Buy the paperback or Kindle version at Amazon.com
Return to this blogsite weekly for new chapters
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
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.
Michael J. Vaughn is the author of six novels and a twenty-five year opera critic. He is also a competitions judge for Writer's Digest, and a poet with works in more than 50 literary journals. Vaughn lives in San Jose, and plays drums for the San Francisco rock band Exit Wonderland.