other. Now do your job and find me a way out of this labyrinth.”
I take a swallow of coffee, relishing the bitterness as it spreads over my tongue.
“After breakfast, you will take a long bath in my clawfoot tub. You will use the mango soap, which is produced by Valkyries in Valhalla. You will keep the window open so you may gaze upon the madrone forest. Then you will put on some hiking clothes – because today, you will be put to the test. Am I clear?”
She spoons a chunk of grapefruit into her mouth and smiles. “Sir yes sir.”
As Maddalena bathes, I step to a spot just east of the twin redwoods and manage to work my cell phone up to two bars.
“Micko? What’s up, lad?”
“Can’t come in today. Really sorry.”
“Under the weather, are we?”
“You remember our agreement about days off?”
“Throwing-up sick or a fantastically gorgeous woman.”
“That last one there.”
Colin’s voice goes up an octave. “Really? Anyone I know?”
I consider keeping this to myself, but I don’t see how I can. The man is going to spend the day sweating on a deck on my behalf.
I don’t need to see his face to know that Colin is beside himself. His answer is packed with incredulous vowels.
“No-o-o-oh! Really! Egad, friend. You’ve hit the fucking jackpot. Well, you give her a couple of… you tell her I said hello. And do let me know what’s up for tomorrow.”
“Thanks, Colin. I owe you several favors.”
“By the way, one of the peacocks has disappeared. I hope we didn’t scare him off with all the noise.”
I know I shouldn’t say anything, but I can’t help myself. “Maybe he couldn’t handle the pressure. I’d better see to Madam Diva. Ta!”
“Ta! You devil.”
Relatively speaking, Big Basin State Park is right in my neighborhood, so it seems like a good place to start. We begin with the main trail, where we gawk at monstrous redwoods whose birthdates end in B.C. After a stop at the snack shack for granola and bottled water, I lead her to the trail, a half-mile uphill followed by 3 1/2 miles down. The final half-mile follows a creek banked in thick stands of fern and moss, then takes a right-hand jog to Blackberry Falls.
The falls make a modest drop of 30 feet, but the aesthetic qualities are absolutely premium. It’s got a wide release point, ten feet across, and the water that doesn’t make it to the big drop funnels off to the sides, running in silver rivulets along walls furred with moss. It’s very Celtic fairytale Midsummer Night’s Dream, and of course Maddalena, perched on a wide rock next to the receiving pool, gives it an operatic context.
“Lucia di Lammermoor. The fountain, haunted by the woman whose corpse was left there by her jealous lover. I think Lucia was in love with that story; I’ve always played it that way. I think she was in touch with the other side. And then the other side came over and got her. You know, you can go crazy just doing that role. Often during the Mad Scene I fall into a kind of semi-conscious state, and finally click back in at a reception three hours later, my stage director waving a hand in front of my face and saying, ‘For God’s sake, Maddie, where are you?’”
I have found yet another charming quality. In her blue jeans and plaid shirt, Maddie shows no sign of the fish out of water. I also notice something about her teeth. They are a little bigger and out-front than they should be, giving her just a taste of the chipmunk, making her smile easy and accessible.
“I’m amazed you don’t all go mad. Like that soprano in Tales of Hoffman who’s told not to sing or she’ll lose her life.”
“Antonia. Eesh. How awful. You know, I was a pianist first.”
“I was a hyper child. Smart but unfocused. Today they would pump me full of Ritalin. Instead, they gave me piano lessons. I found out I was good at it. But I certainly didn’t love it. I only loved the part about being good. But I stuck with it, all the way through a bachelor’s degree. I wasn’t good enough to do concerts, but I had just enough vocal training – choirs, madrigal groups – to make a good accompanist for singers. They really appreciated that I understood what was going on with the vocals, the spots where I needed to back off, or wait on an entrance, or a sustenato.
“One of them was a tenor named Ray Atlas. He went on to a wonderful career in Europe – even landed a tour of Les Miserables. Occasionally, when we were rehearsing, I would make reference to parts of an art song or aria by singing them. ‘Okay, on this part – la la la la – do you want me to take a pause,’ et cetera. One time he stopped me, mid-phrase, and he said, ‘You need to sing somewhere. You’ve got a lovely voice.’ I thought he was just being nice, or flirting – but the next day I saw a flyer on the auditions board for a community production of The Sound of Music. And I thought, What the hell.
“The Mother Superior. A little odd for a 23-year-old, but I had the right sound for the part. We had a three-week run, and the audiences seemed favorable. ‘Climb Every Mountain’ is quite the show-stopper, and I got really addicted to the applause. After the final performance I’m hanging out by the stage, talking to some friends when this man comes up. He looked very professorial: balding, spectacles, tweed coat. He said, ‘You need to sing opera.’ And I said, ‘Well thank you!’ and we talked for a while and I didn’t think much of it.
“When I woke the next morning, the phrase You need to sing opera was sitting on my nightstand like an impatient housecat. I was pretty well-versed on the local voice teachers – being one of their pet pianists – and I called the most charismatic of all: Dr. Charlene Archibeque, six-foot-two blonde, former fashion model, sometimes called “Big Bird” by her students (but never to her face). Dr. A was personable, but dead serious when it came to music. I had not had time to prepare anything, so I took something that Ray was working on – Don Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace” from Don Giovanni – and sang it up an octave, as I played the chords on the piano.
“When I finished, I turned to find Dr. A wearing a very puzzled expression, as if my head had just sprouted forget-me-nots. She excused herself, dashed down the hall and returned with a colleague, Dr. Sharkova. Then she looked at me and said, ‘Again.’
“When I finished, the two of them exchanged a glance, looked at me with two very uncharacteristic grins, and the next thing I knew I was in the counselor’s office, sorting through applications to MFA programs. I ended up at the University of Houston, got my degree and began to play the regional opera companies. Three years later I won the Met auditions, and a year after that I made my debut singing Rusalka. Which explains my freakish attachment to ‘Song to the Moon.’
“So I owe it all to two men who told me I needed to sing. And here’s the difference, here’s what I tell my students. I played piano because I was good at it, and I enjoyed the approval. I sing opera because I love opera. And I’m good at it, and I enjoy the approval. And the dresses. And the money – did I mention the money?”
She lets out a laugh that rings off the walls. It’s good to see her take a step out of her funk, and it occurs to me that she has told that story (which she has doubtlessly told many times before) more for herself than for me.
I peer at the angle of the sun and say, “We’d better get going. And it’s all uphill, baby.” I take her hand and pull her to her feet.
“That’s okay,” she says. “I’m tough.”
“Big talkin’ diva. Hyah!”
I don’t really know any diva-worthy restaurants near the park, so I drive over the hill to Saratoga. My old reliable is Bella Mia, an 1894 Victorian that’s been dolled up like a layer cake in tiers of sky blue, navy and white. It sits in the village, a strip of shops whose curbside trees are forever wrapped in Christmas lights.
Since we are royalty, a parking spot opens up right out front, and soon I am escorting Maddie to a table on the patio, separated from the sidewalk by a picket fence. I love sitting here. I love watching the villagers walking their labradoodles, the slow parade of Mercedeses and BMWs and landscape trucks. I sit across from Maddie as she digs into a basket of pastry bread and a spicy blended butter. After a day in the woods, she looks pretty roughed-up, but she looks healthier. It’s like stripping the paint from a beautifully varnished armoire and discovering that the wood underneath looks even better.
All through dinner – mozzarella-stuffed chicken for me, shrimp rigatoni for her – I sense a buzz in the air. For a Tuesday, the place is pretty packed, and I can feel the attention being progressively focused on our table. Saratogans are more immune to celebrity than most. Two arts venues bring famous musicians through on a regular basis, and the old-money culture frowns on fawning. So no one makes an approach – at least, until we receive our espressos con panna. I see Maddie’s green irises lift from her drink, and I turn to discover an elderly couple, leaning on our fence like friendly neighbors. The man is tall and gangly, with a head of silver hair and a fin de siecle moustache. The woman is slim and cute, a lady who will never lose her girldom no matter how old she gets. The man speaks in a voiceover baritone.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but my wife and I saw your Tatyana the other night and we just wanted to thank you. It was magnificent.”
At this point, Maddie becomes a slightly different person. Public Maddie. Overly pleasant, effusive Maddie.
“Thank you so much! I always wonder how it’s coming across.”
The woman laughs. “How could you ever wonder about that?”
“This is my wife, Jeri,” says the man. They exchange handshakes all around. “I’m Leigh Weimers. Used to write a newspaper column.”
“Yes!” I say. “I was in your column. Turkey on a Volvo.”
“Ah!” says Leigh. “Turkey on a Volvo.”
The women look at us very blankly.
“Up on Skyline Boulevard,” I say. “I saw a wild turkey, sitting on the hood of a Volvo.”
“This is Mickey Siskel,” says Maddie. “He’s an online opera critic.”
“Oh-hoh!” says Leigh. “Dining with the enemy.”
I think I am realizing what I like about Leigh. He is exceedingly comfortable in his own skin, and he’s obviously used to talking to celebrities. If Maddie weren’t here, I think I’d be hitting him up for some tips.
“Mister Siskel has the good taste to adore my singing,” says Maddie. “To a soprano, there’s no quality quite as attractive.”
“Say,” says Leigh. He pulls out a pencil and a steno pad, which after all these years must be permanent appendages. “Give me your website. I’d love to see what you wrote.”
“It’s operaville dot blogspot dot com,” says Maddie. “He combines his reviews with historical tales about the composers. It’s delightful.”
“Can’t wait,” says Leigh. “Well, we leave you to your drinks with a hearty ‘Brava!’”
“Brava!” says Jeri.
“Grazie,” says Maddalena Hart. “I would take a formal bow, but I’m sort of trapped.”
“Bye!” they call, and continue down the street. Maddie watches them go, then turns to me with a smile.
“Did I do all right?”
“Yes. Gracious. Not too effusive. Friendly, witty.”
“You’d be surprised. I had a colleague, ten-year veteran of the big houses, and I heard her arguing with her admirers. ‘Oh, no, I wasn’t very good tonight, I had so much trouble with that one part in the third act, blah-blah-blah…’ I had to take her aside and tell her to stop insulting the judgement of her fans. Even if they’re wrong, just smile and say thank you.”
“I think I know someone like that. But no, I give you an A-minus.”
“Are you insulting my judgement?”
“Oh, you’re good.”
“I just want to give you something higher to shoot for. Have you ever been to a laser show?”
“Well, you’re about to. Let’s get our bill.”
“I’ll get our bill.”
“Bless you, diva.”
I saw a flyer for the Cosmic Concert on the Coffee Society bulletin board. I couldn’t believe it was still around. In the ‘70s, my bored high school self went quite often, and rarely in a non-altered state. It took place in the De Anza Planetarium, where Maddie and I are lined up with an assortment of college students and aging hippies. We filter into our reclining seats and gaze at the star-spangled dome as the laser-master creates a menagerie of ultrabright shapes and patterns to a rock and roll soundtrack. I am amazed to find that many of the pieces are the same ones I saw thirty years ago: the B-52s’ “Love Under the Strobelight” with spinning red telephones, Bowie’s “Space Oddity” with a drifting green astronaut, Yes’s “Roundabout” with the equivalent of an indoor fireworks show. My pupils are officially on overdrive, and I feel Maddie’s fingers wrapping my hand, her hair brushing my cheek, her lips brushing my cheek. My nerve endings are performing Swan Lake, and I know any second I will wake up.
After the show, I’m tempted to drive to Maddie’s car – which is parked just across the street – and ask her to follow me up the hill. But I don’t think I could bear the separation. Also, she might wise up and drive back to San Francisco.
So we drive the mountain. The streetwise deer come out to say “How you doin’?” We slip into that mode where nothing need be said. We’re descending the dirt road, nearing the first overlook, when Maddie takes her hand off my shoulder and searches the controls on my dashboard.
“Where’s the heat on this thing?”
She hits a button and finds her own voice pouring from the speakers. It’s “Song to the Moon.”
Her smile blossoms like a morning glory at sunrise. “Pull over here.” So I do. She says, “Keep the song on and turn the headlights off.” So I do, and I join Maddie in front of the hood. There’s a spread of grass on the turnout, and the lights of the Valley are laid out before us like a Cosmic Concert picnic blanket. Maddie holds out her hands and I take the invitation. We dance to Dvorak, we dance to the song of my resurrection, in the dark and cold mountain air. When the tape pushes forward to “Sombre foret,” Maddalena Hart comes closer and closer and I kiss my diva for all I’m worth.
There’s a third cabin on the property, but it’s hardly ever occupied. Apparently, it’s being rented by people who never vacation. The previous renter assembled a fire pit, using stones salvaged from the nearby woods. Maddie and I sit on a log, caretakers of a vigorous blaze, doing our best to roast marshmallows on the tips of bouncy coat-hanger rods. I consume my latest victim - blessed with a suntan worthy of a bikini model – and I decide that it’s time to ‘fess up.
“May I tell you my story?”
“I expected you might,” she says, and takes my hand. “I give you the downbeat.”
I steer a ship’s-captain gaze over the flames to find my subject, a third up from the horizon, three percent on the wane, a wisp of cloud crossing its beacon.
I didn’t have much of a calling, but I went to college during the Reagan era, so I ended up in business school. Finance. I was a very social creature – president of my frat, an athlete, not unattractive. My guidance counselor said, You’re good with people – go into stocks. You’ll be good with the clients.
So I did. Didn’t even need a master’s. He was right, I was good, and it was certainly the right time to get in. Weathered the early-‘90s recession, got into tech stocks, surfed my way into the Clinton boom. I married a co-worker, Allison – marvelous girl, beautiful, sexy, smart as a whip. We bought a house in south San Jose, we were in excellent shape. It was time to start a family.
We couldn’t. Seven miscarriages. We got pregnant, but poor Allison couldn’t hold them. She quit her job, thought that might help. It didn’t.
Our reactions were a little cross-gender. Each of our miscarriages hit me like a steamroller. Deep depressions that lasted for weeks, couldn’t even get out of bed unless I had to go to work. I saw each one as a real, living baby – a creature that poops its diapers and giggles when you make a face – so each one was, to me, a genuine, visceral death. Allison seemed wholly unaffected, as if these were not deaths but failures, part of a process. She wanted to try again, as soon as she was able, for as long as it took.
After seven, I couldn’t do it any more. And neither one of us wanted to adopt. That might seem selfish, but I think it takes a certain kind of couple, with a certain mindset, to take that on. We were wise enough to know that we were not those people.
For a few years we went on as a childless couple. People do this, we said. People live fulfilling lives without children. I was always the wiz kid at the brokerage, always on the edge of things, so it was natural for me to get into derivatives. It was very creative. I was helping to invent entirely new ways to produce revenue; sometimes it felt like I was pulling cash out of the air. But a few years down the line, when the inventing part was over, I came to realize that what I was doing had no real value. I wasn’t producing anything that was any good to society. I was only using this mathematical sleight-of-hand to make a stacked deck even more unfair, to make filthy rich people even richer.
I decided that I wanted out. With no children to provide for, and Allison back at her old job, I thought I deserved a little time to lift my nose from the grindstone. I met Colin at a barbecue. He told me that he was starting a deck-staining business and needed an assistant. I had always done all the work on our house myself – including painting the exterior and staining the deck – and, in fact, had found it to be excellent therapy. So I took Colin’s card.
Allison didn’t like it. She wanted us to be a power couple; she wanted us to keep piling up money and play the games of the elite: Junior League, charity boards – maybe the opera. We fought for a month, non-stop, viciously, noisily. I’m surprised the cops never showed up. She called me a lazy, self-absorbed piece of shit. I called her a money-grubbing bitch.
I summarily quit my job and began working for Colin. I adored the work. I loved the ache in my muscles, the long, quiet hours, the spectacular views. There was even an element of voyeurism, getting to invade all these private spaces, to see how other people lived. And mostly, I loved the concrete-ness of the product. We took these graying, sun-baked, moss-covered wretches, cleaned them up, stained them over and made them into beautiful objects. I pictured our clients coming out for their morning coffee, seeing their shiny deck through the kitchen window and thinking, Maybe I’ll eat breakfast outside.
As I got more into the business, I realized I needed a more appropriate vehicle. I bought my sister’s station wagon. It had already suffered ten years of child abuse (so to speak), so I certainly didn’t have to worry about being nice to it. For years, I kept discovering bits of its previous life: a Spiderman action figure under the passenger seat, a pack of bubble gum tucked under a seat cushion, an empty juice box next to the spare tire. The only thing I didn’t like was that the stereo didn’t work. But after hot days I was certainly grateful for the air conditioning.
Eventually I moved into an apartment. I let Allison have the house. But that wasn’t enough. I learned from mutual friends that she intended to ruin me. She hired an expensive attorney and took everything: assets, bank accounts, my BMW. I have no idea why she deserved any of this, but it’s amazing what a good lawyer can do. His most astounding move was to use the miscarriages as an example of the pain and suffering she had to undergo during the marriage. My lawyer (the big overpaid jagoff) had no answer for this. The settlement included alimony – alimony! – and I was soon on my way to bankruptcy. An actual bankruptcy, however, might have put an end to the bloodletting, so they left me barely enough money to live on. And to twist slowly in the wind.
The apartment was now too expensive, but Colin was moving out of his cabin and told me what a deal it was. I really wasn’t sure about the location, but I was getting used to driving mountain roads, so I thought, What the hell. It seemed like a good time to get away from civilization. On a Sunday in July, I made a trip to the cabin and unloaded my first wagonful. When I got back in, the car wouldn’t start. I checked the battery terminals, the wires, made sure the alternator belts were tight. I tried the ignition. Nothing. So there I am, beset by all these doubts about living in the woods, and already I’m stranded. As the full weight of this thought struck me – accompanied by the baseline depression I was already living with – I could feel the life force seeping from my limbs. It wasn’t sadness, or anxiety – those carry a certain emotional vigor. This was me, an empty shell, nothing left. This was the bottom.
I sat there in the driver’s seat for a long time, in something like a psychosomatic coma. Couldn’t move, couldn’t lift a hand, didn’t have enough energy to swear. Allison had finally got me. I pictured her somewhere, holding a voodoo doll, gleefully raising a pin.
Some time later I noticed the fuse box, just behind the parking brake. I was just ignorant enough about cars to see this as a possibility. I slid off the cap, and behold! two fuses that appeared to be loose. I pressed them back into place and, holding on to the thinnest thread of hope, I cranked the ignition.
The engine did nothing. But the stereo came to life! And out of the speakers came this song of indescribable, ghostly mournfulness. I had no idea about the words – they sounded Slavic, maybe Hebrew – but I could hear the pleading, the unbearably beautiful sadness. And the voice. I had the usual pedestrian ideas about opera – that snooty thing that had nothing to do with real life. But this voice, this woman, was so much the opposite. The voice was big but intimate, confiding. I’ve been there too, she said. I know how you feel. I imagined her as the mother of my miscarried children.
Then the orchestra began to well up, and the woman’s voice rose to these long, sustained notes. I felt the sound strike me at a point just beneath my eyes, and I sat there in my car, sobbing. A minute later, the woman sounded like she was pleading for her life, and then, suddenly, that was the end. Another song began, and I cranked the ignition, and it started!
I find Maddie trying to suppress a smile.
“‘Song to the Moon?’”
“Sitting in that tape player, all those years, waiting for someone to reconnect that fuse.”
She folds her hands beneath her chin.
“You know, sometimes I get this idea that what I do has no relevance to real life. Sort of like your derivatives. But then, someone tells me a story like that. But I never dreamed that I faith-healed a car!”
“Well,” I say. “It turns out it was the starter. Apparently, before they completely die out, they can still work every fifth time or so.”
“But only if you’re playing the right aria.”
“By the right singer. No. I don’t give you complete credit for restarting the car. But you did restart me. In any case, I headed right up the hill, having no idea that I was driving to a tune called “Somber Forest,” and I took it straight to my mechanic in Los Gatos. Colin was nice enough to give me an advance so I could get it fixed. All things considered, I remained at the low point of my life for perhaps ten minutes. So I guess I can’t complain. You want another marshmallow?”
She gives me a close-lipped smile. “I want another kiss.”
I’m 47, and I’m not dumb. I begin at the upper right-hand corner of those luscious petals and I work my way across, taking my time to dip my tongue in between. This will be no surprise to aficionados of opera, but Maddie is very talented with her tongue. Keep that in mind the next time you see Rigoletto and you hear Gilda whip out a really wicked rolled R. Ten minutes later, I finish with a kiss on the tip of her nose. She speaks without opening her eyes.
“So that’s when you became obsessed with the opera.”
“Yes. That’s also when I dreamed up my devious, terribly involved plan to find the woman who sang that gorgeous aria and make out with her.”
She opens her eyes just barely and gives me a grin. “You are so lucky it wasn’t Joan Sutherland.”
It’s early morning. We’re at Hobee’s, an American diner with a California health-food attitude. I’m staring down a scramble and realizing it’s almost exactly the one that I make at home. Am I in a rut? I laugh at the question before I’m even done thinking it. Maddalena Hart the international opera star sits across from me, the sharpness of her grapefruit juice producing two or three of the expressions that she used in the Letter Scene.
“Have you seen Rusalka?”
“So you don’t know the context of ‘Song to the Moon’?”
“I considered it magic. You don’t want to come too close to magic, or you’ll scare it away.”
She takes a sip of coffee and folds her hands, assuming the demeanor of a newsanchor. I can’t get over her hair. Even after a rushed shower and a drive down the hill, the honey, the wheat and the straw tumble to her shoulders like the hair of an angel. I’m back to the album cover.
“Rusalka is a water nymph who lives in a lake, and she falls in love with a prince who comes there to swim. She goes to the witch Jezibaba, who agrees to turn her into a human, but there are a couple of catches. She must win her prince’s love without the power of speech, and if she fails she will be accursed forever. Before her transformation, Rusalka sings to the moon, asking it to tell her beloved that she longs to hold him in her arms. At the end of the song – those desperate final passages - she pleads with the moon, ‘O do not disappear! Do not go!’”
It’s not becoming for a man to be so constantly enchanted by a woman, but any attempt at artificial coolness would be lame. So I accept my fate and go the other direction.
“Are you real?”
“Full-gonzo water nymph, baby. Hum a few bars of the Habañera and I disappear.”
“O do not disappear!”
“You’re funny. For a prince. And I’ve met a few. So how come, last night, you didn’t put the moves on me?”
“I thought I… Didn’t I put on some moves?”
“You know you could have…”
“I had my suspicions. But… Damn. You’re probably going to insist on the real answer, aren’t you?”
She gives me a solemn nod. “That’s what I’m asking.”
I want to get this just right, so I look away from the hair and the eyes and the famous face. A trio of overdressed Japanese girls stand outside, taking part in a serious rund of chatter.
“Oh God, don’t make me say the word ‘vulnerable.’ ‘Vulnerable’ is the word of cowards. Let’s say ‘susceptible,’ ‘fragile.’ That’s what you are, and a proud hunter does not like to knock off easy targets.”
“As opposed to a Mad Huntress?”
“Yes. And… You mean a little too much to me, Maddie. Frankly, I worship you. I’m not ready to carry you down from the heavens.”
“I’m not a diva, Mickey. I’m not a goddess, or a siren, or even a water nymph. And it’s the nature of the business that I don’t always have the time for a standard romance. In fact, for now this it. I’m off to Seattle first thing Friday. I don’t have a different man in every port. I kind of wish I did. But I had a feeling about you, Mickey. You’re one of the good ones.”
Her anxious expression melts into wistfulness. She puts a hand on my knee and smiles.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to rain on our parade. It was so sweet of you to offer me distractions, to tell me your beautiful story. To romance me. To kiss me. And I’m going to tell Speight Jenkins to use lasers in his next Ring Cycle.”
She laughs. “Sorry. Opera singers are so presumptuous. He’s the general director in Seattle. And he’s nuts! Believe me, he’ll consider the lasers. But Mickey… I’m certain I’ll see you again. I guess what I’m saying is… What I’m saying is Yes! Be a little rude next time. I can take it.”
I slip a hand under her hair, around the back of her neck, and give her a messy, highly inappropriate kiss. She settles back against her chair, eyes half-closed.
“Yeah. Like that.”
I walk Maddalena Hart the opera star to her Lexus, parked on the street behind the Oaks Center. I wave her off down the road, and I get in my car, and I head for the hills. Colin leaves his paint-tray to greet me, looking like a proud father.
“Behold! Mickey San Franciskel, diva debaucher.”
I accept a brisk handshake.
“No debauching, but yes – a remarkable weekend. Thanks for the day off.”
“Absolutely no problem. I will expect the same during my impending affair with Jennifer Aniston. But I will be needing some details.”
“Of course! Why don’t I start on these steps, and I will shout my story in your die-rection.”