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My own behavior puzzles me. This is clearly a pleasure trip, but I am treating it like work. I have shunned the spectacular vistas of the Oregon Coast for the inland cruise of Interstate 5. I am treated nonetheless with gorgeous scenery, running past a bright-eyed Mt. Shasta, sliding downhill into southern Oregon to find the triangle of Mt. McLoughlin knifing into the twilight. I take note, and drive on.
The budget is tight, so I sleep at a rest stop on the flat farmlands north of Eugene. I am well-equipped, having folded down the back seats and installed a small mattress. The final stroke is a paper dropcloth, taped over the windows for privacy. I sleep well and wake to a bickering Mexican family, seven idling semis and a series of green foothills that could have been shipped in from Scotland. In the Northwest, breathtaking landscapes are a dime a dozen, but I don’t feel like I have earned them yet, so I sneak away to the restroom for a Handi-Wipes catbath and a change of clothes.
The second day goes quickly; by late afternoon I have sighted the Puget Sound and, five minutes later, Mt. Rainier, a white fist bursting from the horizon. Entering the strip-mall stretches of Tacoma, I spot a Motel 6. I pull in, make my arrangements and head for the pizza parlor next door.
I am not ready to be a tourist – not till after my work – so I spend the next day right there in the neighborhood, taking a dozen laps around the pool and hanging out at a surprisingly lavish Starbucks. A brief nap, dinner at Denny’s, and I am ready to get myself prettied up.
Not that I’ve made any changes. It’s the same black suit I wear at SFO, only now it’s been cleaned and pressed. The same black dress shoes, only now they’ve been shined. The tie is old, as well, but it’s got a history. An old friend got married three years ago. The bride told the groomsmen to show up in black suits and shirts, then handed us mint-green ties, each in a different pattern. I fix it in place with a silver pin given to me by my father at my own wedding. I pull out a stainless steel case and fill it with cards bearing the address for my blog and a photo of Maddalena playing the Contessa in Figaro.
But here’s the strange part: I have not told Maddie that I’m here. I don’t know why.
It’s a glorious day in Seattle, and the skyline is everything the brochure promised. Maybe a third the size of San Francisco’s, but better organized, like the figures in Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. I-5 slings itself into the center of this grouping, and immediately I take a left-side offramp to Seattle Center. Following my emailed directions, I head for the Experience Music Project, a Frank Gehry building that looks like a giant baked potato covered in aluminum foil, take a right and find the parking lot. I pass through a forest of metallic palms and follow a walkway into a large central square. Inside a concrete bowl, the Seattle Center fountain performs tricks for a ring of onlookers. To a classical soundtrack, a 50-foot spray gives way to 50 smaller sprays, running around the bowl like the backing flock of Swan Lake. I’m early, so I stay a few minutes to enjoy.
McCaw Hall was built a few years ago at the same site as the old opera house. Accustomed to the historical auras of San Francisco’s War Memorial and San Jose’s California Theater, I find the modernity of Seattle’s a little jarring. Passing an artificial creek – a thin sheet of water trickling over ridges in the walkway – I look up to find a towering wall of glass, a terrarium of opera patrons milling about on three different levels.
I enter the lobby to find myself beneath a most puzzling piece of art. A tall blue construction ladder has been crumpled into a series of bends and folds and dangled on wires, then used as a skeleton from which to hang a phantasmagoria of industrial objects: monkey wrenches, heating ducts, bubble wrap, shipping pallets, motherboards. It’s like a frozen explosion in a hardware store.
I head for will call and pick up my tickets, then I climb the wide front steps to the second-level balcony, a spread of chocolate-brown carpet the size of a football field. I pick up the smell of coffee and track it to a most welcome sight: a circular table hosting three urns of Starbucks’ best, ringed by a convoy of silver boats holding cream and sugar. It turns out to be a good-faith construct, suggesting you drop in a buck for each cup of java. Seattle rocks.
At the sound of the five-minute chimes, we funnel into one of five different entrances and descend into the orchestra section, a field of plush navy blue seats. The balconies drop down on either side against walls lit up in blood red. The broad proscenium is free of ornament, just an enormous burgundy curtain.
Even as a late starter, I have seen a dozen Bohèmes, and I’m beginning to notice the fine details. In the final scene, when Schaunard the musician enters with food for his companions, his inventory usually includes a garish prop-fish, which adds to the impending hi-jinks. This time he enters with a bowl containing pickled herring. He does, however, bring the traditional baguette, which will soon be used as a sword in a mock-duel. Perhaps this is an overlooked aspect of opera: we see the same works so often that we can bicker over the micro-traditions.
Otherwise, the production is pretty standard. The singers are magnificent. Rodolfo the poet is played by a black tenor, Vinson Cole, which in 21st century Seattle raises nary an eyebrow. Cole is a local favorite, blessed with a lyric instrument that carries just a tad of that vigorous spinto edge. The Marcello is fantastic, a young American with a robust baritone that fills the hall. (Although he is given not a single aria, I have decided that Marcello is the secret lynchpin to this opera, and have learned to appreciate anyone who does him justice.)
The Musetta is nearly spectacular, a tall, willowy redhead with a voice unabashedly high in its aspect, like the playful soubrette roles of Rossini and Donizetti. The brilliance of her tone gives the emphasis to Musetta’s flirtatiousness – which is really her occupation, since she’s a courtesan.
Maddalena is Maddalena, but in a rather intriguing fashion. I will make you wait for the details, but I will say that she plays Mimi with three different voices: a Mozartean lyric for “Mi chiamano Mimi” and the famed meeting with Rodolfo; a slightly heavier, late-Verdi lyric for the tollgate scene (the couple’s last attempt at happiness before Mimi’s consumption takes over); and, I swear, a dark, Wagnerian soprano for the low, ominous lines – the “death tones” – of the final scene. This evening-long descent is astounding – and it’s also astounding that Maddie continues to astound me.
The best operas continue to reveal new treasures even after multiple viewings; my latest discovery in Bohème is a line that I have never noticed before. In the death scene, Musetta is warming a bottle of medicine over a lamp, and she sings, “Oh, don’t let the flame go out.”
The finale is roundly ovated by an auditorium of weeping opera fans (Puccini being lord and master of the lachrymal glands). I find myself feeling proud, either of Maddie or for Maddie.
The crowd seeps away like a river seeking tributaries. I stand at the edge of the second-level balcony with coffee number three. The question of the moment is, What now? How does one go about stalking a diva?
I stop a passing usher and say, “Excuse me, do you know how I would reach Jennifer Lim?” (Jennifer’s the press contact, the only name I’ve got in my arsenal.)
The usher conducts a little internal info search. “She’s probably at the VIP reception. Are you press?”
I stare dumbly at my folder. “Yes, I guess I am.”
“I would bet that you’ll find an invitation in that folder. Just go to those stairs, up one flight, and you’ll be right at the door.”
I dig out a white square with the invitation. I hand it to a high-society blonde – one of those 62-year-olds who looks vaguely 35 – and pass into Valhalla.
The reception room is actually pretty plain, a high-ceilinged space with walls in yellow fabric and tall, narrow windows that offer views of the parking garage across the street. There are perhaps 50 patrons milling about, many of them standing at tall tables, and a center table offering a spread of luscious-looking fruit. I am much too nervous to eat, but when a waitress comes by with a tray I take what turns out to be a white chocolate truffle with key-lime filling. Life as a VIP is good. Another coffee would make me explode, so I head for a table holding glasses of white wine.
I work myself into a neutral position, like an airship avoiding sharp edges, and pick up an interesting conversation to my right. A large man with a velvety baritone is speaking with a thin man possessing a pair of stylish narrow spectacles and a pronounced kinetic energy.
“I don’t even know why they bother with it anymore,” says the thin man, with a crisply enunciated tenor. “I could sing the goddamn thing myself. ‘They call me Mimi, I don’t know why, tee-hee.’ Oh God it’s so fucking juvenile, but the hoi polloi eats it up like butterscotch pudding.”
The large man answers calmly. “They love it because it’s the most beautifully sculpted aria ever written. Screw the words! Look at the structure of it, map it out. It’s glorious.”
“Bosh!” says the thin man. (Do people really say “Bosh”?) “At least Bizet owned up to his excesses. His melodies are openly melodic, for all to hear. Puccini’s always trying to nudge it this way and that, like he’s saying, ‘Look! I really am an artist!’ And hey, Turandot I’ll give you. Fanciulla, Gianni Schicchi, Suor Angelica. But Bohème? Tripe. Triple tripe.”
“Don’t condemn something just because it’s popular, Larry.”
That’s where my eavesdropping clicks off, because how many Cordells would be floating around Seattle? I walk over and wait for a half-second pause in Larry’s thesis.
“I’m sorry, but… is your name Cordell?”
The man turns my way, revealing a wide, gentle face outlined by a neat silver beard.
“Well yes, it is.”
I extend a hand and derive maximum enjoyment from my next line.
Cordell ignores my hand, grabs me by the shoulders and gives me a big smack on the cheek.
“Mickey! In the flesh! Larry, this is the best goddamn opera blogger in the universe. His stuff is so insightful. You would love it.”
Once released, I extend a hand to Larry and am relieved when he simply takes it.
“Well, Mickey!” says Cordell. “What on earth brings you here?”
“I’ve been promoted. I’m the West Coast stringer for a web site based in New Zealand. So I thought I would take an opera vacation.”
Cordell laughs and bats me on the shoulder.
“Oh, Mickey. That’s nonsense.”
“Bosh,” says Larry.
“Folderol,” says Cordell. “You’re here to see Maddalena.” He turns to Larry. “He’s dating her, you know.”
Larry arches an eyebrow. “Really.”
“Well, no,” I say. “Okay. Twice. We went out a couple of times in San Francisco. She’s probably forgotten all about me. She doesn’t even know I’m here.”
Now Cordell arches an eyebrow. “You didn’t tell her you were coming?”
“What kind of boyfriend are you?” says Larry, who is clearly enjoying himself. “Why, if I was a diva, I’d be incensed!”
“Larry,” says Cordell. “You are a diva.”
“I prefer to think of myself as a prima donna.”
“But honestly,” I say, trying to keep up. “I am not Maddie’s boyfriend. She just needed some help, that’s all.”
Larry gives me an appraising look. “That must have been one hell of a review you gave her.”
At this point, the only thing I can do is give up. “Fine. And you may as well be the first to know, Maddie’s pregnant with my child. We’re having an enormous Episcopalian wedding in January, and all of this will be revealed in a thrilling second-act aria.”
Shocked that a hetero could produce something so creative, Larry and Cordell fan me with gales of laughter. We are interrupted by a man who resembles a toned-down Andy Warhol, striking a glass with a fork. This is Speight Jenkins, Seattle’s artistic director. The room grows quickly attentive.
“Greetings! I am generally sent up here to tell sob stories and ask you for money, but tonight I’m going to let the arts speak for themselves. Please welcome our Marcello, Nicolai Janitzky.”
Nicolai strolls out in a blue pinstripe suit and clasps his hands together over his head.
“Our Musetta, Gabriella Compton.”
Gabriella appears in a slim yellow dress with diagonal slashes of cream. Her hair has gone magically short.
“Our Rodolfo, Vinson Cole”
Vinson enters in brown cords, a white turtleneck and a black leather jacket. He accepts his favorite-son outburst with a boisterous grin.
“And, back after a brief bout of consumption, our Mimi, Maddalena…”
The last name disappears in a melee of shouting and applause. The way that opera people react to this woman is almost frightening. She enters in a gown of copper-colored chiffon, every bit the diva, her mousy brown Mimi-wig replaced by the familiar honey tresses. She smiles and holds a hand over her heart.
“And now,” says Speight, “I will retire until the next time I am called upon to beg you for money.”
Speight receives a mix of laughter and sarcastic applause. The four singers disappear into circles of well-wishers, and I go back to Cordell. Larry has absconded.
“Seriously, Cordell, it is a thrill to meet you. I really appreciate the way you’ve encouraged my little experiment.”
Cordell places a hand on my shoulder and fixes me with blue-gray eyes. “There are so few opera writers who are not completely occupied with showing how G.D. clever they are. I would bet that most of them don’t even like opera. But Mickey, your passion and humor and humility are so refreshing. I always come away with some new insight to share with my colleagues. You are a hidden treasure, and I feel compelled to announce your presence to the world. I’m also rather fond of that Devil Diva.”
I’m relieved to be out of this thick stream of appreciation. “She is a kick, isn’t she?”
“She really sasses things up. Uh-oh. The queen approaches.”
Maddie storms our way, followed by every eye in the room. I am much relieved (and just a tad disappointed) when she jumps into the arms of Cordell.
“Professore! It is so good to see you. How are you? How’s Dennis?”
“Oh, um, Dennis is gone.”
She breaks their embrace and holds him at arm’s length. “Oh, I’m sorry. What happened?”
“Got bored of me, I suppose.”
“Oh!” Maddie laughs and immediately covers her mouth. “I’m so sorry! I thought you were saying he died.”
Cordell chuckles. “Oh! God, I must work on my phrasing.”
“Always the voice coach. I…”
I’ve been standing here like a mannequin, waiting for the moment of recognition, but now that she has registered my presence, the room goes into that trendy special-effects mode where everybody freezes in 3-D while the protagonist wanders the room undeterred, stealing people’s drinks, squeezing women’s knockers. Maddie’s eyes grow wide with alarm, she puts one hand to her hair, and then she simply turns and walks away. She stops at the far end of the room, hidden from view by a circle of elderly women.
Cordell and I stand there and watch in silence, until social necessity demands that he say something.
“I… I don’t know if I have ever seen anything like that.”
“It wasn’t exactly a glowing review.”
Cordell covers his mouth and coughs nervously. “I’ll… Maybe I’ll see if I can have a word with her.”
“No. Don’t, please. You’re right. It was rude of me to just show up like this. She’s got much more important things to worry about, and I put her in a bad position.”
“Well. Perhaps a bit. Listen, though. I need to chat with a few people – a matter of keeping the voice students knocking at one’s door – but I won’t be more than half an hour. Promise me you’ll stick around, and I’ll take you to Belltown for a drink. I have not begun to pick your brain.”
I scan the crowd, every single one of them a well-dressed mystery. “Okay. I’ll sit here and read my program.”
My reading is completely ineffective. The words bounce off my eyes and fall into my wine, forming a white verbal fuzz. I am rescued by Jennifer Lim, who finally figures out my identity and quizzes me about the New Zealand website. Before I know it, Cordell has arrived at my shoulder.
“All right, young Rodolfo, let us away to some fine booze.”
“Falstaff!” I exclaim.
“Prince Hal!” says Cordell.
“Well. We both know our Shakespeare, at least. Thanks, Jennifer.”
“Thank you,” says Jennifer. “Come back for The Flying Dutchman.”
“I will,” I say, meaning not a word of it.
Cordell takes me by the elbow and we flee the room. “I know a divine little bar on Second Avenue. And don’t worry, it’s not one of those bars.”
We walk past the artificial creek and into the great square. The fountain is done with its dancing, each of its sprays locked in a steady outpour, colored blue by a ring of muted spotlights. We stop at a waist-high wall.
“I never tire of this crazy thing,” says Cordell. “I always like to check in after a performance. Something about the water helps the music settle into my brain. Well,” he claps me on the back, “I’ll be seeing you.”
He walks away, in the direction of the Space Needle. I assume it’s some kind of gag, but he keeps going, disappearing into a dark walkway.
“Cordell? Cordell? Where the hell are you going?!” At this point, I am suffering serious abandonment issues, and I feel the need to express them vocally. “What the bloody fucking hell is going on here!?”
“Really, Mickey. It’s a family park. Watch your mouth.”
I turn to find a blue water nymph, wearing a hooded cape like a goddamn princess. She attacks me with a kiss.
I escort the internationally famous opera singer Maddalena Hart into Belltown, a former industrial zone now filling the city’s constant need for hip new neighborhoods. We discover a bar called Balls, whose every table is constructed from the glass-covered play area of an antique pinball machine. We settle next to a machine featuring circus figures: the bearded woman, the strong man, the lion tamer.
“This clown looks alarmingly like a Pagliaccio I worked with in Baltimore.”
I’m still a little unnerved by my deliverance, so I take a first sip from my microbrew. It’s a light hefeweizen, but it still delivers a pleasant bite.
“So,” says the diva. “Do you forgive me?”
I take a long look at her, glowing in the red light from the bar. She’s still wearing the copper gown.
“For the gross snub. For the Cinderella-at-midnight.”
“I took my chances.”
“You certainly did, you bad boy.”
“I thought you just hated me or something.”
Maddie laughs, her mouth open like a puppy dog’s.
“Or something! Or something! Here is Ms. Hart, being the friendly performing arts professional amongst the important Seattle donors, and suddenly here’s Mickey Siskel, hunky opera critic softball stud with the sad eyes that can’t decide whether they want to be blue or green. But that’s not how it happens. It happens like this – “ she squeezes my name into one-syllable bullets of sound – “Mickey! Mickey! Pheromones attack like killer bees. I am fighting this urge to tear the clothes from your body. The conflict between desire and obligation becomes so intense that Ms. Hart locks up – Maddie Hart, who has negotiated a thousand social minefields, who has improvised her way out of a hundred onstage catastrophes. I freaked out. So – fight or flight. I chose flight.”
“You wanted to tear my clothes off?”
She seems to have difficulty with this question. She chews on her lip, then grabs my necktie and yanks me forward so she can scour my mouth with her tongue. Then she pulls away, pats my tie back into place and says, “Yes.”
I like this game very much, so I decide to play along. I take a long swallow from my beer.
“So, Mimi. When does Rodolfo get a look at that fine white ass of yours?”
“Ooh!” She squirms in her seat. “I would really like that. How’s Wednesday?”
Double-take. Double-take. “Wednesday? Really?”
“Sadly, yes. Right now, I shouldn’t even be doing this. If we did that, we’d be looking at some major lack of sleep, and I’ve got performances Sunday and Tuesday. I can’t take the chance.”
“It’s the opera life. Constant health paranoia. The human voice is a fickle instrument. I wish I was a nice sturdy cello.”
I gaze at the pinball ringleader, top-hatted, redcoated, frozen in a grand gesture.
“It’s not the wait so much. I had only planned a certain amount of time and money for this trip. I gotta get back.”
Maddie sits back and taps a fingernail against her teeth.
“Former nail chewer?”
“Oh,” she says. “Terrible. I can’t help you on time. Wednesday is non-negotiable. But Wednesday is the Fourth of July, you’ll recall, and I think your boss should show a little respect for his new country.”
I laugh. “I’ll be sure and tell him that.”
“But money-wise, I think I can get you free lodging, and a little spending cash.”
“That is, if you know anything about staining decks.”
“Boy, do I.”
I am now the exiled boyfriend, and a bit of a CIA operative. I spend a second night in Tacoma, and then, following detailed instructions, I tootle northward up the Kitsap Peninsula to Bainbridge Island. I end up in a jolly little harbor town called Winslow, where I head for the waterfront, and a brick coffeehouse called the Pegasus. I order an Oregon chai, settle onto a chair and give my La Bohème program a prominent place on my table. (This is my “tell,” or my “marker,” I forget my film noir lingo.) A short while later, I am overshadowed by a bald, burly man in a motorcycle jacket and riding chaps. He’s got a finely trimmed silver goatee, the kind worn by operatic villains. Perhaps Sparafucile, the hired assassin from Rigoletto.
“I’m guessing you might be Mickey Siskel.” His voice is remarkably clear and resonant, a high baritone that would do well for a radio DJ.
“And you are most likely Bill Harness.”
“Good to meet you,” he says. “I find it hard to believe that Maddalena Hart is acting as my general contractor. Perhaps Placido Domingo will do my taxes.”
“I think Maddie could do anything she sets her mind to.”
Bill gives me a crafty smile. “Especially when she’s in love.”
“She… She said that?”
“No. But I’m familiar with the symptoms.”
“Oh. Okay. Should we get going?”
“No, no. Finish your drink first.”
“That’s why I got it in a paper cup. I’m feeling pretty restless.”
“That’s another of the symptoms.”
“Okay. You got me.”
I walk with Bill to the parking lot, then drive behind him as he leads the way on his Harley. We stay along the eastern edge of the island, the Seattle skyline peeking through the trees, and pull to the side just before the road swings left. Straight ahead, down a steep decline, is a beachside park spotted here and there with tents and RVs.
Bill takes off his brain-bucket and walks me through a gate in a split-rail fence. Past a wide front lawn is a sprawling ranch-style house with conspicuous Italianate touches: a Romanesque arch over the front door, a statue of Cupid next to a fountain, and a wysteria-covered arbor supported by scalloped pillars. Across from the main house are four small cottages, painted in shades of pastel.
“Nice place,” I say.
Bill smiles. “We like it. It’s the Villa d’Umbra, an home for wayward opera singers. Maestro d’Umbra was Gabriella’s voice teacher. Once worked with Puccini. Passed away five years ago and gave me the task of running his estate.”
“Musetta, yes. She’s certainly my Musetta.”
“Preaching to the choir, son. That girl saved my soul. I’ll tell you about it sometime when we have six or seven free hours. Meanwhile, why don’t we visit the patient?”
Bill leads me behind the house to a sprawling field covered in wild grass. At the far end is a low line of cedars, and beyond that the Puget Sound. There’s something vaguely unusual about the field – some man-made presence.
“That’s it,” says Bill.
“Umm…” I shade my eyes and look harder. “That’s what?”
“We call it Maestro’s labyrinth. Although I’m proud to say that I built it myself. Let’s get closer so you can make it out.”
Twenty feet further, we arrive at a small circular deck.
“People get the wrong idea about labyrinths,” says Bill. “They’re not designed to get you lost. That’s a maze. Labyrinths are designed to get you found. By forcing you to focus on a tightly proscribed path. Maestro had his students walk it before each lesson.”
The circular deck is, in fact, a starting point. A narrow walkway of planks leads away and then veers into a series of loops and meanders that seem to culminate in a second circle, capped by a belvedere. The reason I couldn’t see all of this before is that it’s gray with age, and is blending with the surrounding vegetation.
“They say that the center of a labyrinth is the meeting place of heaven and earth. I always know when Gabriella arrives there, because she celebrates by bursting into song. And that is not a sound that one is likely to miss.”
“Not at all.”
“We put some sort of sealant on it, but obviously we’ve let it go far too long. Maddie tells me you’re just the man to bring it back to life.”
“At last count, 600 decks.”
“Egad! In any case, we can take a trip to the store later to get the stain and any necessary equipment. But if you’re up for it you can start right away, because I borrowed Cordell’s pressure washer. Cordell is rather fixated on that thing, actually. He says it’s that final spurt when you shut it off; it reminds him of ejaculation.”
The image sends me into a fit of laughter. “Oh my god! I know exactly what he means.”
“Well,” Bill chortles. “I suppose you’re familiar with the equipment. Both kinds.”
“That I am.”
It’s a sunny day, small clouds scudding along like a herd of white bison, and I am full of energy. After loading my clothes into the guest cottage, I don my oldest pair of shorts and the Wellies (feeling very fortunate that I decided to bring them along) and I set to work. The wood is fully oxidized and mossed up, creating a marvelous transformation under the spray. I wash the labyrinth in the same way that it’s walked, and I do feel a sense of its meditative powers. At the end of four hours I’m finished, and I celebrate at the meeting of heaven and earth by breaking into the cooler of beer that Bill has generously delivered.
It’s only four o’clock, and Bill is off on errands, so I decide that it’s time to get to that review. I pack a notebook, a couple of pens and Grove’s Book of Opera and take a drive to the Pegasus, where an enormous iced coffee offers all the right categories of refreshment.
I’m not usually into public writing – being prone to distraction – but the Pegasus has a tree-shaded back patio, and if you crane your neck you can see the sailboats in the harbor. The seclusion enables me to lay down a sloppy-quick first draft. The number-one cause of writer’s block is the attempt to write golden prose on a first foray, and I swear I’m at my best when I’m at my worst.
What happens next causes me to believe that I have become one of those people who can conjure people from thin air simply by writing about them. Out walks a tall, willowy woman with freckles and short red hair.
“How did I make out?”
“Marcello!” she sings, and laughs. “I didn’t want to interrupt you, but it looks like you’re wrapping up.”
“Yes. Pull up a chair.”
She sits across from me in blue jeans and a green T-shirt, and extends a hand.
“Mickey. But… how do you know me by appearance?”
She smiles shyly. “Maddie was pointing you out at the reception. Acting like a little schoolgirl. She’s got a thing for you.”
“Yes. I get a lot of that. And I wish someone would explain it to me.”
Gabriella taps a finger on her temple. “This may be hard for you to understand, but even though we do this glamorous thing, it’s still a J-O-B. And afterwards, we’re normal women, and we’re attracted to certain men for all the same inexplicable reasons as other women. Apropos of nothing, the deck looks fantastic.”
“Thanks! Wait till I get some stain on it.”
Her eyes settle on the high evergreen ridge above the harbor.
“It actually makes me a little sad. Maestro loved that labyrinth. He was 97 when he passed away, so I can’t be too sad, but… I miss him.”
“He must have had a profound effect on you.”
“Oh! Everything. When Puccini was dying of throat cancer, he hired Maestro to demonstrate vocal lines to his students. So really, every line I sing in this Bohème comes directly from the composer.”
“I’ve got several of Maestro’s old scores, with notes from Puccini in the margins.”
“Can I see them?”
“Sure! I’ll show you tonight. But only if you tell me what you wrote about me.”
I laugh nervously. “You remind me of this Jewish lady in Palo Alto. She comes up to me at intermission and says, ‘So, Mister Opera Critic – what do you think?’”
“Nice try, Mickey. Now tell me what you wrote.”
“Man! You’re tough.”
“All sopranos are tough.”
I take a sip from my iced coffee.
“I wrote that your voice has a shimmering brilliance, and I like the fact that you sing Musetta with an unabashedly bel canto canary-voice, an approach that is needlessly underrated.”
She slants her eyes at me. “And yet my signature role is Tosca.”
“Yes. Too many sopranos are bent on being Butterfly or Tosca or Aida all the time. They seem to view Musetta as some kind of audition for those heavier roles, so they try to turn her into a goddamn Brunnhilde. Let’s face it, Musetta is a high-priced hooker, and utterly superficial – so why not sing her that way? And later, when she takes off the courtesan stage-face and turns into a true and caring friend, the contrast is that much deeper.”
“Like a well-weathered deck.”
“I mean - absolutely!”
“Let me tell you a Maestro story. Puccini was obsessed with America. That’s why he turned Pinkerton from a Dutch sailor to an American sailor, why he inserted the Star Spangled Banner into the score for Butterfly. And why he wrote The Girl of the Golden West. When Maestro came to the United States, he felt like he was living out Puccini’s cowboy dreams. And why he built an Italian ranch house, for God’s sake, and put those split-rail fences in the front yard. So one time I asked him, ‘Why doesn’t Fanciulla del West get produced more often?’ And he said, ‘Because the soprano must have eight balls.’”
She says this with a deep Italian accent and the face of a basset hound.
“You are quite the mimic.”
“Maestro’s voice is part of me. I hear it when I’m performing.”
I lean back and hear Gabriella singing Musetta’s Waltz – the final cadenza, ending with one of those marvelous accelerating trills, like she’s cranking it with a gas pedal.
“So where does Bill fit in?”
Gabriella lets out a chirp of laughter, just like Musetta.
“I get that a lot. He was a tenor. Sang Trovatore at the Met. But his career was cut short by family tragedies. The last of those tragedies left him a mess, and that’s when I met him. My voice was the light at the end of his tunnel. I needed his tragedies. I needed something to feel when I sang. This Hell’s Angel phase is only a couple years old. When his hairline got down to that Friar Tuck thing, he said, ‘Screw it, I’m shaving it all.’ When he saw how cool he looked, he sorta bunched that together with all his emotional scars, and next thing you know he’s buying a Harley.”
“I like the combination. I do some of that tough guy/sensitive guy thing myself. It really messes with people.”
“Well I can’t wait to see your review. Maddie says they’re like little opera poems.”
I raise my hands like I’m fighting off giant mosquitoes. “Pressure! Pressure!”
“Do Lucia di Lammermoor and then talk to me about pressure, buddyboy.”
“No thank you. Speaking of, do you know of a library hereabouts with computers?”
“Bosh! We have a computer at the villa. Especially if you’re going to write nice things about me.”
“Gabriella, if I wasn’t so gaga for Mimi, I’d be asking you to dinner right now.”
“Actually, I’m taking you to dinner.”
Bill has a light Italian dinner waiting for us: chicken parmigiana, bowtie pasta with herbs and butter and assorted greens with raspberry vinaigrette. Afterwards, I grab a cup of coffee and retreat to the computer room. Here’s what I come up with:
Doria Manfredi was a teenage housemaid at Giacomo Puccini’s villa in Torre del Lago. In the summer, when it got too hot, she would do her ironing in the evening, as Puccini worked on Fanciulla del West. One evening, the composer took a break to enjoy a cigar, and had a brief chat with Doria in the garden. Doria lost her father early in life, and probably enjoyed the company of an older man.
Elvira Puccini heard the voices beneath her window and made an enormous assumption. She became convinced that Doria was staying late in order to make love to her husband. Her suspicions were not entirely unfounded; Puccini’s philandering was well-known. Elvira fired Doria, and spent the autumn publicly denouncing the girl as a slut. What’s worse, everyone believed her. Puccini tried to get his wife to stop these accusations, but with no success. On Christmas morning, Elvira confronted Doria at mass and threatened to kill her.
Haunted and sick, Doria purchased a bottle of mercuric chloride, a corrosive disinfectant, and swallowed three tablets. The stomach cramps began immediately, followed by five days of riveting pain. In her suicide note, she asked for revenge on Elvira, and clemency for Puccini, who had done nothing wrong.
The town gossips disagreed, and concluded that Doria had died of a botched abortion. The authorities ordered an autopsy, to be conducted in the presence of witnesses. The autopsy revealed that Doria died a virgin.
For a composer who gained his greatest success in the tender destruction of his heroines – Butterfly’s hari-kari, Tosca’s leap from the parapet, Mimi’s slow wasting away – this murder-by-rumor must have been a crushing blow. It’s interesting to note that his two remaining prima donnas – Turandot and Fanciulla’s Minnie – remained alive at the final curtain.
The first of Puccini’s beloved victims – Mimi of La Bohème – was apparently based on a friend from his own starving-artist period in Milan, a friend who also died young. In Seattle Opera’s production, soprano Maddalena Hart portrays Mimi’s decline in a profoundly intelligent fashion, using concrete musical choices to play on the heartstrings of her audience, almost on a subterranean level.
Hart is well-known for the range of her roles – from the creamy lyricism of Manon and Figaro’s Contessa to heavier figures like Lady Macbeth and Tosca. As Mimi, she begins with a shimmering lyric tone that accentuates the optimism of “Mi chiamano Mimi” and the duet with Rodolfo, “O soave fanciulla.” By the second act at the tollgate, as she and Rodolfo fight off the specter of her sickness, her tone is more of a lirico spinto, darker, edgier. By the finale, with its ominous lower range and monotone “death lines,” Hart’s voice is as deep and sultry as a mezzo’s. It’s almost as if Seattle has hired a trio of identical sopranos to play three different Mimis.
Seattle’s Musetta, Gabriella Compton, achieved a similar end by using utterly opposite means. Known to possess a palette of tonal colors almost as expansive as Hart’s, Compton intentionally limits herself to a light Rossinian lyric, which emphasizes the superficial charms that make Musetta, after all, so much fun. This serves to increase the contrast between Musetta and Mimi, and to make it that much more poignant when the superficial courtesan reveals her true self, a dedicated and loving friend. Among the Parisian artists of La Bohème, Friday’s performance offered a virtuosic display of vocal painting.
As I punch the review into my blog – accompanied by a photo of Musetta comforting Mimi on her death bed – I hear a startling sound, and I look out the window to find Gabriella, her hands raised to the sky. Having achieved the center of the labyrinth, she has burst into song. I search my data banks and come up with the Ave Maria from Otello.
The comments crew is a little slow in responding. Perhaps they have all gotten lives. A half hour later, as I’m composing an email to Colin requesting a vacation extension, Cordell chimes in.
C: Mickey! I am amazed at this story – even more amazed that I have never heard it before. And with your thoughts on coloration you are once again yanking thoughts from my subconscious and giving them definition. I thank you, I thank you.
M: Fantastic meeting you in person, Cordell. And thank you for that special delivery at the fountain.
C: Ha! I picture myself as Rigoletto, hauling Gilda in a burlap sack. Anything I can do to help out a couple of lost heteros. Oh, and try not to think too much about that pressure-washer thing.
M: Every time I shut it off, I get the urge to light up a cigarette. Seriously, though, thanks for letting us use it. That extended wand is a real back-saver.
C: Oh, length is always good. (I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.)
Another 45 minutes go by. I have discovered an antique pint of ice cream in the freezer. I think it’s mint chip. I am just about to dig in when the chime goes off again.
Mad Huntress: Great. Your Doria story has me crying all over again. Perhaps this is payback for all the weeping I will be causing tomorrow. Your insights are as brilliant as ever – and yes, my tonal intentions were just as you described. I cannot wait to see you. I cannot wait. Did I mention I cannot wait?
M: Bless you, Huntress. I am your happy prey, and your ecstatic listener.
Cordell: Shew! Getting a little thick around here.
M: Screw you, old man!
C: Promises, promises.
The weather over Sunday and Monday is overcast but not wet, absolutely perfect for decking. I assemble the proper combination of trolley, tray and thousand-bristle brush and set to work. During my breaks, I find blackberries going purply ripe on the vine, and I spot several garter snakes. I even manage to catch one, until he employs that lovely garterish trick of urinating himself.
At seven o’clock on Monday, I arrive at the meeting of heaven and earth. I stand before a three-foot center plank, sweep it with a second coat of golden tan, turn to take a full survey of my finished product, and I sing “The Joker” by Steve Miller.
On Tuesday, the final day of my Maddiefast, I take a drive toward the Olympic Mountains and split off north to Port Townsend. It’s a divine little town, with a shopping district of historic brick buildings. I check in at a restaurant for a meal of grilled trout.
Wednesday rises under patriotic sunshine and I wake at six, wired by hormones. The only thing to do is hike to the Pegasus for a cappuccino, but it turns out they’re closed for the holiday. So I hike along the harbor to the ferry station, watch a couple of ships come in, then make my way back to the villa. When I return, I find Bill on the front lawn, wearing white shorts and a white golf shirt like a cast member from Gatsby: The Musical. Having seen him only in riding leathers, I find this pretty amusing.
“Mickey, old boy! Help a bruthuh out, would you?”
“I need to lay out a croquet course for the party.”
“Croquet? How Kennedyesque.”
“By the way, the deck is astounding.”
“Glad you like it.”
“I want you to accept this.” He hands me a bill featuring Benjamin Franklin.
“No, no really, I was happy to…”
“Not my money, Mickey. The foundation’s. And, this little barter of ours saved me a thousand bucks. And, you probably need gas money to get home.”
“You are right on all counts.” I fold Ben in two and stick him in my pocket.
We manage to construct a decent course and give it a trial run, having no idea of rules other than shooting the ball thingies through the hoop thingies. Having some facility with the striking of balls, I give Bill a sound thumping. As I strike the ball thingy against the final stake-thingy, I turn to discover Maddalena Hart, the opera star, ascending the front walk in a white sundress and one of those goofy, floppy wide-brimmed hats. She stops three feet away, fixes me with an irritated stare, and holds out a hand.
“Give me that mallet.”
I stand there, blank.
I hand it over. She takes it and tosses it over her shoulder.
“And they say opera singers can’t act.” She gives me a lengthy kiss, then peers at something past my shoulder.
“What’re you looking at, Harness?”
“A woman in love,” says Bill.
“How was the opera?” I ask.
“Fantastic! But you saw the cast. Nothing but blue-ribbon performers. Makes things so easy. But let’s see your work.”
We walk through the courtyard and around to the back. She lets out a gasp.
“Darling! It’s magnificent. It’s… golden.”
“Golden tan,” I say. “Cabot stain. A blue-ribbon performer. I’ve never quite been able to figure out, but it makes old redwood look like new hardwood: oak, pine, maple.”
“It’s like a big piece of Celtic jewelry. Is it too early to walk on it?”
“Not at all.”
My answer surprises me. “No. You should walk it alone. You’ve got a lot of Mimi to shed. One thing, though. When you get to the center, you have to sing something. That’s what Gabriella does.”
She laughs. “Great! More performance anxiety.” She gives me a kiss and steps up to the first circle. Bill comes up next to me.
“She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies.”
I can play this game. “And all that’s best of dark and light meet in her aspect and her eyes.”
“You,” says Bill, “are the luckiest man on Earth.”
“Uh-oh. More guests. I’d better go play master of ceremonies.”
I watch Maddie until she achieves the center and sings the first section of Doretta’s Song (more Puccini). After several smooches under the green pods of the wysteria, we return to the front yard and encounter a majority of the cast: Marcello, Colline, Rodolfo, Musetta, Schaunard, Speight Jenkins, plus Cordell and a young friend. We while away the afternoon drinking planter’s punch, dining on finger sandwiches, deviled eggs and chocolate chip cookies, and playing a drunken bastardization of croquet. Groups of two and three take off at regular intervals to walk the labyrinth, and every few minutes we’re treated to a new aria. Marcello and Rodolfo sing the entirety of that famous duet from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, and Maddie leans over to whisper the title: “Au fond du temple saint.”
The sun is nearing the jagged tips of the Olympics. The members of the party break into squads of three and four and car-pool to the harbor, where we navigate a few lengths of pierage to a mid-sized yacht called the Cavaradossi (the name of Tosca’s painter-lover). Bill takes the wheel, backs us out of our moorage and steers us into the Puget Sound.
Maddie and I find a bench and settle in, alternating between dreamy gazings at the Seattle skyline and old-school teenage makeout sessions. The mist and wind make it a chilly spot, but the seclusion is well worth the price.
As the sunlight fades into stripes of orange and royal blue, we slip into a long channel north of the city and join the nautical equivalent of rush hour traffic. We pass through the city of Ballard, wait for a good long time at the Fremont drawbridge and pass under a soaring span between the Fremont and Queen Anne hills. Trying to orient myself, I recall that the southern side of Queen Anne abuts the Seattle Center and its lovely new opera house.
The water widens to a lake, and it seems that we are sailing directly into the city: the downtown skyscrapers and Space Needle to our south, Capitol Hill directly before us, and the I-5 bridge, taking its long shot north toward the University of Washington. In a citifed sort of way, it feels tremendously cozy, a sensation intensified by the wide field of boats, shuttling into place like Christmas shoppers in a parking lot. Directly to the north, pedestrians mill the fields of a park, bursting forth here and there with do-it-yourself explosives. Maddie pulls me to the prow, the wind whipping through her hair.
“This is Lake Union. Man-made. There’s a tremendous lake on the east of the city: Lake Washington. They dug a channel from there to the Puget Sound, and Lake Union was a lovely little by-product.”
“It’s gorgeous here.”
“Wait’ll you see it with fireworks. Speaking of…”
She leaves her words dangling like a through-composed aria (trust me on this) and leads me to a side door, which opens on a set of steps descending to a cabin lined with wooden panels and bunks. Maddie nudges me inside, then locks the door behind us.
“Okay,” she says. “I have an unusual request. I want you to stare at my chest.”
“Stop looking at my eyes! Pig.”
I do as instructed (why the hell not?), bending my knees in order to bring Maddie’s tits to eye level. She slips a hand behind her back, undoes the clasp of her bra then slips it out through the top of her sundress.
“Now,” she says. “Don’t touch until I say so.”
She releases the straps from either shoulder and slips the dress slowly down. Her breasts are medium-sized (half a casaba), milk white, modest enough that they have retained a pleasantly round shape. Her aureolae are peach, size of a Kennedy half-dollar, her nipples pink and distinctly erect. She crosses her arms beneath them, holding her dress at waist level, then cups her hands beneath each one, offering them like gifts. I am going mad taking in visual information.
“Do you approve?”
She smiles, her face flushing.
“Then touch them.”
I run my pinkie around a nipple and then cup a breast in my palm, taking in the warmth, the spongy texture. I do the same with my left hand, then I bring her breasts toward each other and take turns sucking each nipple between my lips.
Maddie takes in a gasp of breath. “I will give you three hours to stop that. You can be rough with them, if you want.”
I squeeze a breast, then I stuff it between my lips as deeply as I can, using the suction at the back of my mouth to pull at her nipple.
“Oh Jesus!” she sings. “Oh fuck! You’re good.”
After a minute of this and other manipulations, I take a time-out to enjoy Maddie’s lips. I’m surprised to feel her hand on my crotch. I grab her hair, run a tongue into her ear and whisper, “I think it’s time for you to meet someone.”
“Yes,” she says, and kneels on the floor.
“Now, don’t touch until I say so.” I undo my belt and lower my pants. My penis is about as hard as it gets, glowing white in the faint light from outside. Maddie brings her face inches away and runs her eyes along its length. Now I know how she felt, this sense of being observed but not touched.
“My,” says Maddie. “It’s lovely.”
I am of average size, but blessed in matters of aesthetic quality. My dick looks like the one in the textbook.
“Thanks,” I say. “I got it from Mom and Dad on my birthday.”
Maddie is panting; her breath is wafting over my cock.
“May I?” she asks.
“Be my guest.”
She places a finger at the tip and runs it all the way to the base, then circles the shaft with her fingers and runs them back to the helmet.
“You can be rough with it, if you want.”
She tightens her grip and strokes downward, which feels divine. Then she leans forward and kisses the tip, pulling it slowly into her mouth like a crescendo sustenato (trust me on this) till I’m four inches gone. Then she clamps down with her lips and swirls that virtuosic tongue all the way around. Ec-stasy. Out of / body. She squeezes my balls and pulls my cock all the way in. Jesus Christ, Buddha, Krishna and the Seven Dwarfs. I am fucking the album cover.
Then I hear a gunshot, and I see colors: emerald, lavender, cherry. Maddie pulls me out and giggles. “Fireworks.”
“Should we go see them?”
“Don’t you want me to finish you off?”
“It takes me a long time to come, honey.”
“Ooh!” she says. “That could prove beneficial.”
“Smart girl. I truly hate to say this but, Unhand my penis!”
She gives my dick one last kiss and addresses it as a separate personage. “Bye, honey. See you soon.”
I try my best to tuck myself back into my boxers, and am grateful to know that it will be dark outside. Maddie has quickly reattached her bra, and is redoing her lipstick.
“Are we ready?” she asks.
“One last thing,” I say, and I give her ass a squeeze. She returns the favor, and we re-enter the civilized, fully clothed world to explosions of blue and gold.
It’s me and Maddie Hart, walking the loops of the golden labyrinth. The moonless sky winks at us through pinholes in the dark blue fabric.
“So extraordinary, watching the fireworks against the hills of the city. I’ve never really seen anything like that.”
“It really was beautiful,” she says. “And absolutely brilliant of Bill to cook up that bratwurst for us.”
“Good thing we both had one. Otherwise one of us would have bad breath.”
We attain the center. She turns to me and grins.
“Are you going to sing something?” I ask.
“No. I’m going to take you to our cottage and strip you naked.”
We’re there in seconds, and take turns removing each other’s clothing. Maddie’s body is just as I had dreamed: white skin, luxurious curves, a modest layer of fat to make her fleshy and grippable. I lay her down on my bed and I introduce my tongue to every square inch, working from face to breast, down her abdomen to her kneecaps and back to her pubis, covered with a down of blonde. I pull her legs apart, place a thumb on either labium and part them like the petals of a flower. I’m running my tongue along her clitoris when she places a hand on the top of my head.
“Ooh! Okay. There I’m a little sensitive.”
I back off and reinitiate by blowing air on her, then giving little flicks with my tongue. I run my tongue between her labia, gathering her musk, and then I happen upon the key combination. I take a labium into my mouth, then use suction to run it in and out between my lips. Maddie begins to moan. I insert a finger, then two, and she begins to gasp obscenities. Then her legs start to quiver, she begins to pant, and yells her way into a bucking orgasm. I am inundated by a rush of moisture; she grabs my head with both hands, signalling me to slow up. I run my tongue all around, as if I’m licking a wound. A minute later, as her breathing subsides, I rise onto my elbows and wipe the fluid from my face.
She pulls me forward and gives me a sloppy kiss.
“Is there anything you’re not good at?”
Funny she should ask. The penis is a fickle instrument, and right now, distracted by all the focus on Maddie’s privates, mine has decided to go on strike. These are the joys of being a fortysomething male with a circumcised cock. Sometimes the erection doesn’t come back. Katie and I have worked up a repertoire of nasty maneuvers to get around these occasional bouts – mutual masturbation, private porn shows – but you can’t just pull out the whole freak show on a first encounter. I really don’t want to sacrifice the romance quite so soon.
“Mickey? What’s the matter? Are you… disappointed in me?”
I curl up next to her and kiss her on the cheek. “Now let’s not even start that. It’s just one of those things. I find it’s best to go with the flow.”
“But I’m leaving tomorrow,” she says. “And I so wanted to fuck you.”
“Stay here,” I say. “We’ll try in the morning. It’s all right. This is a great start. I enjoyed feeling you explode.”
She smiles. Good. She has purchased the gambit.
“That was awful nice.”
I spend some time spooning, fondling her breasts, and we drift off to sleep.
I wake in the morning with my cock in Maddie’s mouth. I’m erect, which gives me hope, but there’s something about her eagerness that loads me up with anxiety, and my cock subsides. (“What the hell is wrong with you?” I want to ask him. He’s like an ornery, ill-performing employee who refuses to be a team player.)
I talk Maddie into the kind of gynecological finger-bang that I performed on Katie, hoping that the sight of my digits surrounded by that broad white ass will inspire other parts. The nastiness of her position brings Maddie to another orgasm, but not to the fucking she had so looked forward to. What’s worse, the clock is running; we have to get to her hotel by noon.
We both take quickie showers, bid our farewells to Bill and Gabriella and take the ferry to Seattle. I’m grateful for the crossing, which gives us the luxury of some stillness amidst the rush, a chance to stand at the rail and slip back into the romantic gestures of yesterday. I drive into the circle at her hotel – in the middle of the downtown retail district – and kiss her for as long as I can. Tourists stream past, completely unaware that I am kissing the world’s best opera singer. I decide to ignore my failure completely; I thank her for a wonderful visit, I tell her that she’s a lovely woman, that I am crazy about her, and that I will see her again soon. I lead her to the elevator – one of those exposed, glass-walled models, and I watch her rise to the heavens until the lobby ceiling cuts her off.
I’m not due at work till Monday, so I take the ferry back to Bainbridge and drive the long loop of 101 around the Olympics. In the tiny town of Sappho, near the northwest tip of the contiguous U.S., I stop at a roadside stand and buy a bag of Rainier cherries, yellow orbs with streaks of red. I chew them down, one by one, and toss the pits out the window.
Heading toward a town called Queets I spot the incredibly late nine o’clock sun hovering over the Pacific and take down the last cherry, having long before lost my taste for them. I feel my blood vessels filling with regret. Call the male gender silly, but penetration matters, completeness matters. I had a chance to be inside of Maddalena Hart, a goddess with whom I may be in love, and I failed. I am the grasping, opposable-thumbed homo sapien, and I don’t care about the plateau under my feet, I want that one up there, just out of my reach. This will bother me all the way down the Northwest coast of the United States.
Photo by MJV