Buy the book at Amazon.com.
It was nearing seven o’clock on a Thursday, and I was flat-footing the pavement down Fifth Avenue, seeking out the sci-fi Polaris of the Space Needle to guide me. For the last few blocks, I’d been back-watching for a cab, but by now I felt like I must be pretty close, so I continued pacing and sweating. This was not the way I wanted to make my debut at the Seattle Opera.
The needle-ray August heat had given way to waxy balls of September humidity, the skies a long white shadow borne down with barometric pressure. I held my shirt away from my torso and flapped it like a fly-line, trying to keep cool but unable to slow down this power-walking that was causing the problem in the first place. I would rather be anything, anywhere, than late to an opera.
It could be that this was my punishment for deceiving my muse, my Euterpe, my Santa Cecilia. Refusing to admit that I was now residing on Bainbridge Island, I had told her that I would be doing some book-hunting downtown, and would prefer to just meet her at the Opera House, rather than having to plod back uphill to the Sheraton. I thought that I had left myself plenty of operating room, but the ferry I was supposed to take out of Winslow had a breakdown, and I had to wait for the next one, the Wenatchee, which arrived forty-five minutes later.
My next mistaken assumption was that once I found the Space Needle, and thus the Seattle Center, finding the Opera House would be easy. The lady at the Opera had told me that it was on Mercer Street, so I figured I would just keep walking north till I ran into it, but I didn’t figure on a couple of things. For one, the Center itself is about the size of a small city; for two, that city contained more opera-size buildings than two square blocks of mid-town Manhattan. I made my way like a cockroach under the kitchen light, scattering one way to the Pacific Science Center, the other way to the Key Arena. Even after I conquered my XY chromosomes and asked for directions, I passed the Bagley Wright Theater, the Intiman Playhouse and the Exhibition Hall before I finally blundered into the Opera House.
And, of course, I was too late, anyway. The lady at the entrance handed me my tickets, informed me that the overture had just ended two minutes ago, and signaled me downstairs to the buffet room, where my fellow delinquents were watching the first act on a trio of television monitors.
When I rounded the corner, I noticed two things: the picture on the monitors was coming to us courtesy of a fixed camera at the very back of the hall (a Ken Doll-size Cavaradossi, applying swipes of paint to a postage-stamp portrait of Maria Maddalena); and every single one of my fellow patrons, no doubt blessed by the ocean-breeze transport of air-conditioned automobiles, appeared to be five times as well-dressed as myself. I even spotted a couple of guys in tuxedos. Catching a glimpse of my blue jeans and wrinkled khaki shirt in the mirrored wall, I thought, great, even here among the lepers, I’ve got bubonic plague.
Then I spotted Gabriella dolled up in a flouncy black pantsuit with sharp white piping and a crushed-velvet wrap, and felt even worse. Then she smiled at me, embracing the length of the room with her teeth, and I immediately felt better.
She waved me into a seat at her table and whispered, “What happened to you? You look like you took the underside of an escalator.”
“Unexpected distances,” I answered, and prayed the response was sufficiently vague.
“Well here,” she said. “Sit down, sip some of this water, watch Carol Vaness waltz around the stage in that floral red dress (God I’m jealous!), and I’ll get you a cappuccino. The big advantage of being late is the ol’ downstairs espresso bar.”
“Thank you,” I said. I wrapped my palms around the glass of ice water and applied the cold moisture to my forehead.
After watching the nondescript figures of Tosca and Cavaradossi wend their way into their confluent fixes, Gabriella and I wandered up the wide, golden stairway and down to our seats.
“It’s the biggest house I’ve ever seen,” said Gabriella, noting the way my head was pivoting from wall to wall. “The local singers call it The Barn. I think that’s why they do so much Wagner here; it’s the only stuff that’s loud and obnoxious enough to fill the space.”
The bells rang, the crowd reassembled around us and the curtain rose to reveal an impressive but ridiculously ornate rendition of Baron Scarpia’s apartment, featuring Greco-Roman touches like twenty-foot Ionic columns and a humungous frieze of a glowering Zeus. The audience reacted immediately with that amusing, only-in-opera phenomenon, an ovation for the set. I’m surprised the designer didn’t come out and take a few bows – and perhaps the audience could throw blueprints at his feet. Gabriella was apparently having identical thoughts; she turned to me and half-whispered the word “money,” then repeated it a few times: “Money money money.” Then added a self-amused “moooooooooo-lah!”
“What are you trying to say?” I asked.
All through the second act, as poor Cavaradossi got the blood squeezed out of his forehead, then, as the Baron and Tosca did their little boss-and-secretary decathlon around the furniture, Gabriella would wait for high soprano notes and dig her fingers into my forearm, then lean over and whisper the words “po-ta-to voice.” Not wishing to disturb those around us any more than we already were, I took the phrase as some kind of derogatory reference to Irish singers, and chose to withhold response. After about ten of these instances, however, Gabriella having worked her way to simply mouthing the words and hiding her face in her hands, I will admit I was getting a little curious.
After Scarpia was safely dispatched with a kitchen knife to the heart, two Catholic candles burning vigilantly over his corpse, I turned to my red-headed companion and asked, “Okay. What the hell is a ‘potato voice’?”
“Follow me,” she replied. “And I will tell you.” She performed a neat spin and led us into the aisle, waiting until we were again side by side, descending the golden staircase into the lobby, before she explained.
“Potato voice, my friend, is when ill-trained singers attempt to produce big, dark shouting-in-the-cave sounds by dropping their jaws to the turf and making an exaggerated vertical shape with their mouths.”
I was beginning to catch on. “So... their mouths are making shapes... like a big long Russet potato.”
“You are shoh clevah,” she lisped. “Yes. And somewhere along the line, some highly paid voice teacher told our Tosca that if she wanted to make it to the big time, she was just gonna have to show some molars. You’ll be big and loud and impressive, you will frighten children and small dogs, and you will get lead roles at the Seattle Opera, where Microsoft executives will throw roses and laptop computers at your feet.”
“So in a sense, at least,” I said, “the potato voice works.”
Gabriella came to a parade halt at the precise center of the lobby, patrons cutting cowpaths all around us, and put a hand to my shirt pocket. “Yes,” she said. “But it’s ugly, ugly, ugly, and it cuts years off your singing career, because no one has a throat that can handle that kind of punishment. Except Domingo, perhaps, and he’s a freak of nature.”
I hitched my thumbs into the pockets of my jeans and made a conscious decision about my friendship with Gabriella Compton: we were comfortable enough now that I could pester her with some willful irritation. “Let me try this out on you, Rosina. Yeeeeeew... want nothing more in this life than to put on big, filthy-expensive costumery and sing on stages like the one past those stairs – am I right?”
“Soooooooh, given your Kryptonic natural talent, couldn’t you adopt the potato voice, just for a while, to appease the lions of fashion, and then, as you get more and more successful and pri-ma-don-na-esque, slip your way right back to bel canto?”
Gabriella took on her customary squint (more and more, with those almond-shaped eyes, this gesture was reminding me of a young Lauren Bacall – which, if you think about it, is not at all a bad thing to remind someone of), then opened her eyes back up with ideas and gave my shoulder a triple tap, like a conductor on a music stand. “Come with me.”
She escorted me to the northeast corner of the lobby and past an easel and placard marked Press Room. As we entered, she put a hand over her mouth and said, “If anyone asks, you’re Harvey Glassenderfer from the Santa Barbara Gazette.”
It was a spacious room with that typically ecumenical decor of Northwestern interiors, though the ornate wallpaper and broad-striped armchairs were trying really hard to speak French (parlez-vous armoire?). A Bosendorfer grand was squatting all over the southeast corner like a big black musical rhino, while along the opposite wall stood various underdressed media types (professorly tweed, diagonally striped ties from college graduation, loose cotton pants, never ironed), grazing from a modest buffet table.
Gabriella split the crowd like a power fullback, leading me straight through to the object of her intentions, a twenty-foot-long wall covered from stem to stern in signed black-and-white photographs. She pointed them out like a school teacher explicating phonetics.
“Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. Tito Gobbi. Richard Tucker. Oh, and here’s Licia Albanese – ain’t she a babe? Then some older ones over here – Lily Pons! Mary Garden, Enrico Caruso, Pauline Viardot-Garcia. Ezio Pinza. Um, Luisa Tetrazzini – that’s the chick the Italians named their white sauce after – and Beverly Sills. Joan Sutherland, Claudia Muzo, Anna Moffo. Oh, and, of course,” she turned to a picture of Renata Tebaldi, dressed alpine-style for “Guglielmo Tell,” made a respectful curtsy, and laughed. “Sorry. I always feel the need to genuflect. But are you getting the picture? The pictures?”
Not having fully comprehended that this was part of her answer – in fact, most of her answer – I gave Gabriella no more than a dumb stare.
She let out a frustrated yip that almost turned into one of her renegade notes, then rolled her eyes artfully heavenward. “Must I transcribe everything for you, Billyboy? You see, I am a good soprano, right? I am aware of the fact that I do have some substantial raw material tucked away in this throat o’ mine. So, I’ve got a choice here, two roads diverging in a yellow wood. I can take that talent, pump it up with that cartoon jawdrop orangutan steroid therapy, and make of myself a dandy little mediocre barking diva. Pay all my bills on time, play places like Seattle, scare ninety percent of the audience into thinking that I am one of the damned finest, loudest, most alarming singers they’ve heard... why... in the last month or so, and hey! that’s jes’ fine.
“Or... I can stay true to my art, I can focus on exactly what it is that I and only I want out of the music, I can spend hours at the Trademark Cafe making bucks so that opera will not be my sole source of income, and I can work my ass off on the bel canto treadmill of infinitely subtler and subtler vocal gradations.…” She raised a finger and dropped it down on the marcato beats of her conclusion. “And - get - my - pick - shure - on - that - fuck - ing - wall!” then hitched a thumb to the sea of portraits behind her.
Gabriella froze for a moment, like any great performer waiting to read the reaction of her audience, then smiled with great affected charm and said, “Question answered?”
“Oh my, yes,” I said. “And we’d best get back to our seats, because I hear the bells a-ringing.”
Gabriella took my hand and led me from the press room. “Okay. I wish I didn’t have to listen to that potato voice, though. She’s giving me a headache.”
* * *
After watching Tosca take her stunningly awkward dive from the parapets of the Castel Sant’Angelo, Gabriella and I evacuated, stopping by the opera house dispensary to obtain a couple of aspirins for her self-fulfilling headache. We passed by the International Fountain, walked through the monorail terminal just in time to see the night’s last departure, then crossed the big lawn in the direction of the Space Needle, shining like a big round boat against the milky blue clouds of night.
“Let’s go there,” I said.
“No-oh!” sang Gabriella, on a descending fifth (coincidentally, Puccini’s favorite interval). “That is too cheesy, much too cheesy. And it’s a rip-off, too. Trust me on this one. Seven bucks for a glorified elevator ride, and once you’re at the top all you’ve got is a jungle of tacky souvenirs and the same boring fucking Seattle skyline you can see from any of the perfectly free hilltops all over town. Spare me!”
“Wow,” I said. “This is a sensitive topic, isn’t it?”
“Yes! Every friend of mine in the world who lives farther away than Olympia insists on dragging me up this screwy thing!”
“One problem, dearest Rosina,” I said. “I’ve never been up that screwy thing myself, and it’s funny but I have this rampant inability to pass up going to places I’ve never been. Come on – my treat.”
Gabriella let out a sound like a congested lion and led me grudgingly across the green. The elevator attendant warned us that they were getting ready to close down for the night, but I reassured him that my companion couldn’t handle more than a few minutes anyway. After a half-minute of excessive gravity, we exited to find shiny cheap mounds of retail kitsch and a window-wide band of lights. Gabriella shucked off her contempt and settled into the old role of tour guide, taking my hand and pulling me to the south window, where the skyscrapers of Seattle posed for us like fly-eyed giants who slept standing up.
“Okay, the tall, thin puppy at the far end there – sorta square on one side, rounded on the other? – that’s the Columbia Seafirst Center, 943 feet, built in 1985, dark black by daylight, almost a shadow, then swing just a little bit to the right, with the pyramid on top, that’s the Mutual Tower, 730 feet tall and my favorite, jade green tints and art deco stars, some groovy retro geometrics, cause you know me, I’m a traditionalist. Built in 1988. Then that ugly concrete circus tent off in the distance, that’s the Kingdome, of course. Next! Well, just around the corner from that you’ve got that little white thing with the nice spire, that’s the Smith Tower. Not much now, but back when it was built in 1914 it was the tallest building west of the Mississippi. Now, what really cracks me up, back over to the, um, east here, are those godawful circular.… I don’t know, they kinda look like the apartment building Mary Tyler Moore lived in – those are the Westin Hotel towers. You can’t see the first one, it’s hidden behind the other, but they built it in 1969, when all architects were obligated to design ugly buildings, but when they built the second tower, the one we can see, in 1982, well, they decided it had to look exactly like the original, because why have one homely building when you can have two? And then, if you swing further east, across I-5, you can see that big, gentle rise of Capitol Hill, and right between that and the freeway there’s Pike Street and the Trademark Cafe and First Hill, of course, where you’re... no longer living.”
How this drawn-out spiel turned so quickly, I don’t know. But there it was – Gabriella’s brown eyes melting me down not with anger, necessarily, but rather with a look of confused impatience, one finger still pointed out the window toward Broadway.
I felt more ashamed of this than I should have – the woman didn’t own me, after all. Right? I turned to finger a row of dangling Mt. Rainier keychains, trying to come up with a good answer. “How did you know?” I asked.
Gabriella slapped me playfully on the shoulder, trying to shake some of the overseriousness out of my face. “You, pal, are a known quantity. Certain islanders have observed you sharing long conversations with a certain celebrated soprano, and have set the bloodhounds loose. And of course they all figured out the deal about your big ass check, too, which only adds to the intrigue. All of which means that I get daily reports on your whereabouts and behavior, whether I want them or not. So what are you doing staying at the Island Country Inn?”
“It’s a nice island,” I said.
Gabriella skipped over my lame response and continued her cross-examination, turning her head away from me and toward her skyscraper sisters. “I don’t get it. If you were some kind of stalker – and believe me, I’ve had ‘em – well, you were already in an ideal position right there on First Hill, just down the street from the Trademark, where I spend the majority of my waking hours, and where you could come in any ol’ time and run into me. So why would you pick up and move to Bainbridge?”
“It’s a nice... island,” I muttered.
“God, Billy! Open up, wouldja? Won’t you give me just one damned factoid about yourself? If you really want to be opera-pals, you gotta give me one or two little strings to hold on to here.”
“I’m in love with your voice,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s nice, I know, and I appreciate it, but what’s that got to do with.…”
The buzz came up from my shoetops and rifled into my arms. I grabbed fistfuls of Gabriella’s velvet wrap and pulled her toward me. Her eyes popped out in surprise.
“Listen! I’m - in - love... with your voice. Bainbridge Island is the place in which your voice resides. When you perform in that theater, your singing leaves a residue in the air, and the rest of the week… I walk the streets of Winslow, breathing it in, letting it settle on my skin.”
The buzz seeped back out of me and I loosened my grip on the wrap, smoothing out the creases with small, apologetic movements. Gabriella backed away to a safe distance, clearly unnerved. I hung my head, ready to take whatever she would give.
“I was right about you. You are a creep. I should have known, I should have.… Damn it!” Her speech was beginning to slur, her eyes shining with water. “I was starting to like you, you know? It’s not easy for me to find friends, Billy. I’m weird. I’m constructed of different... parts than other people, and you might think that’s just great… but it’s not easy! It’s….”
She never finished the sentence, but instead turned and walked quickly to the elevator. If the idea was to get away from me, it wasn’t going to work. The elevator was still on its way back up. I caught up with her just as the door slid open. We seemed to have no choice but to get in, together.
“Ah, the last couple of the day. You should feel honored….”
The attendant was punchy from the day’s work and didn’t seem to notice that his well-meaning chatter was being ignored. I stood on one side, Gabriella on the other, silent, both of us staring down at the burgundy carpeting. The quick descent, the steady escape of gravity pulled at my chest and stomach and the old music came rushing back in, grandma and mom and dad and Bobby, and Stephanie, poor Stephanie, and by the time we reached the ground the walls of the elevator were moving in on me. The doors showed a thin slip of light and I panicked, pushing past the attendant and through, rushing out into the gift shop where I immediately lost my directionals, running one way then the other down the rows of clothing and road maps as the cashier stared on in horror. She must have thought I had committed some sort of crime, and was attempting to flee. Finally I spotted the front door and spun in place, knocking down a rack of Puget Sound T-shirts before sprinting for the door and bursting into the night air.
I thought the outdoors would be enough for me, but they weren’t. I sucked in air but couldn’t breathe. I stumbled forward, dizzy, hyperventilating, halfway across the big lawn and fell to my knees, knocked down by the wind off Lake Union, by the lights of the Needle like a frozen helicopter at my back. I raked at the grass with both fists, throwing the blades over my shoulders, into my hair. The buzz gripped me with its seaweed hands and threw me into sobs, great gasping waves, and I buried my face into the lawn, the warm damp earth filling my nostrils with the smell of tobacco and grilled fish and burning wood.
The rest of it came to me through several feet of sand; I was buried somewhere, trying to dig my way out, and I heard the sound of my name, a hand on my shoulder, fingers around my forehead lifting me up. The feel of skin against half my face. What came next was song. As I lifted my ear to the base of Gabriella’s neck, a warm liquid filling my head, and the world came back to me.
Photo by MJV