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The first memory I have of operatic singing was my mother quietly chanting “Che gelida manina” (“What tiny, cold hands”) as she stretched a pair of mittens over the ends of my fingers. My father was in the kitchen drinking coffee, and could not hear.
From what I am able to remember, my mother’s voice was even stronger than my grandmother’s, endowed with the same delicate agility but possessing also an emanating butterscotch warmth, something I would hear years later in Tebaldi and identify by the enigmatic Italian term “spinto.” (Crudely put, “spinto” is the ability to stuff a hall up to the rafters with sound, seemingly without the intention to do so.)
My mother would only sing when my father was away on one of his long sales trips. A week after he left, my mother would begin to hum; a week later she would graduate to trills, and melodies sung on nonsense syllables. A few days later she would be pouring Italian arias over my pancakes like maple syrup, and by the end of the week she was performing the final act of “Rigoletto,” singing mostly Gilda but also the intervening parts of Maddalena, Rigoletto, Sparafucile, the Duke of Mantua, and even the men’s chorus, ghosting away offstage with their thunderstorm chromatics.
Two nights later, she was entertaining me and my infant brother Bobby with the mad scene from “Lucia di Lammermoor,” kitchen knife held up in her hands, splotches of ketchup spilled on her apron to pass for the blood of her freshly murdered husband – when my father walked in, home a week early. My mother shrieked a high D across the living room, then stood there shrinking under my father’s quiet stare, her spine jacking down like some sort of hydraulic lift. She set the knife on the couch and crept upstairs to their bedroom, where she stayed for the next three days, pleading illness. The following day, my father went to work and asked for a demotion back to the home office. It was six months later, after family finances forced my father back to the road, before my mother worked her way back to a trill, released into the air like a renegade hummingbird as she hung laundry on the clothesline.
* * *
After the Sunday matinee of “Il Barbiere,” I came out to Bjune Drive and was greeted by a hailstorm, nickel-size nuggets pelting the ground to the timpani roll of thunder. It made a lovely post-dinner cocktail to Rossini’s ringing final-act choruses, and so I stood there a while, under the covered entranceway of the theater, bewitched.
The others in the audience, likely islanders and Seattle-area natives, were not so enamored, and charged into the downpour like warriors, umbrellas and determined scowls firmly in place. I stood to the side, behind a square-faced column, and tried to look inconsequential.
“So was I good, or not?”
The voice came in from behind me, spirited and husky. I mistook it for a snatch of some passing conversation, and failed to respond. Then came three taps on my shoulder, and I turned to find Gabriella, shrouded by her long Italian hair.
“What? Was I that bad?”
“Not at all,” I answered, trying not to smile. “If anything, you’re getting better. Your breathing has evened out.”
“Not as much fear,” she laughed. “Those cadenzas were scaring the shit out of me.”
“I did notice something slightly different in the first act, though. It seemed like you were placing your top notes higher in the mouth, higher in the.… What do you call it?”
“Yes. The mask. What was that?”
She dropped the corners of her mouth. “Was it bad?”
“No. Not at all. Just a little lighter, that’s all. And I only noticed it early on, not later.”
Gabriella placed her hands on either side of the square-faced column and let the side of her umber hair fall along its length. “I’m a bit sore today. I had to take it easy till my voice warmed up.”
“Hmm. Like a pitcher working through the early innings without his best stuff.”
“Sorry. I’m a bit overfond of baseball metaphors. But it’s no surprise, you being sore. This Saturday night Sunday matinee thing has to go.”
“Yes, Maestro says the same thing. It’s pure economics, of course; they get a better deal on the theater for two days straight. Hey, after I get out of these goofy clothes, you want to go somewhere and talk about my voice?”
I gave Gabriella a studied squint. “I don’t know. Are you going to turn into a creep?”
She placed an offended hand against her hip. “I beg your pardon.”
“Who played shortstop for the Orioles last year?”
“Not even close.”
Gabriella shook back her shoulders and raised her already-upturned nose. “I don’t have to be right. I’m a soprano. So – The Pegasus?”
“No. I’ve got a better idea.”
I took Gabriella to the Madrona and introduced her to the wonders of martinis and steamed mussels. After a few tentative nibbles, she was going through them like popcorn, and drinking up the sauce with her spoon.
“Damn, Billy! These are gorgeous!”
“Eating mussels is like ingesting the sea directly.”
“She paused for a sip of her martini and made a face. “And how about this?”
“Drinking martinis is like ingesting gasoline directly.”
“It’s an acquired taste. Give it ten years or so.”
“Yeah. I’ll get back to you on that.” She cleansed her palate with ice water and watched the Winslow Ferry, slipping southeast under quickly clearing skies. The captain gave us two pulls on the horn, low baritone range, a quarter note followed by a whole. Gabriella downed another mussel and pointed her tiny seashell fork in my direction.
“Do you know what I like about you, Billy?”
“Tell me everything.”
“You are the only person besides Maestro who knows what it is I’m doing up there. Do you know how hard it is to be working so hard to do something, and have nobody really understand what it is you’re doing?”
“No. But I can imagine it.”
“And do you know, that when I’m singing just right, I can’t really hear my own voice. It rings right up out of my head and floats away.”
“A separate entity.”
“Exactly. I call it my heaven voice, because you know when you die, your voice rises up out of your body and goes to heaven.”
“Did you get that from Maestro?”
“No. That one’s mine. And it’s true, you know. But... oh, what was I talking about? Oh! Yes – that’s why I need people like you, Billy, people who can hear these things. Because I can’t hear them myself. I am totally disconnected from my own voice.”
“That’s a shame, because you’re missing out on a wonderful experience.”
She tried her martini again and winced a little less this time. “So why is it that you can hear these things, Billy? You have no formal training – am I right?”
I took a chunk out of my garlic bread and chewed it down before I answered. “I come from a long line of sopranos.”
“As good as me?”
“No. But good.”
“Did they ever take it anywhere?”
I heard those little alarms going off again, and answered her with a blank gaze.
“Oh,” she said. “I’ve re-entered the confidential information zone. Jesus, Billy, you’re like a one-man mine field. So tell me this, at least. Why didn’t you say hi to me after last night’s performance?”
There she had me. “How did you...?”
“When you know a part as well as I know Rosina, you start letting your eyes drift. Fourth row, orchestra right. Am I correct?”
“And you haven’t dropped by the cafe once this week.”
“I was trying... not to be a creep.”
“Ah, Billy!” She slapped me on the hand. “Look, son, Gabriella Compton’s Diva Cafe is sort of like an exclusive private club. It may be hard at first to gain admittance, but once you’re in, you’re in. Relax, wouldja?”
“Okay,” I said. “I will.”
The waitress came by and we ordered cappuccinos, plus a raspberry cheesecake and two forks. Then we wandered into another lengthy agenda of operatic subjects: the lush recitative orchestrations of Richard Strauss, the appropriate age for major singers to retire from the stage, the role of academia and monied foundations in propping up amusical, overintellectualized modern operas; and, finally, a handful of opera jokes aimed at the different voices.
“Three,” I said. “One to screw it in, two to say, ‘I could’ve done it better.’”
Gabriella covered her mouth and popped her eyes at me. “God!” she tittered. “Bill! That is so true!” Then she took a look at her watch. “Uh-oh.”
“Ferry time. Are you coming with?”
I might have been a freshly initiated member of Gabriella’s Diva Cafe, but I wasn’t ready to look like a stalker, so I had my lie tucked away in my shirt pocket, available for ready use. “Actually, I’m heading the other direction. Meeting a friend in Bremerton.”
“Oh. Okay. Well, I’d better go. Kiss my hand?”
I couldn’t refuse an offer like that. “Molto bene, signorina.” I touched her hand to my lips in the gentleman’s manner, then wished her “Buona notte” and watched her drift off along the waterfront. After finishing a cup of decaf and following Gabriella’s ferry across the harbor, I paid my bill and began the five uphill blocks to the Island Country Inn, Bainbridge’s only hotel.
Photo by MJV