Friday, January 24, 2014

Gabriella's Voice, Chapter Nine: America's Singing Youth

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Hi Dad –
            I’m back here at the Pegasus Coffeehouse, my roosting spot.  All of my cycling trips end here, and the denizens have come to know me like the eccentric uncle that I am.  On a Sunday, like today, I arrive early, before the matinee opera, and Rose is here to greet me with her narrow limbs, her nose ring and her trigger-happy smile.  During the week, she lives in a dorm at U of W, but on the weekends she comes here to stay with her parents and work a few hours at her old job at the Pegasus (or just “The Peg,” as the singers like to call it; they are constantly trundling down here for medicinal teas).
            At my urging, the Peg has more or less adopted the State Ferry Opera Company as its own, donating coffee and cookies for the shows, selling tickets right here at the counter, and erecting a bulletin board above the condiment table for State Ferry clippings, photos and programs.  In appreciation for their efforts (and their sumptuous caffe breves), I found an old poster for “Aida,” Covent Garden, sometime in the thirties, and purchased it for the shop.  They placed it right next to my favorite corner table, and now I often find myself lost in its bold Egyptian borders.  The model is Rosa Ponselle, I think, and she’s drawn so that Aida’s long dark tresses twist away like vines into the lines of the border.  Very nice.
            Obviously, I have done some settling here on Bainbridge, and I apologize, because I know that was not part of our original plan.  Still, it is nice to feel a part of something.
            Today is the last day of “Figaro,” and I must admit I’m a little depressed about it.  I have stretched my limbs and senses into every little corner of Count Almaviva’s four-hour household, and have found untold perfections there, under the kitchen sink, inside the linen closet.  Certainly I am not the first to say these kinds of things, but I think that before this month I always took that musicologist label of “the perfect opera” as so much hyperbole.
            I always took the final garden scene, for instance, as being a little silly and superfluous, a Marx Brothers movie with singing.  Now, however, I can see how it puts such a nice cap on things, how it takes the edge off all that serious conflict in Act III, all that satire of class warfare and feudal rights.  (How the hell did he get this stuff past the censors, anyway? Gabriella tells me that Beaumarchais’ play had, in fact, been banned from the Viennese stage, but that Mozart’s operatic version was somehow seen as less incendiary and allowed to pass.  Amazing what you can do with a little music.) Plot-wise, of course, the garden scene also serves to remove any doubt from Susanna and Figaro’s recent nuptials, and to create some new sparks for the Count and Countess, besides.
            And speaking of the Count, my own devotions seem to be just as fickle as his.  My initial glory lay in Jersey’s comic agility, and then, as I started paying attention, in her mezzo, which is as rich and creamy as buttermilk, and so thoughtfully deployed.  Then, at the end of the second weekend, a week ago today, Alex took me quite off-guard with the final few phrases of her “Deh vieni, non tardar.” Such control! I think I had been mentally writing Alex off as a light (read:  insubstantial) lyric, but since then have begun to notice the mastery of her phrasing, the way she makes such effective use of Susanna’s traditionally saucy, snappy voice in the recitatives, and her talents as a straight-woman to the antics of Cherubino and Figaro.  And, of course, the first thing I noticed at her audition last month, that wonderfully beatific look on her face when she sings.
            Personally, Alex is wound a bit tightly – plus she’s single, so I suppose she looks upon me as something of a weird and possibly dirty old man (judging only from the externals, I can’t say as I blame her).  Still, I hope I can overcome these obstacles at the cast party this evening, at least enough to let her know the impression her performances have made on me, the various species of chills she has sent down my spine.
            (A brief intermezzo, O mio babbino caro: Jersey’s husband has arrived in town for the last weekend, so we have made a point of pretending to know much less about each other than we actually do.  Not that we have anything to hide, but the diplomatic approach is always best.)
            As for the baritones, I’m starting to really enjoy this guy playing the Count – Joe, big, affable black guy – and have had some pleasantly provocative discussions with him post-show at the Madrona.  Friday night, he was talking about the shortage of big-time black tenors in opera.  In opera, dad, the tenor is often the love interest, and it’s Joe’s theory that our beloved country is still too hung up on black men interacting in that fashion with white women.  He’s probably right.  Not that our talks are all that heavy.  I once observed how conflicted the Count really is, and Joe said, “Damn right I’m conflicted!  I’m the Count, and I ain’t gettin’ any!”
            Ah, and then to Gabriella.  Poor girl, she caught a bad case of bronchitis before opening night and had to take more drugs than Jim Morrison just to get through the weekend.  The house manager, Kevin, keeps mentioning Gabi’s sickness during his stage speeches, requesting a bit of patience on the part of the audience, but I think he’s doing her a big disservice.  That girl’s eighty percent is still better than most sopranos’ hundred, and beyond a few extra trips to her handkerchief her affliction is not that noticeable.
            Her behavior off-stage is another subject entirely.  God, it’s like being around some crusty old ballplayer.  Every three minutes she’s hawking up another delivery, and she has even taken to spitting in public.  She also seems to enjoy discussing the amazing variety of color and texture inherent in her...  products.  So much glee you’d think she was discussing refrigerator drawings created by her favorite grandchildren.
            Even with the vocal strain produced by Gabriella’s illness, however, the timbral blend of the three sopranos is a concoction the likes of which I may never drink from again.  As Maestro explained it to me, “When you CAST...  Mozart...  you must cast for the CHORAL...  feeling...  as well as the operatic.  The voices are written TIGHTLY...  together, and that is they way they must be sung.  With a GREAT...  feeling of ensemble.”
            That’s really the way he talks!  My ears can only take me so far into this, but I tend to think this has something to do with the vibratos.  The big, loud singers favored by most major houses these days have huge, wide-ass vibratos (sorry – that’s Gabriella’s term).  There’s a natural reason for the appeal of vibrato, by the way: thanks to our hunter-gatherer past, we humans and our auditory systems are geared not so much to sound as to changes in sound, and that’s why we find the constantly wavering pitch of a vibrato so strangely stimulating.  Be that as it may, you take two of these wide-ass vibratos and rub them against one another in one of these delicate little Mozart duets and you’ve got a real chicken fight on your hands.  And although Jersey’s and Alex’s training is not quite so traditional as Gabriella’s, part of the reason they were selected for this “Figaro” is because they both possess the warm but well-tempered vibrato of the more natural bel canto style.  When the three of them sing together, then, their vibratos fall in place like the smooth-edged pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and life is perfect.  (I know I’m getting a little too technical about this, but trust me – the sound is gorgeous.)
            So Dad, I told Gabriella about Mom.  It’s the first time I ever told anyone.  With you, of course, I never needed to tell it, and I sort of assumed that you told Bobby when he was old enough, so I never felt the need to bring it up.  And anyone else who ever asked me, all my life, I would just tell them that my mother died young, of an illness, and that always served to effectively end the discussion.
            But you know? It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, and now Gabriella keeps asking me for details, and to repeat little parts of it for her.  From what little I know, I have concluded that Gabriella has led a mostly happy life, and I sense that she is using this story as a way of tapping into rivers of tragedy when she has to sing her mournful arias.  Her “Porgi, Amor” has grown remarkably deeper these last few weeks, and I imagine she’s thinking of mom when she sings it.
            Now, it’s sort of like the twentieth time you go to see “Rigoletto.” I know that it’s Gilda’s body in the sack, and when the jester pulls that string he’s going to find that his own fear has killed his only daughter.  And every time he lets out that dreadful gasp and cries out “Mia figlia!” it still hits me right in the gut, same as always.  But each time the blow becomes a little softer, and I’ve even begun to develop a sort of fondness for the way that it makes me feel.  It makes me feel more… human.
            When I see you again, I want to talk about mom.  Okay?  We don’t have to talk about her every day, but when we do, I want her to be our “Rigoletto,” our sad story.  It has been a long time since mom has felt like anything more than a distant figure of mythology, and now that I have brought her down to the earthen fields of folklore, she’s more alive to me than she’s ever been.
            As close as Gabriella and I have grown, I still can’t tell her about Bobby.  That one still hurts too much.
            Once again, I have to apologize for overstaying my welcome here in the Pacific Northwest, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this mission of yours has just as much to do with my personal well-being as with the encouragement of America’s Singing Youth.  So I am willing to be a little selfish.  And I’ll tell you something else, too.  By telling mom’s story three weeks ago, and with each performance of “Figaro,” my long-mummified childhood ears continue to open up, and I am led to this one devastating conclusion: Gabriella’s voice is mom’s voice.  Seriously.
            One of the first things Gabriella ever told me was how, when you die, it’s not your soul that rises up out of your body, it’s your voice.  Let’s just say that I am beginning to believe this, and perhaps, also, that some voices are too grand and beautiful to break free of the atmosphere, and so they drift around in the ozone for a while, like cello satellites, and then finally fall back to earth.
            I am nearing the end.  I’ll write you again soon.  If you see her, give my love to Stephanie.

            Con affeto,


Photo by MJV

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