Saturday, December 28, 2013

Operaville, the Novel, Chapter Thirteen: Purgatory

Read the novel here, a chapter at a time, or buy the book at


I would like to indulge in a full-blown depression, but the world seems dead-set against it. The first culprit is our decking business, which has kicked into full gear thanks to what we call September Shock. That’s when homeowners spy the first colors of autumn and say, “Holy crap! It’s September and we haven’t done the decks yet.”
            So it is that I find myself on the expansive hilltop lawn of a French-style home in Saratoga, looking down on the plebian flatlands of Silicon Valley. I would not be feeling so elitist were it not for the perfection of my situation. Our client is an absentee owner. Colin is off at the next job, doing some repair work. I am, for all intents and purposes, lord of the manor.
            My work schedule is a little weird. From nine till noon I pressure-wash, and then I have to take a four-hour break to let the place dry. My first stop is a local coffeehouse that offers a patio shaded by wysteria. On a 95-degree day, however, I’m headed inside for the AC. I am perched at the window counter, about to dive into an iced coffee when a carpenter bee rises to my eye-level, face to the glass, determined to find a secret passage to the other side.
            I’m no saint, I would normally smash the little bugger – but not on a breakable surface. So I fetch a small water-cup, trap Mr. Bee against the glass, slide a postcard beneath him and carry my ad-hoc prison to the patio. I unloose the trap and send him buzzing skyward. Even at the insect level, there’s something invigorating about animal rescue. I expect to re-enter the coffeehouse to applause, but alas, no. A young Korean lady gives me a secret smile over her laptop.
            Sister Carla sends a text about an errant piece of mail (I used her address during my divorce). I am driving north on Saratoga, nearing a three-to-two lane merge, when some idiot in a white pickup pulls out in front of me. I send him the Italian gesture for “what-the-hell?” and slide into the middle lane. I assume Mr. Bozo will cut in front of me again, but he seems strangely disinterested. He is, in fact, driving the striped-off shoulder as if he’s still in a traffic lane, and he’s not slowing down. I see parked cars a block ahead and I realize that there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. He plows into a blue compact and sends it flying.
            I’m cool as all hell. I cruise past, see that the man is bleeding from his nose but still conscious, and I pull to the curbside. I walk back toward the scene, noting that he has crashed in front of a day-care center, and that two women are leading him away.
            Well, that does it. I’m the 911 guy. I’ve never been the 911 guy. I pull out my cell, dial the number, and the whole time I’m talking I’m thinking, Damn, I’m good at this.
            “Hi. Yeah, I’ve got a collision on Saratoga Avenue, a block south of Payne? Just saw the driver, he’s hurt but conscious, got a couple people taking care of him but he will need help. Oh, and here’s the address: 1468 Saratoga Avenue. The vehicle is a white pickup. Oh, um, let me see, a Chevy, license plate GO98134. Okay. Cool. Thanks.”
            I reconsider the old fantasy of doing play-by-play for the Giants, but there’s not much time to indulge. They’ve got the driver sitting in a folding chair, and he’s bleeding pretty badly, so I race into the center, wall-to-wall with screaming kids, and ask for some rags. One of the ladies delivers a king’s ransom of paper towels, and I trot them outside.
            The driver is a pasty-faced, middle-aged dude in a ballcap and a Hawaiian shirt. He’s got barfly written all over him. His nose is a mess; one nostril is split all the way up. This should gross me out, but it doesn’t. With sirens already cutting the air, I figure I better not do too much, but I hand him a couple of towels and proceed to the standard anti-shock interview.
            “Hi. Do you know where you are?”
            He dabs at his nose, inspects the stain and cracks up. “You too, huh? Everybody wants to know where I am. Look around you!”
            The lady behind the chair perks up. “I’m a former PMT.” Meaning she’s already been quizzing him. But one thing is clear – this dude is toasted to the gills. As I try to recall what PMT means, a fire engine and half the cops in the city show up. A young Latino cop calls for an eyewitness, so I spend a few minutes up the drive, giving him the full account.
            “What was his driving like? Anything unusual?”
            “Oh yeah. After he turned he looked pretty wobbly. Drove pretty straight after that, though.”
            “Looks like a potential DUI.”
            Oh yeah.”
            Having done my duty, I stroll to the impact point and find a tall cop doing a survey. No skid marks at all. The blue compact, a sporty little number, lies in the bushes thirty feet away, facing the wrong direction. The cop points out an SUV parked at the curbside, a foot from the wreck. “Check out that Expedition. Not a scratch.”
            “Time to play the lottery.”
            I spot a young woman taking pictures and peg her as the victim.
            “Sorry about your car.”
            “I’m just glad nobody was in it. And thank God the driver didn’t get hurt too bad.”
            I take a look at Mr. Barfly, being strapped into a stretcher. “I wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about that guy.”
            I head for my sister’s house and have a good time relating my exciting adventure, then pick up a 12-pack of Gatorade and a carton of strawberries for my afternoon work. The house has dropped a veil of shade over my work area, but I’m still in for a strenuous shift. The previous owner went for a milky white stain that has flaked off in sun-baked patches, and it’s up to me to remove as much of the remainder as possible. The nice part is, Colin has promised – and charged for – our absolute best efforts, so I’ve got the luxury of time.
            I begin at plank one and I crawl every inch with a scraper; I do the same with a vibrating sander. It’s hard on the knees, but I’ve got the Dodgers and Giants on the radio, the Saratoga High marching band playing on a distant field, and a doe and two fawns dropping by to chew on the grass. Even with calluses on your knees, it’s good to be king.
            My PMT duties continue at Coffee Society, where I am braving the proximity of bad memories to consume a frappĂ© they call the Witch Hazel. I am deep into the comics when the lady at the next table begins to worry out loud.
            “Oh dear, he doesn’t seem to know the way out.”
            A blackbird has wandered through the doorway and is now trapped in the corner, beating himself against the glass walls. A guy in a Detroit Tigers shirt tosses some crumbs in the doorway, hoping to lure him over, but the bird is well into crisis mode, and has already evacuated several turds. Fortunately, I’ve been through this before, and I know the drill.
            “Anybody got a jacket?”
            Silly question – it’s eighty degrees outside. I peel off my shirt and head for the corner, where I toss it over our prisoner, gather him up in the folds and carry him outside. I glance down and am surprised at how calm he looks. I bring him to the edge of the parking lot and open my shirt. The bird flies in a straight shot, eager to be away from invisible force fields and featherless monsters.
            I expect to re-enter the coffeehouse to applause, but alas, no. The worry-lady says, “Nice job!” Her elderly tablemate says, “And thanks for the show!”
            I pull on my shirt and say, “No problem.” Bees, birds and drunks, slamming themselves into invisible obstacles. Ladies, I’m really just saving myself.

            Today is another split-shift. I arrive at my mansionette at 7 a.m. and spend three hours laying down the first coat. It’s ten a.m., I can’t return until the shade drops down at four, and I certainly don’t feel like driving back to the cabin. So I pick up a late breakfast at a diner, take a hike at the Fremont Older Preserve, and indulge in a long car-nap in the parking lot. When I wake it’s only two, so I venture to the Saratoga Library for some Internet time.
            I am trying like hell not to think about tonight. I’m able to find some silly websites to keep me distracted, and soon it’s time to get back.
            First coats fill up the grain, so second coats are always faster. I finish at six, and do my best to leave the empty paint cans and used drop cloths in a tidy corner of the garden. With no client around, my dressing-room options are excellent. They’ve got a fenced-off utility area, so I can just strip off and hose myself down. The bonus comes from the fact that the hose has been sitting in the sun, and the water is exquisitely warm. I emerge in my standard black suit; the tie is a red-and-black striped, a gift from Katie.
            As often happens in these parts, the high temps that roast San Jose and the Central Valley serve as a device for sucking fog into San Francisco. I walk along City Hall in an arctic gale, all too aware from that damn Harvey Milk movie that he was killed right there, within sight of the opera house. A canvasser greets me at the corner, soliciting funds for the gay-marriage campaign. I have no choice but to hand over a twenty.
            I have thus far played a smart game, shunning even Joe so I can operate solo and avoid awkward explanations. The question is, what does Delores know? I would guess that Maddie’s pretty secretive when it comes to personal matters, but I also recall her blabbing to Gabriella at the Seattle reception.
            I go for a deadpan entry. Delores nearly jumps at me, thumbing her envelopes to find my tickets.
            “Hi Mickey. Just you tonight?”
            “Meeting someone later?”
            That tells me two things. One, she knows we’re a couple. Two, she doesn’t know we’re no longer a couple.
            “Yes. A post-curtain rendezvous.”
            “Ah. Are you two doing okay? I never imagined myself saying this about Maddie, but lately she’s been… a little bitchy.”
            I put on my best boyfriend laugh. “Oh yeah. I’ve seen that before. I think it’s this role. She’s only performed it once before, and it’s got her a little wound up.”
            “That makes sense. Be sure and try one of our caramel-dip apple slices.”
            “Delores! That is beyond clever.”
            “We thought of skewering them with little toothpick arrows, but we were afraid someone would swallow one.”
            I sample a couple of slices and scam on out of there, eager to avoid inquiries from my peers. My seats are in row G, distressingly close to the performers, but the opera offers many helpful distractions. The overture alone provides a buffet of superlatives: the unusual five-cello intro, the rainstorm and morning-after segments (so illustrative they’re constantly showing up in cartoons), and the immortal brass gallop of the Lone Ranger finale.
            The opera opens on a wedding festival. A fisherman sings a song to his beloved, and I’m delighted to realize he’s a tenor I used to review at Opera San Jose. The principal tenor, on the other hand, is a friggin’ train wreck. Playing Maddie’s forbidden Swiss lover, Arnold, he barks like a dog. It’s certainly one of Rossini’s more demanding roles, but bringing in a pit-bull is overkill. My inner critic, however, is elated, knowing that this will make great material.
            For all the talk of the wunderkind stage director, the setting is pretty standard 13th-century Switzerland, and the costumes one elegant period-piece after another. Perhaps Jose Maria noticed that he was attacking one of history’s greatest choral operas with one of the world’s finest opera choruses, plenty of cash for extravagant stage-sets and, by the way, Maddalena fucking Hart up front. Smart boy.
            So William Tell ferries the Swiss fugitive Leuthold across storm-tossed Lake Lucerne, the Austrians take Arnold’s father Melcthal hostage, and I am released to the lobby to gird my loins. I know what opens the second act: “Sombre foret.” The song that led me from the pit after Song to the Moon saved my soul. Sung by the woman who I just fumbled five yards from the end zone. I visit the men’s room, just to have something to do. On my way out, I lean over a table and place a thumb on Renata Tebaldi’s nameplate. Perhaps these divas truly are goddesses; I certainly call on them in times of trouble.
            The stage is shrouded in green, more the evocation of trees than the trees themselves. The men sing a hunting chorus; the working folk answer with an evening song. Mathilde, the Austrian princess in love with the Swiss commoner, walks into the clearing, worrying about her illicit rendezvous in an agitated, storm-like aria, “Ils s’eloignent enfin.” She wears the exact outfit that she wore at the Renaissance Faire: the copper band, the chocolate apron, the braided gold patterns. Of course. Meeting her secret lover in the woods, she has disguised herself as a peasant girl.
            The storm calms itself into a breeze of strings, a kettle drum rolling underneath. Mathilde spots her lover in the distance (Rusalka spots her lover on the shore). “Brooding forests, moorland spaces, how great the pleasure you inspire. To yonder heights where the storm-wind races, calmly my heart will confess its desire and the echo alone will hear my sighs.” 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.
            But here’s the miracle. It’s not Maddie my very recent ex-girlfriend who’s doing this to me. It’s Maddalena Hart the opera singer, same as it’s always been. I cling to these bits of flotsam as Maddie paints a series of marcatos into a rollercoaster cadenza, holds the final note forever, then tucks it to bed as the strings take her out on that same breeze-like motif. The conductor drops his arm; the audience produces one of those Italian-style outbursts that you only hear on recordings of Pavarotti.
            So I let Maddie do what she has always done to me, and I try to ignore the third-act irony when Arnold, hearing of his father’s death, forsakes her and sends her away in tears. I stand at the finale, the apple pierced, the Swiss people saved, the forbidden lovers reunited, and clap till my arms are sore. And I get the hell out of Dodge.
            I have always poked fun at the Junipero Serra statue next to the Burlingame rest stop. He is meant to be pointing the way West, but he looks more like Perry Mason sending another witness into a teary confession. I am guilty, I tell you, guilty! And so I take my medicine. At a sighting of the Stanford Dish, I pop in the golden cassette and I play both the Moon and the Forest, though I know it will make me tear up like a pathetic child. I am such a fucking idiot.

            Colin is not yet done with his repairs on the next deck, so I am forced to take a day off, which is exactly what I don’t want. All those free hours give me too much time to think, which takes this tiny acorn of depression and grows it to a sprawling oak. You would think this might bode ill for my softball game, but I have always found the effect to be just the opposite. When I am completely distracted, when I really don’t give a shit – that’s when I play like nobody’s business.
            At the plate, I am a big dish of spontaneous combustion. If the pitch is somewhere in the zone I smack it, and drive it to whatever direction it’s already leaning. Single to right, single to left, double to right-center, single up the middle. Sometimes the game is easy, and you keep these things in mind for those times when it’s not. In the final inning, somebody loops a ball into shallow left. I charge forward. My body shifts into reptilian mode. Because my glove is on my left hand, my course wanders subtly to the right, so that I may fly forward in the Superman pose and slip my glove underneath the ball, just above the grass. I slide, roll over and lift the ball into the air so the umpire can call the out.
            I enter the dugout expecting applause, but alas, no. Dougie gives me a slap on the back. “Somebody drinkin’ his mojo milk!”
            “I got my theories, Dougie. If one portion of your life begins to suck, you get a payback in some other portion. Seeing as how I’ve just trashed my love life…”
            “Ah, not the blonde! The opera chick?”
            “Wow. I am so bummed.”
            These long-married types depend on their single friends for the occasional vicarious thrill, and it’s clear that I have let him down.
            We blow out our opponents pretty thoroughly – it’s amazing how much we’ve improved this year. As I’m walking to my car I spy the lights of the Coffee Society across the way and I figure there’s no better time to pay the piper. Besides, I sorta like trudging into the coffeehouse in my grass-stained uniform. I order a blended drink and take it out to the patio, where the railings are wrapped in plastic-tube Christmas lights. I set out a Rossini biography, Grove’s Book of Opera and last night’s program, and I pray that I can shovel my way through all of this and come up with something cogent.

            Beyond the immortal Barber, Rossini is best know for composing an astounding forty operas by the age of 36, then spending the last 40 years of his life composing pretty much nothing. His parting gift was Guillaume Tell, an expansive, political, serious work that foreshadowed the Parisian grand opera style and tossed aside any notion that Rossini could deliver only yuks and pyrotechnics. So why the sudden shift? It could be that this most well-mannered of composers found his inspiration with the world’s most ill-mannered composer, Ludwig van Beethoven.
            Rossini came to Vienna for the 1822 opera season and, after numerous attempts, obtained an invitation to Beethoven’s home in the Schwarzspanierhaus district. What he found was appalling. The house was dilapidated and filthy. Beethoven had barricaded himself in a room filled with cobwebs. His hair was oily and disheveled, and he habitually spat into a handkerchief and inspected it for blood, a sign of his growing consumption.
            One might assume that the driven, intense Beethoven would disapprove of Rossini, but in fact he had written to a friend that “Rossini is a man of talent and an exceptional melodist. He writes with such ease that he would take as many weeks for the composition of an opera as a German would take years.”
            Though disturbed at Beethoven’s lodgings, Rossini was somewhat heartened when the composer greeted him in perfect Italian. “Ah, Rossini, so you are the composer of ‘Il barbiere di Siviglia.’ I congratulate you, it is an excellent opera buffa which I have read with pleasure. It will be played as long as Italian opera exists. Never try to write anything else but opera buffa; any attempt to succeed in another style would damage your nature.”
            Rossini’s go-between, the biographer Carpani, reminded Beethoven that Rossini had created successful serious operas as well, including Tancredi, Otello and Mosè in Egitto.
            “Yes, and I looked at them,” he replied. “But, believe me, opera seria is ill-suited to the Italians. You do not possess sufficient musical knowledge to deal with real drama, and how in Italy should you acquire it?”
            It’s a great testimony to Rossini’s modesty that he took no umbrage at this statement; instead he expressed his “profound admiration” for Beethoven’s genius. In subsequent months he initiated a subscription campaign on Beethoven’s behalf and visited regularly with much-needed funds – a large portion of them from his own pockets.
            “Rossini was… haunted by the image of Beethoven,” wrote Rossini biographer Gaia Servadio. “Beethoven’s genius was inextricably linked to his dark temper and to the rage he felt against society; Beethoven did not compose to please or to serve other people’s taste. Maybe it was after this confrontation that Rossini thought of no longer aiming to please; he realized that, having composed so much and so successfully, he had always been at the service of others. Music was now moving in a different direction, where painting and poetry had already preceded it. Music was going to disturb and provoke; that was what Beethoven was doing, that was the reason for the reprimand of labelling him an opera buffa composer.”
            In February 1827 Rossini lost his mother; in March he lost Beethoven. In 1828, facing a contractual obligation to the Paris Opera, he began work on Guillaume Tell, based on a play by Schiller, whose “Ode to Joy” served as the finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  The story carried elements typical of the new Romanticism: a rebel who fights for the liberty of his people, a princess who loves a commoner.
            “Like Victor Hugo (and indeed Shakespeare),” writes Servadio, “Rossini was drawn to the idea that a bandit can make a better man than a ruler, that a pauper can be nobler than a nobleman.” For that matter, Rossini had made this point before – in Il barbiere, a ruthless satire of the noble classes, which was precisely one of the reasons Beethoven so admired it.
            With Tell, the sense of innovation is evident from the beginning: a four-movement overture, unlike any that had previously been written; an unprecedented dependence on the chorus; the inclusion of melodies from folk music; and subtle precursors to the leitmotif, an idea that would find its peak in the works of Wagner.
            Donizetti described Guillaume Tell by saying that the first and third acts were written by Rossini, while the second was composed by God. The second act begins with “Sombre foret,” an aria that gives the lie to Rossini’s reputation as a composer of nothing but showoff arias.
            The scene is set in extraordinary fashion. In a dark wood high above Lake Lucerne, a hunting chorus is answered by the evening song of Swiss folk working in the hills and fields. A breeze of strings sweeps by, graceful archways of sound, followed by the low call of a kettle drum. The Austrian princess Mathilde, having spied her forbidden Swiss lover, Arnold, sings of him in the form of a French strophic aria.
            Perhaps it is just my position in life to go around heaping praises on Maddalena Hart, but her handling of this aria is divine. The opening legato phrases demand a high level of breath and tonal control, and this she delivers. The ends of those phrases present athletic leaps, which Hart lands like a dragonfly alighting on a reed – magical, Disney-like, angels on a pin.
            From there, the aria dips into passion, a drive to forte over churning strings. Having so divinely leashed her power, Hart now lets it run free; the contrast is alarming. And, finally, the cadenza, a fluid rise up and down the scale, a pause between singer and conductor (Patrick Summers) giving Mathilde a chance to reflect, and then a finishing run that delivers the longed-for fireworks while seeming wholly spontaneous.
            Beyond this sterling musicality, the standout aspect of Hart’s performance was the sense that she was wearing her emotions very close to the surface. This was especially true of the third-act aria “Sur la rive etrangere.” After Arnold hears of his father’s death, he is obligated to renounce Mathilde. Her first reactions are panic, anger, denial, but as she resigns herself to the situation she sings a painfully direct aria. “If destiny’s cruel edict rules that I may not be with you, my undivided heart will ever stay with you, your sorrow share.” Her sense of loss seems to pour from the stage. It is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that this great soprano will break my heart.

            I am not in the mood to overthink, so I punch the review into my computer sans rewrite, upload a photo of Maddie in the brooding forest, and send it off to cyberspace. I take a long bath and return to find my old friend, Devil Diva.

DD: Wow, Mickey. Flying deep! All these chewy details about Ludwig.

M: Thanks. Found this Rossini bio at the library, been saving that story ever since.

DD: You’re so right about Sombre foret. Those slow arias can be the death of you. Especially that interval you mentioned. From here on out, I will visualize a dragonfly.

M: Those images just come right out of the music. I don’t even write them; they write me.

A bit of cyber-silence settles in, so I head to the kitchen for a beer. When I get back, DD’s back, as well.

DD: Mickey, are you trying to tell us something?

M: Like?

DD: This phrase about MH breaking your heart. I feel like you’re talking in code.

M: Not in code. Maybe subconsciously. I’m a little on autopilot right now.

DD: Uh-oh.

M: Can we retreat to our private quarters?

DD: Sure.

I can’t afford a therapist, and I’ve certainly got to tell somebody, so Devil gets the full account, no excuses, no evasions. I send it to her a paragraph at a time, just so I don’t leave her hanging. She saves her judgement until I’m finished.

DD: Wow, Mickey. I gotta say, that was pretty fucking stupid.

M: I know! (This is me, slapping forehead.)

DD: It’s Maddalena Hart! You couldn’t ditch a bimbo for Maddalena Hart?

M: Actually, I did – right after I took that photo.

DD: Oh, that’s much better – make sure and have the sex first.

M: It’s even worse. I did it mostly to try out the equipment.

DD: You’re not serious.

M: ‘Fraid so. After my failure with Maddie, I wanted desperately to make sure I was okay.

DD: You haven’t heard of jerking off?

M: Yeah, I did that. But then Katie showed up and I thought, Ah! Here’s a chance to make absolutely sure. And booty calls are tricky relationships. That Katie, she’s going through sheer hell, and I felt like I was bringing her a little relief. I’ve been through divorce. The worst kind. I remember how it removes you from the world of physical affection. How awful that is. I was never in love with her, but I did care about her, and I understood that sex gave her a reprieve from all that ugliness in her life.

DD: That is so touching, in a sort of psychotic way.

M: That’s me all over.

DD: Fucking idiot.

M: Thank you. May I have another?

DD: Oh I should put you over my knee. But you’d probably enjoy it.

M: You do know me!

DD: Sombre foret means something to you, doesn’t it?

M: You noticed.

DD: Lots of poetry and knowledge in that description. You know, you’re the only critic I know who actually writes about the music.

M: It’s a song that connects to a very bad time in my life. And very specifically, Maddie’s version. She made me cry last night.

DD: Sweet.

M: But you see, I didn’t cry because we’ve broken up. I cried because of her singing, and because she was Mathilde, and because she was in love with Arnold. Can you imagine how awesomely powerful that woman is?

DD: Yes, but I think you made your own little contribution. It’s easy enough for a singer to draw on old pains, but when it’s fresh pain, it can be pretty electric. So strong that you have to remind yourself to sing the notes.

M: So when opera singers suffer emotional distress, they immediately use it to supplement their performances?

DD: Hey we earned it, Bubba. So have you deleted the goddamn photo?

M: Why? Did you want to see it?

DD: For shame!

M: Seriously, it’s gone. I hope to God Maddie deleted her copy.

DD: It depends. Does she have any revenge roles coming up?

M: Lucia.

DD: Nah. More insanity than revenge. I’m pretty sure she’s deleted it.

M: The weird thing is, if it wasn’t such a beautiful photo – I mean, aesthetically – I never would have saved it.

DD: Art is a treacherous mistress. Listen, I gotta sleep. I’m assistant-teaching tomorrow. Sorry to hear about all this. It was nice knowing a star-fucker.

M: User! Exploiter! Hanger-on!

DD: You got it. But remember, Mickey. No matter how many stupid fuck-ups you pull with women, keep writing. You write like an angel.

M: Thanks, Devil.

DD: And keep it in your pants!

M: Yes ma’am. 

Photo by MJV

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