Thursday, March 28, 2013
The San Francisco Bay Area novelist delves into the history of opera in his new sex comedy.
By Bill Burman
Mar 19, 2011
In discussing his great novel Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov wrote: “For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”
The quote came back to me the other day as I was reading Bay Area novelist Michael Vaughn’s latest work, Operaville. Vaughn’s seemingly effortless prose does deliver aesthetic bliss, and the novel is intimately concerned with aesthetics, specifically those of the opera. But since the story is told by disillusioned former derivative whiz turned desk-stainer and novice opera critic Mickey Siskel, it lacks any of the stuffiness one might associate with opera.
Vaughn is in his element whether he is delineating the fine points of opera, or narrating Mickey’s gnarly, couch-staining sexual escapades, his desk-staining techniques, or his manly softball diamond exploits. Vaughn’s gift for writing dialogue is, dare I say it, musical, and I can sit for what was supposed to be a twenty-minute reading session, and find that I have breezed through fifty pages.
An Opera Lover’s Fantasy
Operaville is an opera lover’s fantasy. Mickey writes a well-regarded opera blog called “Operaville,” which earns him free opera tickets if not much in the way of financial reciprocation. Incidentally, Vaughn has a real life analogue with the same title, and his quotes are sometimes used in opera companys' publicity materials. Mickey’s perspicacious observations draw the attention of his favorite diva, the stunning and iron-disciplined Maddalena Hart, whose singing sustained him when he was being eviscerated emotionally and financially by his ex-wife during a brutal divorce. The effort to navigate a romance with the object of his artistic obsession while dealing with his ex-wife and other sexual distractions comprises the heart of the novel.
Henry Miller at the Opera
One of the things that will jump out of the book for most people is Vaughn’s vivid, frank descriptions of Mickey’s sexual encounters. In some cases, they manage to be sensual, raunchy, tender and comic, all at once. Maddalena dressing herself as various opera vixens to help Mickey overcome his performance anxiety is probably the highlight. Vaughn’s sex scenes are definitely the work of a guy though, and I thought an alternate title could be Henry Miller at the Opera, although Mickey has a tough day job, and is not constantly making the touch on his friends. I don’t think Miller ever copped to performance anxiety either. But Vaughn’s joyous, butt-slapping sex scenes conjured for me Miller’s abandon and sense of humor about sex.
A Non-Postmodern Look at Opera
On a deeper level, Vaughn delves into the meaty stories of the operas, and the stories behind the operas. In a distinctly non-postmodern approach, Mickey’s blog specializes in fleshing out the historical and personal context of the operas’ compositions, something that drew me, a history buff and a non-opera fan, into the story. And there are intriguing connections between the tales in some of the operas, and the storyline of Operaville. Vaughn’s characters, sometimes in spite of themselves, find past tribulations illuminated by opera characters’ tragic dilemmas. More than one person in the book is brought to catharsis by a searing aria.
But Vaughn may be at his absolute best when writing about the technical and musical aspects of the opera. This is hardly a surprise given that he writes an opera blog. Still, his rendering of electric operatic moments almost entices an opera-phoebe like me into pulling out my credit card and buying tickets online. He seamlessly blends sophisticated opera terminology, historical allusions, and contemporary slang in a way that makes the intimidating world of opera seem inviting and magical, in several passages describing Maddalena’s performances. “She pours out her legatos. When she nears the treacherous leaps at the end of the verse, she lands them with the touch of a dragonfly on a reed, a spiderweb spun from crystal, a Caballet messa voce, leads the note forward, resolves the line, the flute joins in, followed by a shift into a string sustenato. Rossini is a beautiful, beautiful man. I am pierced like a Catholic martyr with a hundred toothpick arrows. I am crying like a big fat wussy-boy.”
I suppose I should mention the fact that I am a friend of Michael Vaughn’s in addition to being a fan. But he hardly needs my approbation. Vaughn has published eleven novels, written opera reviews for the Metro weekly and other publications for years, and writes regularly for Writer’s Digest.
He was the fiction editor for the Montserrat Review, a San Jose-based literary journal, and the publicity director for Saratoga’s Villa Montalvo, for three years. He is also an impresario who has tirelessly promoted the works of other writers, artists and musicians in various poetry and fiction events throughout the Bay Area. A fixture in the South Bay arts and literary scene since the early nineties, Vaughn’s own literary skills have been ripening all the while, and they have reached a new height with Operaville.
First published in Suite 101
Copyright Bill Burman