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A Brief Description of Items
in Possession of the Singer
on the Night of His Reemergence:
First item is some sort of shell, a fan-shaped scallop approximately two inches in diameter, much like one of those things that Venus rode in on. The base of said shell cuts a straight perpendicular line, a rectangular shoulder chipped away at one side. The shell’s coloring takes in all the range of the eastward sky opposite a sunset, beginning with erratic sprays of muddy red and working up the fan in wide bands of mauve, choral and plain old pink, with a single thin line of salmon a quarter inch from the top (perfect enough to have been drawn with a pencil). The inside of the shell projects a pearlescent white, the color of moonmilk, exposing subtle striations beneath the colored bands of its opposite side.
Origin of item: Said object was one of a basket of one hundred assorted and various shells purchased by the subject’s mother on a trip to Hawaii in the early fifties. Subject received this heirloom from his father on the occasion of subject’s graduation from college, at the age of twenty-two.
Dispensation of items: Subject has apparently been redistributing said shells by tossing them, one by one, into national and international bodies of water. Recent deposits include the Atlantic Ocean off Gloucester, Massachusetts; the Gulf of Mexico off Galveston, Texas; Lake Michigan near Evanston, Illinois; and Ten Sleeps Creek in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains.
Number of items thus disposed: ninety-nine.
Item number two is a dark brown leather cord strung with a single metallic pendant and thirty-two African trade beads. The pendant is a small silver globe, about one inch in diameter, overlain with organic brass shapes meant to approximate the continents of the Earth. Said globe contains an interior device, commonly described as a “fairy bell,” which produces a pleasant tinkling sound when shaken.
The trade beads are cylindrically shaped and composed of glass, ranging from a quarter inch to a half inch in length, bearing a base color resembling butter, and marked with small geometric figures in a variety of hues: green exes, red and blue polygons, pink and blue spirals, and white bars.
Origin of item(s): Globe pendant and leather cord were worn by subject’s mother during her brief opera career in the late forties, and considered by the original owner to be something of a good luck charm. (The pendant can be seen, in fact, in a publicity photo from her final performance, in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” in the summer of 1947.) Subject received said pendant, once again from his father, on the occasion of his little brother’s death, sometime in the late nineties.
The trade beads were created in 18th-century Venice, for use by European colonists in Africa. The beads ended up in Kenya, where they were purchased some two centuries after their manufacture by two South African women of English ancestry. The women took these and other artifacts when they emigrated to the town of Ferndale, on the Northern California coast just south of Eureka, where they opened an import shop. The beads were subsequently purchased by the subject on a return trip from San Francisco, during the winter preceding the reported incident, and added to the aforementioned leather cord and silver-and-brass pendant.
Dispensation of item number two: Said item is currently hanging from the neck of subject as he enjoys his favorite meal – cream of mushroom soup, a large bowl of steamed mussels in white wine sauce, and a gin martini (straight up, two olives) – at the Madrona Restaurant, on Eagle Harbor, Winslow, Bainbridge Island, Washington State.
* * *
I managed to finish all three of my dinner items in a grand epicurean triptych. I swiped a chunk of sourdough through the last of my soup and chewed it down. I dug the last mussel shell from its wine-and-butter pond, harpooned its little pink seafood heart with my junior fork and let it slide like saline silk down the length of my mouth. Then I lifted the toothpicked olives from my martini, shot down the last spoonful of fire-water (inhaling cool sea air over my teeth), slid off the olives and chewed them up.
The filthy Roman side of my soul was very heartened by this, but I felt an odd pressure against my heart. I patted a hand over my shirt pocket and rediscovered the Last of the Mohicans, the hundredth of one hundred, reached in to lift it out, hold it next to my dinner candle and run its rough edges against my thumb. It was almost time for the opera, and that meant it was time to perform my final burial-at-sea. I descended the steps of the Madrona’s harborfront deck, crossed its perfect little square of lawn and presented myself to my audience, hundreds of sailboats lifting their bare masts at the sky. I braced my legs against the garden railing, felt for the edge of the scallop and let it fly, tossing it over the bank in a pleasant fifteen-foot arc. It landed with a tasty plunk in a square of dark water framed by walkways, messing up neighboring stripes of reflected light with its dancing concentrics. About the time they smoothed back out I lifted my face to the opposite hills, tall shadows of fir trees picketing the ridgetops, and whispered the same phrase I had whispered ninety-nine times before: “La mamma morta.” My now-empty hand wandered to the globe dangling against my sternum, my fingers sailing the smooth reaches of silver ocean in search of a brass Africa.
I settled my tab and wandered in slow overfed steps up the hill to Bjune, then turned the corner to sight the craggy Rushmore silhouette of Maestro Umbra, standing in the marquee lights of Bainbridge Theater as he conducted his vivid, rhythmic small talk opposite a dark, petite, energetic figure.
As usual, I was much more intrigued by Maestro’s fashion sense than his companion. Over the past six months I had seen him deploy a wide range of jazzy Dapper Dan suits with brightly colored sets of ties and matching socks, the latter artfully exposed by high-tide pant cuffs. It reminded me of Johnny Green, an old-time Hollywood conductor I saw in concert at Lincoln Center. No one under sixty could possibly get away with that look anymore, but draped across rakish old figures like those of maestros Green and Umbra, it was truly the cat’s pajamas. Tonight, Il Professore’s ensemble featured a mustard suit with cream-colored shirt, solid flame-red silk tie and matching socks. (Ooh, mamma!) Maestro gave a quick sideward glance at my approach, flashed that devil smile at his companion, then turned at precisely the right moment to accept my handshake and proffer an introduction.
“Ah! Now THIS... is just the paisano about whom I have been telling you. THIS... is William Harness, a quite knowledgeable opera-teur, one of our most cherished patrons AND... Gabriella’s dearest friend. Bill, this is Licia Albanese.”
That was surprise number one, so lost in my textile observations that I had forgotten the purpose for the evening. Licia was much less decked out than at my previous sighting, wearing black polyester pants, a delicate charcoal button-up sweater with tiny silver checks, and a high-collared white blouse – all business but no mistake, I knew that quick-fire smile and that sharp Italian nose from the “Traviata” publicity shot in my grandmother’s scrapbook. I held her small, strong hand in both of mine and tried to assemble a decent homage.
“Signora Albanese, it’s truly... an honor. I can’t tell you how many hours of pleasure you have given to myself and my family.”
“Grazie, grazie,” she said, then released my hands and put a finger to the side of her chin as she sized me up. “Yes, you are right, Giuseppe. I can see it in the eyes, and the cheekbones and the lips.”
I looked to Maestro for some kind of hint, and he placed an apologetic hand on my shoulder. “I HOPE... you do not mind, Bill, but I have repeated what I know of your family HISTORY... what I have heard from Gabriella, to Licia, and LICIA... seems to BELIEVE... that she once performed with your mother.”
That would be surprise number two. One hundred shells had made their separate ways back to the water, but here was one of the world’s great divas conjuring my mother right back into flesh.
“Oh! I am sure of it, Maestro. It was one, two years after the War, and I was doing a kind of apprentice opera in Albany, New York, ‘Le Nozze di Figaro.’ Your mother was performing Susanna, but during my visit she stepped aside so that I could play the role instead, and she played Barbarina. Well! I will tell you, when she came out in the fourth act to sing ‘L’ho perduta,’ I turned to the director and said, ‘You will excuse me, sir, but I think we have made a mistake. I should be singing Barbarina, and that young lady out there should be Susanna.’ Like a bird she sang, a human bird, so light, so effortless, so loving the way she handled her line, her dynamics. And her face! Light pouring out from her face, so lit up from singing, so joyous, like nothing else mattered as much in the world as this one little song!
“I talked to her afterward, and she said she was learning Leonora for ‘Il Trovatore’ – a difficult role, as you know – and that she had just been invited to final auditions for the Met. And then, after that ‘Figaro’ – nothing, I heard nothing. Whatever became of her?”
I had become so wrapped up in this most wonderful posthumous tribute, that I hated to let Licia down with the sour outcome. I shuffled my feet and fished out an answer.
“She... I’m afraid she... had to leave the opera. She had medical problems.”
“Oh! I am so sorry! Is she...”
She turned out her palms to me, a gesture I could read pretty easily.
“No. She... passed away ten years later.”
“Oh, and so young. I am so sorry. I am afraid that is the cost sometimes of being eighty-four. So many of my contemporaries are no longer with us. Have you taken up the torch, by chance?”
Before I could answer, the five-minute bells rang. Maestro took Licia by the elbow, the two of them lent me a pair of parting smiles, and they ambled into the theater. I picked up my regular ticket at the will-call window and trailed in with the crunch of patrons. Utterly distracted, I failed to notice another thing until the prophetic tidal-wave crash of Puccini’s opening chords.
I was pleased to find Gabriella completely on her game. With the jittery first weekend now gone and the work ground deeply into her bones, she was free to lighten up on matters of musical technique and shift more of her conscious attentions to the drama. This was especially important considering the nature of her single-diva target audience. The middle of the twentieth century had seen the first real emphasis on performers who could act as well as sing, and Licia had been one of the first to earn the label “singing actress,” with all of its implicit skills: eloquent movement and gesture, the ability to subtly pantomime the text (especially for English-speaking audiences before the advent of supertitles), and the internal energy needed to project the opera’s intrinsic emotionality to the farthest balconies of spacious halls.
Every word of the master class came back to Gabriella as she sang. “Give life to the words,” said Licia. “Every word needs a life. Walk, walk. That way you don’t get tense while you’re singing. Don’t rush it – this is Puccini! Wait! Wait! Make the last note long; that way, the people will know you’re finished. This is opera. You have to give to them so they come back, to hear you.”
Watching Licia, said Gabriella, was like watching history: here in the form of a human mind, body and voice was literally a walking, talking and singing archive of opera performance, deeply inscribed with gestures, turns of phrase and vocal inflections that had made their first muscle-memory marks years ago on stages in New York, Milan, London and San Francisco. And who knows how many decades, even centuries, these secrets had traveled before that, how many teacher-vessels had given their lives to pass them along?
To a lesser extent, Joe was also firing in on his Scarpia – and Rodrigo was simply performing out of his league. State Ferry was following the fairly common practice of lumping acts one and two together, and by the time Cavaradossi was dragged in by Scarpia’s henchmen, blood trickling down his temples from the Baron’s sordid little torture headband, Rodrigo had worked himself into a bedraggled froth. He appeared genuinely faint and nauseous, sweat pouring from his brow, and bloodshot, beaten eyes. For a guy who generally hid behind his voice, this level of dramatic authenticity was extraordinary.
Waves of stunned applause rang down after the Act Two curtain, and I strolled contentedly to the lobby to track down our guest prima donna for some more stories about my mother. Before I could find her, however, I was greeted by the sight of flashing lights on the street outside. I broke through the lobby doors to find Maestro Umbra, pacing anxiously along the sidewalk, hand held to his forehead in a Cavaradossian gesture of torture. When I gave a questioning tap to his shoulder, he turned to me with tired, nervous eyes.
“Oh, Billy. I’m glad you are here. It’s Rodrigo. I don’t know, I don’t know. During the torture scene, when he was offstage, he became suddenly sick... threw up. It is a MIRACLE... it came between his parts. I have rarely seen a thing so heroic as that, the way he fought through the rest of that act. When he came BACKstage... after the scene, he collapsed. Dear boy. I am very worried, verry very worried. The paramedics, they think perhaps it is food poisoning, and they say that he will probably be okay. But we... oh, Billy, I think we will have to cancel the performance. We are a small company, we cannot afford understudies. Oh, this is very bad.”
I gripped the sleeve of Maestro’s jacket. “No, Maestro! Not tonight, not when Licia...”
Maestro aimed his palms at the sky and gave a sad smile. “But what will we do, Billy? ‘Tosca’ is not ‘Tosca’ without a third act, and the third act is nothing without Cavaradossi, without ‘E lucevan.’”
“God, God,” I muttered, trying to think. “Maestro – where is Gabriella? Does she know?”
“How could she not? I think she is in her dressing room. Perhaps it would be good if you...”
“Yes, yes. I will.”
I tried to pass through the lobby wearing something of a neutral air, but I didn’t appear to be fooling anybody. A hundred eyes watched me go, and a hundred others were gathered at the front door, fixed on the ambulance pulling away down Bjune. I traveresed the back of the house and turned up the staircase, passing a squad of red-clad soldiers awaiting duty with the firing squad. Joe was just inside the dressing-room door, half-in half-out of his recent death clothes, wearing a grim expression.
“She’s in there,” he said, waving his wig toward the wardrobe room. “She’s not in very good shape.”
I tapped on the door, got no answer, and slipped inside down a long aisle of medieval coats and Victorian gowns. The single light was an exit sign on the back door, and under its faint glow I found her, curled up in Tosca’s emerald green gown atop a pile of fabric scraps, face down, her body shaking with sobs. I knelt on the floor beside her and placed a hand on her arm. She glanced up, found my silhouette and rolled toward me, burying her face against the lapel of my jacket. It took her a minute to rediscover speech, and when she did it had lost all the rhythms of normal language, a creaking whisper laced with fragments of leftover sing-song.
“Oh God, Billy! I was so... I was so close, Billy. I was right there, Billy. And poor Rodrigo... is he okay?”
I ran my hand along her hair. “Yes. Rodrigo is sick, but he’ll be okay.” I leaned her back into a sitting position along the scraps and lay at her feet, holding and stroking her hands.
“God, Billy. It’s just like your grandmother, isn’t it? I see it now. And it hurts! God Billy, it’s awful.”
She doubled forward as if in pain and held my hands to her lips, dousing my knuckles with tears.
I was empty, completely lost, but still I hoped beyond all reason to conjure a way out of this. I was not about to accept another loss. I began with questions.”
“Is... Do you think that was enough, though? I mean, she heard you for two acts.”
Gabriella flailed her hands into the air like birds. “It’s not enough, Billy! For her to do something like invite me to New York – it has to be perfect. And there is not perfect Tosca without a third act. It’s so unprofessional. And I wouldn’t blame Licia at all, Billy. She has to have her standards. It’s just not going to happen this time, not this time, and I’m just going to have to... live with it.”
These last three words had the simultaneous effect of sending Gabriella right back into her crying and firing strange daggers of pain into my ribs. Live with it, live with it, live with it. I fetched Gabriella a Kleenex from a nearby makeup table and left her to clean her face as I wandered back to the wardrobe racks, breathing in the musty perfume of fabric, leather and backstage dust as preposterous ideas began to assemble themselves in my head. I turned and gave a long backward glance at my beloved subject, brightness incarnate, brightness burrowed into a nest of scraps, placed a hand on my mother’s pendant and found South America, Tierra del Fuego, with the tip of my index finger. And spoke.
“What if I sing the part?”
Gabriella snuffled, and cocked her head at me, but gave no answer. I covered my tiny silver world with a fist and repeated myself.
“What if I sing the third act?”
Gabriella turned her gaze to the floor and answered me with a disappointed, scornful tone. “Billy... I don’t know if that’s your idea of a joke, but I...
The voice was made of Venusian breath, the exhale of an inhale I had taken ten years before. A creature of brass and warmth, it seized up the blue genesis of Cavaradossi’s regret, the center of “E lucevan” when he at last takes up the brooding clarinet theme and brings it back down in a swelling Puccinian arc of unrealized memory. “Oh! dolci baci, o languide carezze, mentr’io fremente le belle forme disciogliea dai veli!” (“Oh, sweet kisses, languorous caresses, while I, trembling, would free her lovely limbs from their veils!”) The line fell back down in our little dark room and Gabriella rose to her feet, her eyes wide with disbelief.
“Billy? Is that... is that really you?”
I answered her with the following line, and continued to the end, the repeat of “tanto la vita!” a final grace note and slight portamento that I had picked up from my first voice teacher maybe thirty years before. The force of the music broke away the crust, filled the muscles of my arms and legs with blood, sent the air into unused pockets of my lungs. And then, silence. The firing squad in the room next door had ceased its chattering. The door behind us swept open on squeaky hinges, revealing the puzzled, ghostly countenance of Maestro Umbra.
“Rodrigo? Am I hearing things. Who is that?”
Gabriella leapt from her parapet of rags and raced to Maestro’s side. “Maestro! Billy is going to sing Cavaradossi!”
Maestro eyed me up and down with a wry look on his face. “And I suppose that I will be the Pope.”
Gabriella shifted quickly to the task of crisis management.
“Let him explain later, Maestro, but for now why don’t you go out and tell the audience that we will have a substitute tenor for Act Three. Now go. Go!”
Maestro disappeared around the corner, speaking to himself in Italian. Gabriella, back in her element, marched up to me and began leafing through the wardrobe racks.
“What’s your waist, Billy?”
“Forty. Painter. Eighteen hundred. Ah! Marcello! Close enough.”
She yanked out a costume and handed it to me. “Joe is a mite beefier than you, but I think it’ll work. It’s from last year’s ‘Bohème.’ If it’s a little baggy, there are some pins on the makeup table, but otherwise you’ll just have to sing with one hand on your pants. You might as well forget the makeup, we don’t have time. I’ll meet you at curtain left in five minutes and...
Her stage-mother calm fled and she fell into a spasm of exhilaration, hugging me tightly and planting grateful paprika kisses on my cheeks. Once recovered, she found my mother’s pendant, held it like a robin’s egg between her hands and looked up to me with tired walnut-shell eyes and a relieved smile.
“Dear Billy. You had one more story, didn’t you?”
Having just volunteered myself for the firing squad, words did not come easily. I gave my response by taking Rhiannon’s Knot from Tosca’s neck and lifting it to my lips.
Gabriella whispered Tosca’s Act One entrance line – “Mario, Mario, Mario!” I gave Cavaradossi’s descending response: “Son qui.” I am here.
“I love you, Billy,” she said, then pointed an instructional finger at my nose. “Five minutes. Curtain left. And be sure you’ve got a ring to bribe the gaoler with.”
She put a hand against the side of my face, then fled through the door, leaving me alone with five or six centuries’ worth of costumes. I began my rapid identity change, first with a French painter’s pants, then with the weathered fabric of Cavaradossi’s final precious minutes – his fear, his love, his art, his loss, his great pride – five minutes to assemble a life from the stage up, five minutes to tear open the skin and let the old music dig back into its channels. Through the wall I could hear the audience returning to the theater, the orchestra tuning up. Through my skin I could feel the blood running into my veins, the warmth rising in my throat, the voice leaving the body, the voice rising to heaven.
It had been ten years since I had played Cavaradossi. And I really did believe that it would kill me.
Photo by MJV