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A week later, I walked into the Bainbridge Theater to spy on the auditions for “The Marriage of Figaro.” Gabriella had reassured me that no one would notice a strange body in the place on auditions day, and would probably just take me for some new tenor in from Spokane. I had just slithered my way through the big front doors when a man in black jeans and a navy blue sweater burst in from the other side of the lobby.
“Shit! Shit! Shit! Son-of-a-bitch!”
He looked like a young Placido Domingo, only with a bodybuilder’s chest, Sylvester Stallone’s eyes, and remarkably short legs. After storming down the entrance ramp, he crossed to the concessions counter, head lowered like a charging bull, and threw down a fist, rattling the top of a coffeemaker. Only then did he notice me – fifteen feet away in blue jeans, white shirt and a stunned expression – but didn’t seem at all embarrassed. He gave the counter one final slam for punctuation (he had to be a tenor, I thought), then continued out the front doors and into the street, throwing out curse words like bags of peanuts.
I enjoyed perhaps ten seconds of silence before I heard a blood-curdling scream from somewhere inside the theater – then another, and another, and then realized that these screams had something of a pattern to them, a purposeful tack, and found Gabriella strolling through the doors. She saw me – twenty feet away in blue jeans, white shirt and a relieved expression – but waited two more scales before she smiled and greeted me with a hug.
“Hi. Just taming the monster.”
She lifted her long arms skyward and gave herself a full-body stretch. “Ooomf! Sometimes I think I’m demonically possessed. That thing seems to be too big to be coming out of li’l ol’ me.”
“Sure. So who was that stormin’ Spaniard I just saw?”
Gabriella’s eyes widened at the mention. “That was Rodrigo, our new tenor. Huge voice, Billy. What a find! Thirty eight years old; he stopped singing at twenty two to make some money in business, get married, have a kid – then two months ago he read a story about Maestro in the paper and went in for a lesson. Wow! His voice is so big, I nearly go deaf when we’re running duets, I swear. But green, very raw, untrained. We’re hoping to have him do the Duke of Mantua this spring, but he’s having a hell of a time with his control. They were just working through ‘Questa o quella’ in there, and he kept coming to the pitch from underneath – bad, very bad – and Maestro was shouting.... At this point, Gabriella made a face I’d never seen before, dropped her jaw, scrunched up her nose and spoke like a 93-year-old Italian man: “No! No! You must sing... INTO the mask! INTO the mask! You must... RING the tone from your throat!”
“That’s scary, Gabriella. You know, you just became someone else there.”
“I know. It’s very hard to get dates when you keep turning into a senior citizen. But I can’t help it. Say... what are you doing right now?”
“Listening to you.”
She grinned and grabbed my hand. “Well, come on then, let’s introduce you.”
Gabriella led me through the big doors into the theater. The only thing visible on the stage was the bottom half of Rocky, the opera company’s jack-of-all-trades, balancing on top of a tall ladder while poking his head into the lights. Halfway across the walkway at the back of the theater, square at the egress of the center aisle, was an old armchair, and in the armchair was an old man.
“Professore!” said Gabriella, dragging me forward. “I want you to meet someone. This is Bill Harness – he’s the one I told you about.”
Maestro Umbra lifted his long, weathered face from a marked-up score of Rigoletto, took a few seconds to cock his head to the right and compute the information from Gabriella, then went into his act, flashing a broad smile and extending a large hand.
“A pleasure to meet you.”
“The pleasure is mine, Maestro. Gabriella talks so much about you, I feel I’ve already met you.”
“Ah,” he said. “Gabriella... is a good girl.”
As I shook his hand my eyes adjusted and I could make out the rest of him: large hazel eyes in sad, dropping sockets, gray splotches and liver spots over his face, a large, aquiline nose, sharp ski-slope chin, and a slightly pointed head covered with stray patches of gray-blond hair. His thin frame was layered into an old tweed sport coat and brown dress pants, and above his loafers, a flash of bright red sock.
Gabriella excused herself to continue warming up, and I took up residence in a wooden folding chair adjacent to Maestro’s throne. He turned to me with a crooked smile and said, “Gabriella tells me you have been very generous to the company. We are very grateful.”
“It’s the least I could do,” I said, smiling nervously. Now that the surprise had worn off, I began to remember Maestro’s history, his years with the legendary Puccini, and found it hard to recall one of the thirty-some questions I had stored up for just this occasion. Once I did, I got more than I had bargained for.
Maestro spoke to me in nearly unaccented English, but just underneath the tree-bark tones of his aging voice you could pick out the rhythmic jaunt of an Italian tenor. He spoke as if reading from a score – stringing out some of his words, punching others, inserting dramatic pauses for effect. This was clearly a familiar recitation.
“Let me tell you... about Gabriella. But FIRST... let me tell you about the voice. Voice... is breath... transFORMED... into that which we call voice. The only way to LEARN... voice... is to have a teacher who can still demonstrate, BREATH by breath, note by note, the corRECT way, to breathe, and to sing.
“The reMARKable thing about Gabriella... is that, more than ANY other singer I have known... she transFORMS... almost all... of her breath... into tone. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent. PLUS, she is intelligent, and determined to WORK, and to learn bel canto singing. She is the NEXT... prima donna.”
Not surprisingly, the rest of Maestro’s aria was a repeat of many things I had already heard from Gabriella: the modern rush to take to the stage and start performing major roles before the voice has been fully trained; the unfortunate trend toward vertical-mouthed, Broadway-style belting in the major houses; the resultant wear and tear on the throat, culminating in unpleasant tones and shortened careers. And lastly, the extinction of the great bel canto teachers.
“I spoke to Licia Albanese last year. Do you know her?”
“She said, ‘BLESS you, Maestro, for you are the LAST... of the bel canto teachers – the LAST. Even in Italy, there are NONE. No... bel canto teachers. Gabriella... she is my mission, my gift to the world. And she sings BEAUtifully. You think?”
“That’s why I’m here,” I answered.
“This is a very smart thing you say.” Maestro smiled and turned his eyes over my shoulder. “And here she comes now.”
Gabriella patted me on the head and knelt before Maestro to discuss a few fine points of her audition piece (her audition was merely a formality, of course, but, as was typical, she took it quite seriously).
I excused myself to go to the men’s room, then returned to find a small, thin man at the piano, following an attractive black-haired soprano through an aria from, I think, “Manon.” She possessed an exquisitely light, lyric tone, smooth as butter on a hot pan, and an exceptionally careful touch with her dynamic lines, giving each word and note its due. She also had the most ecstatic look on her face when she sang. The sound from her mouth caused her lips to rise slowly from her teeth into a blinding smile; she leaned back her head as the sound grew and flashed her dark eyes to the front of the stage, as if this musty, near-empty theater were the front porch of heaven itself. I could not help but root for her.
“What do you think?” It was Gabriella, sinking into the seat next to me. This was always a trick question with Gabriella; she was so harsh on her fellow sopranos. I took a stab.
“I think she’s good,” I answered. “Really light tone. Nice line.”
“And she’s cute, too,” she said, reading my look.
“Well, yes,” I agreed.
“We’re thinking of her for Susanna – who is also cute. Well, I’ve got to get ready Ta-ta.”
“Break a larynx,” I whispered.
Gabriella was up next, singing “Porgi, Amor,” the Countess’s mournful second-act cavatina, and I couldn’t help but notice that her voice had grown stronger even since closing night. Pretty soon it would be too big for the theater – and for Bainbridge Island. She bounced a sustained A off the brick wall and into my ear, giving my brain cells a nice scrambling-over.
Later on, at the Pegasus, she asked me what I thought.
“Not much. Besides you and the lyric, not much. Those two baritones were both a bit weak and awkward, and that Asian soprano, I don’t know, just seemed a little unsure of her entrances.
“She should be. She’s sixteen.”
“Yes. Verrry ambitious, too. Has fashioned herself into a nice little divette already – now she just has to wait ten years for her actual talent to catch up. I think we might be able to use her for Barbarina, though. We might have to. This bloody opera is four hours long, Billy.”
“I know. I think you guys are pretty insane to try it.”
“That’s us, the State Funhouse Opera Company and barbecue. Don’t worry, though, we had most of the casting figured out before we even scheduled it. Got a mezzo from New York to play Cherubino.”
“Wow! Do you have to fly her out?”
“Not at all. For a real mezzo, the chance to play Cherubino – and actually get paid for it – that’s worth a lot. She’s lucky if she breaks even on the deal – but then she’ll have that role on her resume. And Colby – that’s the lyric you heard – she’s up from San Francisco. And we’re talking to a Count from Fresno.”
Gabriella seemed to pull a switch in her head, and grew strangely quiet. I sensed from the way that she was mentally counting her fingers (taking inventory, I suppose) that she was about to surprise me.
“I... hope you don’t mind, but I told Maestro that you’ve been a little down lately, and he said... maybe... what you needed was a little work, and I kind of... volunteered you.”
I set down my bagel and eyed her (sure enough) with some surprise. “I... well, I hadn’t really thought about it, but... what kind of work?”
Gabriella took two fingers and walked them slowly across the table, stopping two inches from my hand and looking up.
“Maestro needs a new fence.”
Photo by MJV