Thursday, August 8, 2013

Gabriella's Voice: An Interview

As part of launching a new Facebook fan page for my first opera novel, Gabriella's Voice, I asked opera singer/writer Kirsten C. Kunkle to interview me. Kirsten found the novel on a bookshelf in Columbus, Ohio when she was a voice student, and realized the main character was very much like herself. By now, after numerous re-readings, she probably knows the book better than me! Find out more about Kirsten's singing and teaching career at You can see a continuation of this discussion on the GV fan page, and find out more about Gabriella's Voice at Amazon.
Michael J. Vaughn, as you know, I loved this book - every time that I've read it! What was the impetus to write about opera, and this story in particular?

  • Michael J. Vaughn At the time, I was entering my tenth year as an opera critic and finally beginning to GET it. And getting passionate about it. Then I did an interview with a budding opera singer, Jennifer der Terossian, who possessed a gorgeous voice and a great opera-brain to go along with it. I've always told fiction writers to write about your passions, so I decided to pursue an opera novel. I took Jennifer out to dinner, parked a tape recorder next to her enchiladas, and asked her every question I could about opera and the perspective of the singer. She was invaluable as far as far as getting the character of Gabriella right, and the opening scene - in which young Gabriella torments her neighbors by screaming for hours on end - is absolutely Jennifer's story. And yes, one night the cops actually showed up.
  • Kirsten C. Kunkle Fabulous! I'm always afraid that my singing will lead to neighborly complaints and police intervention, too!
  • Michael J. Vaughn Ha! I once told a new neighbor to let me know if the sopranos (from my turntable) got too loud, and of course she thought I was a fan of the HBO series. It is a rather penetrating sound.
    Personal one: How much of you is in the character of Bill?

    • Michael J. Vaughn It's alarming that I wrote Bill when I was much younger than him, and now we're the exact age. It's almost as if I were writing my future self. Although I am much less weighed down by tragedy than he is, at the time I wrote GV I was channeling the great grief of losing my mother to cancer, a grief that fuels a lot of the feeling, if not the particulars, of the story.

    • Kirsten C. Kunkle When my mother died (seven years ago), you sent me a copy of "Frosted Glass." I always appreciated that very much. The books have a similar feel. Do you think of yourself as having a style or consistently evolving? If so, could you explain the differences or how you view your work over time?
      Michael J. Vaughn: You know, there really is a connection between the two. Each book follows a troubled individual who finds solace in a creative person - in that case the glass collector Frosty. I do know that there are themes that return to my books time and again.

    • Michael J. Vaughn The most constant is the power of creativity. It's a subject I never tire of. My novel-in-progress features a collage artist.The style changes all the time, but certain things are consistent. I cherish everyday English, ruthlessly carved until it's dense with meaning, and I refuse to write characters who would bore me at a cocktail party. Also, even the most tragic of novels should contain generous helpings of humor.

      "Operaville" is your other opera based novel. Do you see more in your future? Would they also tie into your former opera books, however loosely?

      • Michael J. Vaughn It's funny how Operaville turned into a semi-sequel - at least in the sense that Gabriella and Bill, ten years later, showed up as supporting players. That was quite fun, actually, and I have taken up the practice in other novels, as well. I think the decision to write another opera novel depends on whether I have a central story that fits. Gabriella's story was, essentially, a middle-aged man taking renewal from a younger woman's singing. Operaville was a bit like "Notting Hill," an unlikely affair between an opera fan and an enormously famous soprano, with all the highs and pitfalls that celebrity brings about. On the other hand, I always say, "write what you're passionate about," because novels are huge projects, and you'd better feel intensely about your subject matter if you're going to find the stamina to bring it to the final page. So I'd be surprised if opera didn't show up again.

        Tell us about the other characters besides Gabriella and Bill. Are they based on anyone? What are their roles in the overall development of the novel?

        I owe much of the supporting cast to the Bay Shore Lyric Opera Company, a company founded in the beach town of Capitola, CA largely to showcase the talents of Jennifer der Torossian, the soprano who acted as my consultant on the novel. Many of the cast members - particularly of their production of The Marriage of Figaro - became characters in the story, and I was granted a ridiculous amount of access. The best was Maestro D'Umbra, who was inspired by the company vocal coach, Maestro Salvatore d'Aura, who, in fact, was an assistant to Puccini late in the composer's life. One of their productions was stage-directed by Licia Albanese, who was kind enough to grant me an interview. The flashback characters are based more on amalgamations of people (which is my usual process). The grandmother - denied a career in opera by her prudish mother - was based on my girlfriend's grandmother, who was a Ziegfield girl in the twenties and was denied a chance to go to Hollywood and be in the movies by her mother. Bill's mother was based a little bit on my own, with a dash of the bipolar suffered by that same girlfriend, plus perhaps the Antonia story from Tales of Hoffman, in which the poor girl actually does sing herself to death.

        Interesting note on Bill, by the way. I got the last name Harness just thinking about equestrian equipment (God knows why). I furthered this naming exercise by writing a whole novel titled after another character named Billy Saddle. Years later, I was looking through the program at the San Francisco Opera when I found a picture of a tenor named William Harness singing alongside Beverly Sills. Weird!

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