Buy the book at Amazon.com.
Instead of the attached spirits of the dead, it seemed that my Scandinavian voodoo labyrinth had captured a red-headed soprano. Three or four times a day, I would peer out my window to find her there, pacing my rock-lined trails with steady, purposeful steps, and wondered how long it would be before she worked those loops into her substantial muscle memory, could walk them quickly and blindfolded and still find the center with nary a false step. That must be what it’s like to sing the way she sings, I thought, you run the music into your body every day like tidewater against rock, and soon the water digs out channels, and then when the baton comes down you do it like sleepwalking, fall back into your body and trust the water to find the low spots and run free.
It had been clear for months that I was in love with her. It was certainly not that bit of news that shook me awake those mid-March mornings – it was the inverse, the complement. Gabriella was in love with me, or at least with my dark accessories – my pain, my sorrow, my tragic spirit, the lines on my face, the purpling bruises over my heart. Leave it to an opera singer to fall in love with a diminished man. The tidewaters running my own channels had by now inscribed the rock with a seven-word thought: If only I were twenty years younger, if only I were twenty years younger, if only... But then, if I were, perhaps she would not have loved me.
I spent my day tearing down the Walls of Troy and erecting Chartres Cathedral in its place (not a bad day’s work for a diminished man). After teasing my hundreds of white rocks back to their original trace-lines, I returned to the labyrinth’s peculiar clover-leaf center and settled into place the final chess-piece – a secret rock, a magical rock, crystallized moonmilk, tenderly enthroned for its evening coronation. Then I cranked up on my old scraped-up knees, ducked in for a shower and jockeyed Escamillo down to the theater.
It was the final dress rehearsal, and things went amazingly well. Due to an unexpected surplus in the company’s budget (brought on by record ticket sales for “Figaro,” plus certain anonymous donation checks), State Ferry had gone all-out on this one. Their costume designer, who depended primarily on Renaissance fairs, Civil War reenactments and Halloween parties for the bulk of her living, was promoted from part-time to full. For sets, they brought in a theater arts professor from the University of Washington (and benefitted also from numerous flats, furniture and sundry and other “borrowed” UW properties). The meringue on the pie was Leo Loncovich, a semi-retired baritone they fetched up from L.A. to act as stage director. “He’s never actually stage-directed before,” said Gabriella. “So he’s not so hot on his personnel skills - in fact, he’s a royal asshole - but he’s sung Baron Scarpia a gazillion times, and the things he knows! Every gesture, every inflection, every cruel, threatening, tormenting motion. If we actually survive the son-of-a-bitch, we might well put on the best damned opera Bainbridge Island has ever seen.”
The effect of all of these upgrades was clear from the moment that Antonio clicked his baton against his music stand and hammered the first thunderous downbeat. Leo’s transformation of Joe was, indeed, fairly amazing. Though he could always play big and burly, Joe had been cursed and/or blessed with an indelible fringe of humor and likability, a mellow charisma as obvious as the color of his skin. For this “Tosca,” however, he had shed that cheerfulness as surely as a law student sheds morals, had become a nasty, reptilian thing responsive only to his own immediate desires. The apartment scene, with Scarpia reveling in Cavaradossi’s torture, the extorted swap of the painter’s freedom for his ladylove’s body, it made my stomach go all acid, brought up the blood to my skin, made me want to jump on stage and personally throttle the dirty bastard. (And though it did not excuse Joe’s late off-stage duplicities, it did reveal the seeds of their making.)
As for Rodrigo, the golden throat could do no wrong. Thanks to Maestro’s boot camp-style training, the sportin’ Spaniard had finally captured control of his prodigious weapon and was putting it to good peacetime use. Though he did display some distracting rookie flaws – tapping his boot on the stage as he sang and peering too intently at the conductor for his cues – the second he opened his mouth and embarked on his first prolonged outburst (“Recondita armonia di bellezze diverse!” “What subtle harmony of different beauties!”), letting that bald eagle of a tone spread its wide wings over the theater, all was forgiven. I was guessing that, on opening night, they would have to sweep swooning females from the aisles.
As for Gabriella, the steady progression of her voice, from Rosina’s birdcage twitters to La Contessa’s mourning dove sighs to Tosca’s griffin-like ferocity, was no surprise to me – how could it be when I listened to her all the day long? – but her acting was. The twenty-nine-year-old had gained ten years of sophistication and a thousand kilowatts of presence. She enveloped the stage with it, even as Scarpia took crowbars to the hinges of her reason. The stabbing scene especially, the kitchen knife discovered with a blind, wayward grab as she backed against the table, the deft whirl of the killing stroke, smooth as a street thug, the great shocked globes of Scarpia’s eyes and Tosca’s victorious, scorn-riddled gibes (“Questo è il bacio di Tosca!” “This is Tosca’s kiss!” “Ti soffoca il sangue?” “Are you choking on your blood?”), rising over the villain’s horizon, big as the sun, masterful, stunning, a scene that steals time away from time, leaving you gasping as she places the candles at Scarpia’s head and the curtain comes down. Well. Have I said enough? She was ten times her actual size on that stage, and she was right – Leo the butthole stage director had left his grubby little expert demarcations on every small gesture.
I wanted to tell some of this to Gabriella herself, but when I found her backstage I could tell she knew it already, the way a great home run hitter knows the ball is headed to far counties the moment it strikes the bat. She greeted me with a big contented smile, surrounded by the pandemonium of two dozen performers getting ready for a quick removal to the Pegasus, where they had scheduled a special preview party.
I helped Gabriella carry her bags down to the waterfront, where the boats dangled colored straws of light into the black water. The Pegasus was packed with eager customers, and a ring of State Ferry regulars broke into applause when the prima donna barista and her honorary roadie appeared at the front door.
Every table and chair was taken, so I picked my way to the back wall, next to my treasured “Aida” poster, and leaned my weary head against the plaster. As soon as the accompanist had settled her paperwork onto the recently installed (and slightly out-of-tune) baby grand, Gabriella rolled into “Non la sospiro,” the sweet garden-gate call that had delivered me to my mother’s moontrail. Since I sat at back and center of her audience, it was easy for Gabriella to sneak peeks at me, and I telegraphed grateful smiles in return. Rodrigo then joined her for “Mia gelosa,” Cavaradossi and Tosca’s love duet from the same scene.
After a round of enthusiastic coffeehouse applause, Gabriella stepped forward from the crook of the piano, glanced somewhat skittishly around at her fellow singers (several of them forced into exile behind the coffee counter), and started into her intro.
“Mille grazie, amici. You are probably aware of this, but we are the State Ferry Opera Company, and what you are witnessing is a special preview of Puccini’s ‘Tosca,’ a great opera which we will be performing for three weekends beginning this Friday at the Bainbridge Theater up the hill. If you are duly impressed by tonight’s performance, you may purchase tickets to the opera itself right here at the Pegasus, from our generous sponsor, Barry, the attractive silver-haired lady currently positioned behind the cash register. Barry also happens to be the owner of this coffeehouse, and we are duly thankful to her for allowing us conduct tonight’s musical invasion.”
(Grateful applause for Barry. Gabriella continues.)
“The next piece we’d like to perform for you is the famous Te Deum, which, in the context of the opera, contrasts a traditional liturgical mass being sung by the cathedral choir with the lustful lamentations of the church’s supposed leader, Baron Scarpia...” (The singers boo violently as Joe assumes a recalcitrant posture) “...who sings of his vile, evil, despicable, low-down and nasty desires for the acclaimed opera singer, lady-about-town and everybody’s favorite heroine, Floria Tosca.” (Singers cheer wildly. Gabriella curtsies and smiles, pressing a shy index finger into her dimple.)
As soon as the audience ceased its tittering, the pianist worked into the quiet church-bell opening and Joe entered with the first of his evil wishes (“Va Tosca! Nel tuo cor s’annida Scarpia!” “Go, Tosca! Scarpia is nesting in your heart!”), pacing in steady ovals in the space before the piano, rubbing his beard, musing intently on his devious plans, then kneeling to receive a blessing from an unseen cardinal as the chorus interrupted with the spoken mass. The organ music grew to a steady climax as Scarpia’s strategies melted into fantasies (“Ah, to see the flame of those victorious eyes smoulder, aching with love!”), then the chorus reentered, this time singing the Te Deum. Joe turned to the choir as Scarpia turns to eye his congregation, then came back with the final searing lamentation of his existence, “Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio!”
And then, something funny happened. Instead of building with the end of Joe’s sustained final crescendo, the piano tilted and jerked into a highly inappropriate, almost sunny jumble of major chords, and the choir, which was supposed to be finishing its Latin liturgy, entered instead with with a string of distinctly chirpy English.
And there I was, more shocked than Baron Scarpia with a knife in his gut as the cast of the State Ferry Opera Company, twenty singers strong, sang me a messy, glorious, fourteen-part “Happy Birthday,” shooting off cadenzas and war-whoops like a brick of uranium shedding electrons, as their hostess, the now-beaming Barry, marched down the aisle with a steaming double-espresso mocha, thin white candle hanging on for dear life in the center of its generous whipped-cream topping.
Though I felt certain that I was now levitating somewhere above Eagle Harbor, Rainier to my right, the Olympics to my left, I managed to return earthward long enough to blow out my candle and think up a toast. It was surprisingly obvious. I merely raised my mocha, smiled at Gabriella and recited the English translation of Scarpia’s last line: “Tosca, you make me forget God!”
The wonderful thing about a joke like that is that it leaves the informed in stitches, while the uninformed sit and scratch their heads in wonder (needless to say, Joe and the other principals enjoyed it very much). I saved the laypeople too much suffering, however, by following with the foremost of my thoughts. “How did you know?” I asked.
Gabriella grinned at me across the crowd. “Somebody’s papa was kind enough to call and tip us off.”
“Ah! Another toast, then, to my papa, to half a century of life, and to the dear and talented young singers gathered here in this room. I’ll have you know, I snuck into dress rehearsal today, and I daresay you all are about to give an astounding performance of Tosca.” I took my mocha sip and came out of it with a whipped-cream moustache. “And for my next serenade, I would like to ask Gabriella to sing ‘Vissi d’arte’ for me.”
Gabriella had made her way across the floor as I spoke. She took my free hand and leaned in to give me a sweet opera-lobby kiss on the cheek. “That’s just what I was about to do,” she said, and turned for the piano.
Gabriella performed the aria even more stirringly than before, which elicited “Brava! Brava!” from the caffeine-soaked crowd. Rodrigo then finished with “E lucevan le stelle,” and Gabriella returned for a special encore, braving the inevitable displeasure of Maestro by performing on her didgeridoo. (Maestro confirmed this to me later by referring to the instrument as “that crazy, disgusting Australian... TUBE,” and forbidding Gabriella from ever playing it again in his presence.)
In any case, as soon as Maestro recovered from his shock, he invited whomever could manage the trip to come to Cape Umbra and take a walk through the now-storied Chartres labyrinth. It was there, as the elder opera fans traded travel stories, the female choristers attempted squawled bits of remembered arias and the men’s chorus lined up at the belvedere for a rock-throwing contest into the sound, that I succeeded in dragging Gabriella away from yet another strategic triumvirate with Maestro and Leo the stage director.
It took us a full ten minutes to trod the length of the Chartres – Gabriella’s first time through – and once we achieved the cloverleaf center I leaned down and fetched her the magic white rock at its heart. She passed it from one hand to the other, searching its rough surface for mineral clues.
“So why is this rock in the center?” she asked. It looks pretty much like all the rest. Is there a symbolic difference here, or perhaps some actual, physical difference?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Why don’t you try... shaking it?”
She took my cue in quick form and could immediately detect the rock’s secret, a hidden hollowness and, inside, some manner of muted stash.
“Have you ever seen one of those special rocks at the hardware store,” quoth I. “The ones that look like regular rocks, only they have a little panel cut into the back so you can hide your housekeys inside ‘em?”
By the time I reached the word “housekeys,” Gabriella had fingered her way to the tiny ridge at the rock’s bottom and pulled out its nearly undetectable slat. She reached into the rectangular nook underneath and pulled out a small packet wrapped in a long leather cord. As she lifted it, the cord paid out to reveal a diamond-shaped pendant, etched in looping Celtic silver, dancing and flashing in the moonlight.
“Billy! It’s gorgeous!” She took the silver in her hands and ran a finger along its fettucine spirals, then broke into a smile and gave me a kiss.
“So what’s the story?” she asked. “I know there’s a story.”
“It’s called Rhiannon’s Knot,” I answered. “Rhiannon was the Celtic goddess of birds and singing. I found it a few months ago at an art fair, and I’ve been saving it for the right time. It’s not specifically for you, though.”
“It’s for Tosca.”
She shot me a distinctly Italian evil eye. “Perhaps you would like to see what Gabriella can do with a kitchen knife, eh, Bubba?” She looped it around her neck and held it out with both hands. “Tosca, however, is very grateful to you, and will wear Rhiannon’s Knot for each and every performance.”
Gabriella opened her arms and gave me a great big goddess hug, whirled me around and whispered in my ear.
“Are you starting to feel better now, Billy?”
“Yes,” I whispered back. “Much better.” And was beginning to believe it myself.
Inside the house, someone had tired of Maestro’s endless string of opera recordings and had ousted them for Patsy Cline, a slow, weepy three-beater with honeysweet steel guitars and a lonesome whiskeytone fiddle. I took Gabriella by her tender white fingers, gave a wordless bow, pulled her my way and there I was, at the place where heaven meets earth, waltzing with the goddess of birds and singing. I was, for the moment, a happy man.
Photo by MJV