Buy the complete novel at Amazon.com.
I am perched at the edge of the fountain at Lincoln Center, watching the last of the tux-and-gown crowd make their way across the square, into a taxi, down to the lounges along Central Park South. I have come to believe that this fountain is the center of the universe – or perhaps, like Maestro d’Umbra’s labyrinth, the meeting place of heaven and earth. When I turn back toward the archways of the opera house, I find three figures floating my way in clouds of dark fabric, their faces hidden by hoods. They eventually arrive before me. The center figure speaks in a booming, God-like baritone.
“Might you be the one they call ‘Siskel’?”
Okay. I’ll play along.
“That I am.”
The leftward figure speaks like a woman who’s pretending she’s Barry White.
“And do you here, before these witnesses, confess to the crime of opera criticism?”
The third figure speaks in a quivering, angelic soprano.
“Then surely wilt thou burn at the deepest levels of hell.”
“Very likely,” I say. “Do I take it that you spirits three are opera singers?”
“Yes we are,” says God.
“So answer me this, oh vocalists from the great beyond. Have you not said much harsher things about your fellow singers, in your private gatherings, then I have ever written in a review?”
The spirits seem puzzled. Angel lowers her hood to reveal a halo of blonde hair.
“Damn! He’s got us.”
The leftward spirit reveals herself as the red-headed Gabriella Compton. God is in fact a tenor, the bald-pated Bill Harness.
“Bill! What a fantastic surprise.”
Bill smiles. “Well I wouldn’t miss the great debut!”
“And may I say, Miss Compton, bravissima! The singing didn’t surprise me, but the physical comedy. You were like Carol Burnett with coloratura.”
Gabriella smiles. “I prepared for the role by watching every Carol Burnett DVD I could get my hands on.”
“Nothing gets past Mickey,” says Maddie. “And believe me, I’ve tried.”
“And I’m fairly certain this is the last time I will see a didgeridoo in the music-lesson scene.”
Bill gives a throaty laugh. “Maestro hated that thing. If he knew it would make it to The Met someday…”
“That sound you hear is Maestro spinning in his grave,” says Gabriella. “Oh dear! I’ve never used that expression for someone I actually knew.”
I hold up a hand. “Excuse me a moment.”
I walk over to Maddie, drop her into a dip and give her a smooch. I keep her hanging there as I deliver my flatteries.
“My God, honey. That Willow Song. Your phrases are as long and lovely as Irish calligraphy.”
“Amen!” says Gabriella. “I think she has a third lung. You two are so adorable!”
I pull Maddie to her feet and she answers. “That’s because we’ll never get married.”
“It’s a brilliant strategy,” I add. “The lack of an unconditional commitment means we actually have to be nice to each other.”
“In contrast to every married couple I know,” says Bill. “Gabbie and I went to the Oregon Coast last summer, and some lady at our hotel said, ‘You two aren’t married, are you?’ I said no, just good friends, and she said, ‘I could tell, because you treat each other with such respect.’”
“How sad!” says Maddie.
“So I’m guessing you stole the cloaks from Rigoletto?”
Maddie laughs. “The Franco Zeffirelli production.”
“I am un-married to a kleptomaniac. You wouldn’t want to know some of the action her ‘borrowed’ costumes have seen.”
“Oh yes I would,” says Gabriella.
“I don’t think we know you well enough.”
“Well tonight, we begin,” says Maddie. “I’ve invited Bill and Gabbie to our place. Hope you don’t mind.”
“I would mind if you didn’t. Shall we begin the arduous trek?”
I take Maddie’s hand and lead her across Columbus and Broadway onto 64th. Our journey is, in fact, all of two blocks. The sidewalk is broad enough for a four-wide conversation.
“Is this your first La fille du regiment, Gabbie?”
“Nope. Did one in Minneapolis.”
“Were you nervous?”
“I depended on my impressive powers of self-delusion; I convinced myself that I was about to sing at a hall in Iowa that looked just like the Met. Otherwise I would have collapsed from anxiety.”
“Well, you completely pulled it off. And your extension gets better and better. My god, those pianissimo top notes. They were injecting themselves directly into my veins.”
“‘Extension’ is Mickey’s latest word,” says Maddie. “I’m not entirely sure what it means, but I think it’s a compliment.”
“Opera singers!” I lament. “They spend half their lives dissecting their best reviews. ‘Brava?’ What exactly did he mean by ‘Brava’?”
“Well thank you, Mickey,” says Gabbie. “But I am nothing compared to our Desdemona.”
“Oh no,” says Maddie. “Lady Hart has had enough ego food for three lifetimes, and Metropolitan debuts come but once. You were amazing, my dear.”
“I humbly accept your adoration, and I eagerly anticipate more.”
“The ballet with the long johns,” I add. “That was priceless.”
“Did you know our choreographer worked on that? We have a choreographer for our laundry. I saw him one night, long after rehearsal, still working the clothesline, trying to get just the right moves.”
We pass the awning for O’Neal’s bar and arrive at the wrought-iron entryway for Liberty Lofts, framed by an archway of stonework and rococo ornaments. Being a California kid, I never tire of this stuff.
Maddie’s place is a $15 million top-floor loft with a garden terrace and views of Central Park, two blocks away. Her living room is airy and white, like a private extension of MOMA. The south wall is mostly windows, sectioned off in Mondrian geometrics, the morning rays landing on a field of hardwood and a black baby grand. Next to the hearth is a square of couches and chairs, its boundaries marked off by a Persian rug of scarlets and golds. Above the hearth looms a trippy painting, a vaguely Egyptian cartoon-monster painted in golds and browns by a West Side artist named Scootie Jones.
Watching Bill and Gabriella on the couch, it strikes me that they could have been uncle and niece in a previous life. Bill is wearing a navy blue suit with subtle pinstripes, quite a change from his biker togs. Gabriella wears a slinky white pantsuit that accentuates her statuesque figure and red hair, very Katherine Hepburn Philadelphia Story. That and her eyes – the color of walnut shells – are enough to make me a little uncomfortable, although Maddie and I have a tacit agreement on the discreet appreciation of attractive people.
The hostess warms up a plate of stuffed mushroom caps, and then presents us with a bottle of Chateau Lafite.
“What the hell, Maddalena!” I say in admiring tones.
“We have a debutante,” she explains. “And debutantes get the good stuff.” She fills our glasses and raises a toast.
“To Desdemona,” says Gabriella.
“To Maestro d’Umbra,” says Bill, “and a dream fulfilled.”
“Maestro!” I echo, and we drink.
“So, Mickey,” says Bill. “Do you miss the West Coast?”
“Yes. I sometimes gaze at Central Park and wish for redwoods. But Maddie’s booked in San Francisco for the next three seasons, and we’ve even gone so far as to maintain the rent on my old cabin.”
“The love shack,” says Maddie, with her slyest smile.
“And God bless her, she takes me everywhere she goes. I am zee world traveler. I am zee pet Chihuahua in zee handbag of zee famous diva.”
“Well, not to sound like an old fart, which I am,” says Bill. “But are you okay not working?”
“Ah, but soon I will be working. Maddie?”
(I am under strict orders not to steal Maddie’s announcement.)
“As a matter of fact,” says Maddie, “my agent got a call from Little, Brown, asking about an autobiography.”
“Fantastic!” says Gabriella.
“I told them no.”
“My opera life is intriguing enough, but beyond the Sound of Music story, the way I got there is pretty mundane. However, I did tell them I’d love to do a book on opera history and performance technique – as long as they hired a certain colleague of mine to do the writing. And paid him an exorbitant fee.”
“Our idea,” I interject, “is to pick out the most fascinating female characters in opera and track their development – from the source material through the librettist, composer, the role’s originator and all the subsequent singers and directors who have influenced the way that the role is performed today.”
“At which point I will step in,” says Maddie, “to describe how I incorporate all this history into my performance. However, we’re feeling like we need an additional perspective. A younger singer, someone just breaking upon the national scene.”
“Perhaps a red-haired lyric coloratura from Seattle,” I say.
Gabriella is so thrilled that she leaps from the couch and envelops us in a group hug. When she returns to her seat, she’s in tears.
“This is it. This is the high point of my life. I’m singing at the Met. I’m going to be in Maddie Hart’s opera book… I’m living on Mount Olympus. It’s all downhill from here.”
“You need more champagne,” says Maddie, but as she’s reaching for the bottle she stops.
“Bill? Was your stage name William?”
She drifts across the room to the television – which is, at all times, tuned to the Classic Arts channel. Each clip is preceded by a freeze-frame of the performers and a description of the work about to be shown. This one is a 1974 duet from Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love featuring a young William Harness, unwrinkled of face, hirsute of pate, standing next to a red-haired soprano.
“Bevcrly Sills!” Gabriella assaults Bill with a slap to the shoulder. “Why don’t you tell me these things?”
Bill flinches and smiles.
“Honestly. I just… forget.”
We strip the couch cushions and gather on the floor, like a bunch of kids watching Saturday morning cartoons. The music wells up. William enters with a warm, lyric tone.
“Oh Bill,” Maddie swoons.
During an orchestral interlude I lean toward Maddie and say, “I don’t know how you arrange these things, oh goddess, but I love you I love you I love you.”She takes my hand, her green album-cover eyes rapt on the screen. “I love you too, honey. My god she’s beautiful. Oh! This part, this part. Listen.”
Photo by MJV