A novel by Michael J. Vaughn
and to Jennifer Der Torossian, for the voice that rises to heaven
“Una voce poco fa: Qui nel cor mi risuonò”
(“I heard a little voice just now; it has marked my heart!”)
–Rosina, “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” Rossini
One day she woke up screaming.
She could not be sure why she screamed, but the screaming gave her pleasure, small vibrations gathering force in her tiny frame and throttling out into the far-too-large world, seizing territories of the air by their very resonance. Soon her mother came to comfort her, and she quickly made the connection. When her mother left the room, she began to scream again, and this time her father came. She’d found her occupation.
For years, the screaming continued. At the slightest irritation, the little girl would lift up her large walnut-colored eyes, suck in the air with a great sobbing breath and set the beast free, ringing the room in ever more blood-curdling tones.
From the psychologist they received the fashionable comforts – dramatic tendencies, an elevated need for self-expression – and so they were forced to ignore it. They sent the screaming girl upstairs and trained themselves not to hear the spearing glissandos shaking the sheetrock. They also learned to negotiate the questions put to them by friends and relatives, the most common of which was, “What is that child doing?” which always seemed to carry the converse accusation, “What are you doing to that child?”
“Oh, don’t worry about her,” they would say. “She is our screaming child. Screaming is her hobby. She’s really quite good, don’t you think?”
One day the screaming child realized she was being ignored and opened her window to set the beast flying into the neighborhood, a gargoyle on the wing. She screamed for five hours. Her neighbors two doors to the south suspected child abuse, and called the police. When she saw the flashing lights pulling into the driveway, the little girl stopped screaming and smiled, proud of the growing reach of her voice.
The next day, her mother sat with her at the piano and opened up a tattered book of Italian art songs. She told the little girl that the dots on the page stood for notes and she could play them on the piano, or sing them with her voice. These notes stood for small divisions of time, she was told. And these divisions were called rhythms.
Blessed with a voice strengthened by screaming, an ear conditioned by the songs her mother played on the stereo or the piano, or sang over the kitchen sink, the little girl learned quickly. By the end of the morning she had memorized an entire song complete with bouncing foreign syllables, and that night she hummed it to herself as she faded off to sleep.
After the little girl had learned the songs in her mother’s tattered book, her mother brought home a music teacher, a woman who wore brightly colored scarves and spoke like a character in a movie. For her first lesson, the little girl learned a song by a man named Monteverdi. The teacher was impressed by the speed of the girl’s learning, by the power of her voice, and decided, much to her mother’s consternation, to teach her a more difficult piece, an aria by Puccini called “Vissi d’arte.” The title of the aria meant “I gave my life for art,” said the teacher, and came from something she called an “opera.”
* * *
When I was six, my mother and I moved north and east to a new state. My father would join us later that month. After the movers had finished loading the furniture into our new house, my mother found me playing inside an empty packing box and said, “Billy! Bundle up. You’re going to meet your grandmother.”
We drove to a tall church near the center of town where they were holding a talent show. My mother and I sat in a pew near the back while the pastor, Ralph Tompkins, read a poem about his Irish setter, Mister Bones, and four men from the choir sang “The Old Mill Stream.”
I was beginning to fall asleep when my mother nudged me in the ribs. I opened my eyes to find my grandmother standing at the altar in a flowing silk kimono the color of the jade elephant my father had brought me from San Francisco. She wore a jet-black wig pulled into a bun, and her face was powdered white like a clown’s, with cat-like rays of mascara slanting out over her eyes.
The organist settled her hands on the keys and rang down a storm of chords, falling by stairsteps into a conversation of two small birds. My grandmother was the sun slanting through the clouds, and when she held her wide sleeves to the wooden ceilings and opened her mouth, the sound filled the hollow of my ears, made my nose itch, ran through my mouth, my head, down the length of my spine and into my legs.
That this extraordinary voice could be contained by the single human frame of my grandmother did not occur to me. I considered it a magician’s trick, and waited for doves to fly from the jade-green sleeves. When she was done, everybody applauded, and my mother whispered to me that my grandmother was a butterfly. That seemed a very strange thing to say.
Later that year, my mother got a job as a waitress, and during the times when my father was out of town, I would spend my evenings with my grandmother, listening to records of women who sang with the butterfly’s voice, of men who shouted like barking dogs, and other men who rumbled like the legs of the kitchen table when you scooted it across the floor.
After my grandmother went to the kitchen to prepare dinner, I would sit on the sofa and look at the album covers, the big-chested women in gowns that fell like curtains to the floor, and chunky gold necklaces like the one’s in pirate treasures, and powdered wigs piled up on their heads like loaves of bread, their hands held out to the air, their mouths forced apart like they were trying to make funny faces. And I wondered why my grandmother was not there, too, with her white face and cat’s eyes and butterfly voice.
But that is why I am here, desert wind whistling the broken seal of my driver’s side door as my borrowed Pontiac pours its rusty-mufflered baritone over the Western landscape. And though I know these canyons and mesas are supposed to elicit sweeps of Aaron Copland brass, or rustling copper flamenco, or Irish fiddle music, all I hear are sopranos.
The poker-deck riffles of grass north of the Big Horn Canyon in Montana bring me the spun honey of Kiri Te Kanawa, “La Rondine,” Doretta’s Song. The gray stegosaur scales of the Tetons call up Licia Albanese, the turtle dove deathbed sighs of “Addio del passato” from “Traviata.” In Logan, Utah, under the longbox tent of Wellsville Mountain, I hear the cake-frosting mezzo voce of Montserrat Caballé from “Turandot,” “Signore, ascolta!” And all across the dry shepherd hills of Eastern Washington, a fold of the map from the hunter green/frost white promise of the Cascades, I hear Renata Tebaldi’s heart-inflating triple sixteenths from “La Wally,” “là, fra la neve bianca” (“There, amid the white snow ... “).
I am a child of the soprano voice.
* * *
At the end of my quest for the Puget Sound, I crossed the floating bridge over Lake Washington at sunset, driving square into an orange sun, found the ramp for Interstate Five and rolled uphill then down into the star-map windows of downtown Seattle.
I took the first likely-looking skyscraper exit and wound up on Pike, where I stumbled onto the Seattle Sheraton and decided to look no further. After check-in and a nice shower, I found myself strangely restless, and decided to make things worse by seeking out some good espresso. The kid at the registration desk suggested I follow Pike back over the freeway to the very hip Capitol Hill district . When I got to Broadway, though, I was distracted by a cool old-fashioned neon sign for a place called Cafe Trademark and decided that this called for inspection.
Slipping past the Parisian windows and in through the glass door, I found the interior dangerously clean, but equipped with just enough concert posters, gritty urban artworks and mismatched garage sale dining tables to seem at least marginally sleazy (in cafe terms, this is a good combination). A brass plaque next to the cash register explained the name: the place used to be called Cafe Paradiso, but some big firm back east wanted to use the name for a retail chain. The big boys threatened to sue, so naturally the little guys had to back off, but not without at least poking a little ironical fun with their new moniker.
While awaiting my caffe brève, I sorted through the stacks of weeklies next to the window (Seattle statutes apparently require one alternative publication per ten-block area). In the listings of something called The Stranger I found a production of The Barber, “Il barbiere di Siviglia,” just across the sound on Bainbridge Island. The State Ferry Opera Company – just the kind of obscure little group that makes up my current mission in life.
On the way out the door I paused to study two metal-faced boys at the counter – some of these Capitol Hill boohoos sustain enough piercings as to seem almost android – when my eye drifted to a canary-yellow flyer taped to the window. “The Barber of Seville,” State Ferry Opera Company. “Just three blocks from the Winslow Ferry!” The State Ferry publicist was certainly earning his or her keep.
* * *
The following evening I paid a visit to the Pontiac in its clean garage spot, offered reassurances that I would be giving it a few days off, and opened up the trunk to slip the red leather checkbook from its bank-box niche. It occurred to me that I should give a name to this car – Escamillo, perhaps, after the toreador in “Carmen,” or maybe Mistress Quickly from “Falstaff.” I put the idea in my pocket next to three Susan B. Anthony dollars and headed for the street.
Seattle hardly seemed like the Seattle of myth without rain and cold, but it was August, after all. Under eighty degrees of humid sunshine I sought out the shady side of the street and tried to breathe slowly, feeling the sweat gathering in my shirt sleeves and looking forward to the breezes over the waterfront. The natives all around me seemed to have the exact opposite idea, burbling and rattling their skyscraper canyons with a fierce, joyous energy, agendaless and sun-charged, knowing it could rain tomorrow, and the day after that, and so on ad naseum.
I am a born mariner, though never an actualized one, and once on board the ferry I was drawn inexorably to one of the twin prows overlooking the car deck. I started out aft so I could watch the tangerine flame of the sun as it charmed each spire of the gray and brown skyline, the waterfront shrinking to postcard size as the Walla Walla’s big engines churned the waters of Elliott Bay to an evergreen milkshake.
I gradually turned my eyes to the Duwamish Head of West Seattle, feeling the pulse of envy as I sighted its clifftop dwellings, imagining the view from each window. Circling the deck to the bow, I found the Olympics throwing jagged outlines over the unassuming green loaf of Bainbridge. The ferry turned to port and slowed, sliding past the mainsail forest of Eagle Harbor and into the dock, where the captain churned the reverse engines until the bow settled into its cushioned pilings.
One of the crew asked me to stand back as she lowered the passageway and locked it to the prow. Once set loose, my fellow footmen and I paced up the long, cattle-chute corridors, passing a gaggle of weary Seattle-bounders before we broke out into the parking lot and chose our separate electron paths up the broad sidewalks into Winslow.
I ventured from the throughway of the ferry road and jogged left into town, where I found a sleepy strip of restaurants, antique shops and bookstores, refreshingly patchwork in style (no civic master plans at work here). I stuck the Streamliner Diner into my mental Rolodex – if only for the silly rhyme and the laminated menus Scotch-taped to the front window – then took another left, downhill toward the waterfront. On Bjune, a block away from the harbor, I spotted the Bainbridge Theater, a vaguely suburban assemblage of organic curves and archways all lit up for the big night, and split the wide front doors, handing over my cash to two smiling elderly ladies at the ticket window and settling into my seat a mere two minutes ahead of the overture.
I have become a student of tiny regional opera companies, and have learned to revel in their often predictable faults. The State Ferry Company afforded several.
The orchestra, a cut-down assemblage of fourteen, attacked the famed overture as though they were regulars at La Scala, but would fail to be half as good or aggressive for the rest of the evening. The reasons were simple enough: that overture had rung through their heads since the age of three, pounded into place by college recitals and symphony pops concerts, whereas the rest of the score was a strange, dark neighborhood haunted by the unruly presence of singers.
Another unruly presence was their conductor, a thin, stately septuagenarian sporting an antique white tuxedo and an extraordinarily stilted manner. He began with his baton pointed skyward some three feet over his head, as though he were pointing out Corona Borealis at the meridian, then delivered his downbeat with all the subtlety of a spiked football. He followed with thrashing sweeps to the left and right, broad calisthenic strokes worthy of Jack LaLanne, then geared back skyward for another go-round, passing out silent reprimands all the while over tempo differentials – none of which, apparently, were his fault.
The set designer, meanwhile, had assembled a quite reasonable plywood-and-stucco facsimile of Dr. Bartolo’s Spanish villa, but had perhaps gone a step too far by installing a small, fully operational three-pronged fountain in the courtyard. He had failed to anticipate the theater’s fluctuating water pressure, which caused the trident spray to grow or shrink depending on how many of the crew were flushing the johns backstage.
The theater itself turned out to be a converted film house, and though its vaulted ceiling afforded some amazingly crisp acoustics, the low concrete walls at left and right were a mite too enthusiastic. I discovered this when the company’s Figaro, a slim, stern-looking baritone who seemed to be singing through his chin, turned stage left at the climactic point of “Largo factotum” (the passage that I remember singing to my little brother as “ci-ga-rette, cigarette, cigarette!”) and suddenly appeared to be singing three inches from my right ear. At first I suspected body mikes – unheard of in legitimate opera – but figured it out a few minutes later when Count Almaviva pulled the exact same trick stage right to ear left.
Fifteen or twenty minutes into the first act, Count Almaviva and Figaro hover at Bartolo’s front door, waiting to discover the effect of Almaviva’s serenades on Bartolo’s beautiful young ward, Rosina. (The Count has assumed the identity of a poor student, Lindoro, as operatic noblemen are wont to do.) A womanly silhouette appears at the balcony, parts the gauze white curtains with slim, red-nailed fingers, and muses to herself in a voice I cannot quite believe. So, in truth, I met Gabriella’s voice before I met Gabriella.
“Non è venuto, an cora?” (“Has he not come yet?”) Then, interrupted by someone inside the house, she offers a plaintive aside: “Oh, che ver gogna! vorrei dargli il biglietto.” (“Oh, how provoking! I wished to give him this note.”)
This was no more than a recitative, and, after a few more lines, an exclamation of surprise - “Ah, che vita da crepare!” (“Oh, what a scolding life I lead!”) - and she was gone, never having ventured past the white drapes. I could not quite take in what I’d just heard, so I set it down to another acoustical trick, perhaps a steel beam set into the ceiling above Rosina’s apartment. No Bainbridge Island soprano could possibly be this good.
Rosina turned out to be Gabriella Compton, a tall, almost willowy young woman somewhere between twenty-five and thirty years of age, possessed of a thick stream of burnt umber hair descending halfway down her back. Her face was sharp, almost cat-like, with a slightly upturned nose, a smattering of freckles across high cheeks, and marquis-cut eyes the color of walnut shells. She rolled them upward in the universal expression of teenage girldom as her guardian (who had designs on being her husband) scolded her for her scandalous behavior.
Though certainly pleasing, the exterior paled in comparison to the instrument, a living object for which I already lacked superlatives. I rummaged the world of nature for similes. Lighter than a slice of beeswax. Sharp as any number of spices: nutmeg, cinnamon, oregano, bay leaves and cayenne pepper. Tangy as molasses, or lemon drops. (On a cold day. In New York City.) It was getting ridiculous, so I dropped the process entirely and made myself dumb, a hollow vessel, recording device, acoustic tile, as Gabriella punctured Bartolo with snappy Italian phrases.
And, of course, I knew what was coming. My grandmother’s schooling had included innumerable interpretations of “Una voce poco fà,” Rosina’s cavatina (or introductory aria) – even a scratchy old 78 of Lily Pons with the Paris Opera. I knew each phrase, every nuance, and several of its traditional cadenzas. I could likely sing it myself, but to apply my sickly baritone to notes such as these would smack of sacrilege.
And this is how the scene is set. Bartolo leaves Rosina to consider her several sins, locking the door on his way out to make sure she doesn’t commit any more. At the very turn of the key the girl rushes to Bartolo’s desk and writes her new beloved a secret letter, musing out loud as she composes. “I heard a little voice just now; it has marked my heart!” All during the long, stately introduction, and even these first perfunctory phrases, I am here in my seat making simple calculations. I take this concrete object, Rossini’s elegant, immortal aria, and this smooth sheet of terra cotta paper, which is all that I know of Gabriella Compton’s gorgeous, barely describable voice, and I wrap the one in the other. I balance the package in my hands, measure its weight, roll my finger under the yellow ribbon, read the calligraphed card, and am about to take one Scotch-taped seam and tear when I open my ears to find I am wrong. Utterly wrong.
Rosina rises from Bartolo’s desk, hits upon the name of her beloved student (“Si Lindoro mio sarra,” “And it was Lindoro who hurled the dart”) and takes flight, climbing the scales of her initial cadenza like turbine escalators to the top of a department store, then turns like an overcharged child and leaps the steps three at a time back down, each brief landing a bell-like staccato chime that would not normally be attributed to a human voice.
A dozen measures later she lands on a rare Rossini sustain and pulls a trick I have only heard from Tebaldi, on a recording of “L’altra notte” from Boito’s “Mefistofele.” She sets herself into a slow trill, then speeds it up like a racing motor, simultaneously gearing back on the dynamic, mezzo forte to piano, three times, then drops it down to nothing and directly into the following phrase, more rapid Rossini patter - and all of this without a breath, not till the end of the phrase! Any other singer would have passed out.
And it goes on like that, cadenzas raining down like a pyrotechnic display in a wealthy city, sprouting from phrases where I’ve never heard them before, each as individual and inspired as a snowflake. This Gabriella Compton is singing out of her century, reading from the great tapestry of 18th and 19th century virtuosi sopranos who took the score into their heads and etched signature embellishments all over its margins, each of them striving to create ornaments that no other could duplicate. (Adelina Patti once gave an inordinately florid reading of “Una voce poco fa” at one of Rossini’s salons, and was afterward met with the composer’s polite inquiry, “Very nice, my dear, and who wrote the piece you have just performed?”)
The treble meter of “Una voce” gives way to the rolling four-four of “Io sono docile” (“With a mild and docile air”), but not before the inexperienced audience breaks matters up with a burst of applause. Gabriella smiles and calmly sings them back down, pulling her distracted conductor along with her, and soon commences to further vocal displays.
The phrase “mi fo guidar” (“If none provoke or chide”) traditionally rides an exaggerated rolled “r” to the conjunction “ma” (“But...”), serving to introduce the business side of Rosina’s sweet personality (the lioness inside the angel). Gabriella turns this transition into a showpiece, riding that “r” like a frisky Palomino and piercing her “ma” with a bright staccato no heavier than a paper clip.
The device draws unexpected laughter - but perhaps not unexpected by Gabriella, who repeats the phrase a minute later in a spot where it has not previously existed, and throws in a practiced pout of her fluid red lips for extra measure.
I cannot tell you any more. It would bankrupt all that I know of singing and opera, and I would have no bread to live on tomorrow. Let me just say this: the remainder of this Barber was mere transport, a ferryboat cruise along watermarks of plot and music, that brought whoops of “Brava!” at the closing of the final curtain. I followed the murmuring crowd into the lobby, simultaneously exhausted and reborn, the panels of my skin worn smooth as beachward glass by the tides of glorious sound.
My glory turned quickly to anxiety, however, as I realized that a few more minutes might bring Gabriella Compton in the flesh, and words not sung but spoken from those lips. I was not prepared, this soon, to pierce the sacred separation provided by the proscenium arch. Besides, I felt like a high school freshman at his first dance, a mental state that could not possibly make a worthy impression.
Thus fixed on my plan, I drifted to the edge of the waiting mass, a tossed salad of perfumes and musty suits, and discovered a fishbowl holding entries for a raffle. I took the red leather checkbook from my shirt pocket, scrawled out a check to the State Ferry Opera Company, and folded it into the slot.
Satisfied, I escaped out a side exit into the water-crossed night, slipping through the pockets of a tree-shadowed park to the lights of the ferry station and the dark, noiseless water of Puget Sound.
Photo by MJV