Wednesday, October 29, 2014

DiDonato's Anthem

An opera critic's take on the National Anthem: operating without any arranger's concepts (something that Renee Fleming had to deal with at the Super Bowl) Joyce DiDonato did what good opera singers do - invested each line with significance and intent, and added a lovely octave leap at the finish. Brava! BTW, she's not just a KC native - she got her training at SF Opera's Merola Program. A perfect choice.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

San Francisco Opera's Tosca

Mark Delevan as Scarpia, Lianna Haroutounian as Tosca. Photos by Cory Weaver.
October 26, 2014

I am terribly fond of dynamic phrasing and crafted singing, but there are times when you can’t beat sheer power. SFO’s latest Tosca is the perfect example, featuring a memorable company debut by Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian, a pint-size singer who fills the hall to the rafters. She is joined by tenor Brian Jagde, whose forceful lirico spinto was such a memorable factor in the company’s recent Madama Butterfly, and baritone Mark Delevan, who played Wotan in the company’s 2011 Ring Cycle. (Needless to say, timid baritones do not play Wotan.)

Brian Jagde as Cavaradossi, Lianna Haroutounian as Tosca.
I’m always intrigued by Baron Scarpia, a character who can undergo all kinds of interesting shifts, depending on the performer. I’ve seen legitimate takes on Scarpia as a Giovanni-esque antihero (notably by James Morris), as well as several in the greasy weasel department. Delevan, befitting a Wotan, plays the part with Darth Vader force. I swear, when he entered with his black-cloaked henchmen, hot on the trail of the escaped prisoner Angelotti, I could hear the old Monty Python line, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” Tenor Joel Sorenson plays his right-hand man Spoletta with a full supply of nervous tics – understandable, since the boss reacts to his failure by holding a knife to his throat.

Haroutounian’s spunky intensity serves her well, maximizing the humor of her first-act jealousies (the same jealousies that will undo them all) and adding fire to the second-act faceoff with Scarpia. The difference in size alone delivers a striking David-and-Goliath visual. Which leads to…

SPOILER ALERT!!! The stabbing is excellent, accomplished as Scarpia descends over her on the settee, with a bonus back-plunge as he stumbles across the room. Don’t mess with Armenian sopranos, bruddah. (Kudos to fight director Dave Maier.) Which leads to…

SPOILER ALERT II!!!! Floria’s leap from the parapet is a rather elegant swan dive. Nicely done.

Dale Travis as the Sacristan.
Bass-baritone Dale Travis has played the Sacristan all over the country, and endows this small, important role with some interesting elements: a shuffling, quirky walk, a humorously stern relation with his altar boys, and a suitably terrified response to Scarpia. The poor man visibly shakes, giving a good hint at just how horrific the Baron can be.

Delevan excels in the Te Deum (Puccini’s delicious mixing of the sacred and the profane), and in Scarpia’s Act II anti-romance, outlining his preference for the rape-and-conquer approach as opposed to the effeminate ways of courtship. Jagde delivers an expectedly impassioned “E lucevan le stelle.” And Haroutounian gives “Vissi d’arte” a subdued opening, allowing extra room for the expansive climax, and inspiring a vision of the aria’s place in the opera. Sardou’s famous potboiler play places its heroine in one impossible dilemma after another: let her boyfriend be tortured to death, or seal Angelotti’s fate by confessing his whereabouts; let Cavaradossi die before a firing squad, or give herself to the disgusting Scarpia. What all this pressure eventually produces is a diamond, and the name of the diamond is “Vissi d’arte.”

Thierry Bosquet's first-act set.
Conducted by Riccardo Frizza, directed by Jose Maria Condemi. Production design by Thierry Bosquet.

Through Nov. 8, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $25-$370,, 415/864-3330.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year opera critic and author of the best-selling Amazon Kindle novel The Popcorn Girl.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

San Francisco Opera: Handel's Partenope

Danielle De Niese as Partenope. Photos by Cory Weaver.

October 21, 2014

Those concerned about the relevance of opera in the 21st century should see this English/Australian production, in which director Christopher Alden took a lesser-known baroque opera and gave it such a wildly imaginative treatment that it won an Olivier Award for Best New Production. The Olivier Award is the British equivalent of a Tony. A theater award. For a baroque opera.

What Alden and cohorts apparently saw beneath the melismas and da capos was a story, based on Silvio Stampiglia’s libretto, that presents a bracingly intimate buffet of the several combinations of power and love. As a Pat Benatar song, it would be “Love is a Battlefield.” Indeed, the actual physical battles of the original story are transformed into sexual face-offs, which is really what they were to begin with.

A quick sketch of the action would reveal the queen, Partenope, as the target of three suitors: the aggressive Emilio, the meek Armindo, and the moderate Arsace. The initial winner is Arsace, mainly because Partenope is in love with him. Naturally, there are complications.

Alden’s first stroke of genius is to remove the action from ancient Greece to 1920s Paris, and to make all the characters into members of the Surrealist art movement. This serves to make the characters more accessible to modern viewers, and to open the door to all kinds of wackiness (once you’ve played the Surrealist card, you can get away with anything). The most identifiable inspiration is Emilio, who is based on the photographer Man Ray, which leads to all kinds of visual possibilities.

Daniela Mack as Rosmira, Alek Shrader as Emilio.
The second stroke of genius is Alden’s demand that his singers – baroque virtuosi all – perform all manner of weird actions to illustrate their predicaments. Finding himself locked in a bathroom after a failed attempt at seduction, Emilio (tenor Alek Shrader) climbs to the upper window and, dangling across the opening, lights and smokes a cigarette, all without interrupting the marathon runs of his aria. The mere mention of his beloved’s name causes Armindo (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) to lose control of his limbs; he falls down a spiral staircase and, later, dangles in mid-air from the side of it, all without missing a note of his melismas. Later, when matters improve for him, he performs a song of triumph while tapdancing.

The genius of all this “stage business,” besides causing general hilarity, is that it solves a basic problem of Handel’s operas. The endless melismatic runs, invented as a show of virtuosity, are just not all that enjoyable to listen to. That’s why they didn’t make it out of the baroque era (and were replaced, in a sense, by the Rossinian patter song). The classical/romantic cadenza became a much more agreeable way to showcase a singer’s skills. In this production, the singers take the virtuosity to such a Cirque de Soleil level that the spectator has no time to feel irritated, or to worry about singers needing scuba-level breathing techniques to get through the next twelve measures.

Anthony Roth Costanzo as Armindo.
What fares better, at least in Partenope, are Handel’s slower arias. Faced with his former lover’s refusal to forgive his sins, Arsace sings a gorgeous, yearning aria about her cruelty, revealing the exquisitely haunting quality of David Daniels’ countertenor. Playing that spurned lover, Rosmira (mezzo Daniela Mack) delivers many similarly touching passages.

The showpiece comes from soprano Danielle De Niese, who is goddess-like in every way. Wearing top hat and tails, she declares her love (and lust) for Arsace in a very public manner, indulging in Fosse-like vamps and humping her way through Handel’s rhythmic shifts, creating the sexiest performance of a baroque aria that one is likely to see. She also is very successful (with Stampiglia’s surprising libretto) in transforming Partenope from a predictable attention-whore to a full-fledged woman, pursuing the deeper bonds of soulmatehood.

The Act I set by Andrew Lieberman.
Andrew Lieberman’s sets are spectacular, and applause-inducing, particularly the stylish, blinding-white interior that opens the performance. Costume designer Jon Morrell plays off of this canvas by dressing his cast members in single-color suits, with the exception of the uber-camp servant Ormonte (Philippe Sly), whose final outfit resembles a Samurai as done by Hello Kitty. Conductor Julian Wachner, an early-music specialist making his SFO debut, is a marvel to watch, working without a baton and often seeming more like a dancer than a conductor. The effects of the period instruments are captivating, particularly the horns in Rosmira’s hunting-themed aria. The production team cut eight vocal numbers, sparing the audience from a performance that would otherwise have lasted for over four hours.

Through Nov. 2, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $25-$370,, 415/864-3330.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year opera critic and author of the best-selling Amazon Kindle  novel, The Popcorn Girl.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

San Francisco Opera's Un Ballo in Maschera

Julianna Di Giacomo as Amelia (photo by Cory Weaver).
October 10, 2014

Moderation is the mode of operation in this SFO production. The period costumes and settings are picture-perfect, the singing is well-tempered, and the direction is by-the-book.

But I wish they would have messed with it, because Ballo deserves to be messed with. Antonio Somma’s libretto tries too hard to excuse everybody from their bad actions, as if everyone, even political assassins, were good in their hearts. (As opposed to Rigoletto, where everyone is rotten to the core.) I wish stage director Jose Maria Condemi would have had his oft-imaginative way with it.

Think about the plot, for instance. Popular, down-to-earth leader is brought to a bad end by a circle of surly opponents who reveal his adulterous affair. Is that not the exact storyline of the Monica Lewinsky affair? Kenneth Starr as the leader of the conspirators? Ulrica the witch (whose prophecies lead everyone to doom) re-cast as Lewinsky’s rat co-worker Linda Tripp? Come on, people! Take a flyer.

It’s somewhat understandable that one might go conservative, because the voices in this cast are divine. Ramon Vargas plays Gustavus III with his usual lyrical suavity, and is assisted by Thomas Hampton, one of the smoothest baritones in existence, as Count Anckarström. Soprano Heidi Stober checks in with an impish presence and some tasty bel canto staccatos as Oscar. As Ulrica the witch, mezzo Dolora Zajick is perfectly balanced, forgoing any scary-loud singing for a more eerie reading of the Satanic invocation, “Re dell’abisso.” She is interrupted by the sailor Silvano, played with great panache by baritone Efrain Solis.

The great wild card is Amelia, sung by the relative newcomer (and Merola program alumna) Julianna Di Giacomo. The soprano’s tone is so whipped-cream frothy in Act 1, I wondered how she would handle the Act II gallows scene, which was performed in the 2006 production by the very dramatic soprano Deborah Voigt. No worries there. Di Giacomo delivered the low, foreboding notes of the opening, “Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa,” with great power and a perfectly attuned vibrato. The rest of the brooding scene is a sonic sundae, matching her with Vargas in a duet and adding Hampson for a sumptuous trio, ending with the strangely fetching gallop of “Odi tu come fremano cupi.”

Nicola Luisotti and orchestra handled Verdi’s score with much energy, particularly in the sledgehammer outbursts preceding the scene at Ulrica’s and the famed prelude to the gallows scene. The commedia dell’arte troupe was a tasty addition to the ball scene, along with a rain of golden confetti. Christian Van Horn and Scott Conner were excellent and surly as the conspirators (if you hear bass-baritones talking in hushed tones, run!). Hampson was particularly good in “Eri tu,” mixing equal parts bitterness and nostalgia in contemplating his wife’s betrayal. Vargas’s movements seemed strangely stiff, almost as if he had some sort of neck injury.

Through Oct. 22, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, San Francisco. $25-$370, 415/864-3330,

Mchael J. Vaughn is a 30-year critic and author of the best-selling Kindle novel The Popcorn Girl.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Exit Wonderland: $2.99 on Amazon Kindle.

Buy the book at Amazon Kindle.

Chapter Two

One Weird Thing After Another

The next morning is beautiful. Skye gets into his truck smelling of almond oatmeal soap, visions of Mono’s mysterious tufa formations rising through his head. What follows is silence. And silence.

“It’s your solenoid.”

Skye answers with silence.

“Your starter.”


Rex the mechanic follows with that sigh that no driver wants to hear. Part. Carson City. Closed till tomorrow.

Skye checks back into his motel. Two hours later, he finds himself watching senior women’s golf. Something is sticking out of his wallet: a business card, whose entire contents are Sarge’s name and Sarge’s number. He punches the digits and gets a woman with a vaguely Asian accent.

“Sarge McCollum.”

“Oh. Hi. This is Skye Pelter.”

“Skye! Sarge said you might call. Did you want to come up?”


“Half an hour okay?”

“Sure. I’m at…”

“The Whitehurst. Look for a black SUV with a very small driver.”

He thinks he hears a giggle. “Okay.”


Lethargy overtakes him. He’s still rooted in his armchair when a knock lands on the door. Annika Sorenstam knocks in a putt.

The man is six inches taller than a midget and dressed in a black chauffeur’s outfit. He looks Japanese but speaks with precise British diction.

“Greetings! I was sent to drive you to Mister McCollum’s.”

“Oh. Sure.”

Skye grabs his jacket and follows the man to a black Escalade. The exterior is surprisingly clean – and wet. He notices a nearby garden hose, still dripping. The man climbs into the driver’s side, which is equipped with a child’s seat and extensions on the pedals and steering wheel.

“My name is Bubba Yoshida. Feel free to buzz me anytime during your stay at the Springs. I have taken the liberty of sending my number to your cell.”

Skye finds it difficult to respond, given the rate at which they are advancing through Bridgeport. Bubba manipulates the shift like a NASCAR veteran, and rips them sideways toward a wall of ivy. Somehow the ivy gives way, and they’re cruising a dirt road along a river.


“Yes, Mister Pelter?”

“No. That’s the question. Bubba?”

Bubba chortles in a lordly baritone. “I daresay that is the question. My father’s unfortunate dalliance with a Texas cheerleader. She agreed to let him take me to London, on the stipulation that she get to choose my Christian name. Hold on, please.”

The road takes a banked turn to the right, but Bubba takes them right over the top. After two or three seconds, the Earth rises to greet them, and they dive into a wood of spidery trees.

“Please forgive my haste, but Mister McCollum insisted on seeing you as soon as possible.”

Skye tries hard not to whimper. They barrel from the wood and straight up the side of a mountain, not a road so much as a series of gaps between boulders. Bubba dodges them as if he were playing a video game. After ten interminable minutes they lift onto something resembling a drive. A leftward bend brings them to a modest-looking mountain home surrounded by bristlecone pines.

Skye gets out, attempting to regain his land legs, and sees something blue and familiar. Sarge trots the steps, holding a cigar.

“Skye! So good to see you.”

Skye’s too out of breath to answer.

“Ah. Sorry for the Grand Prix. I’m an impatient man, so I hired a fearless driver. Don’t worry, we’ve only ever lost one guest, and nobody much cared for him, anyway. Come on in! Let me give you the tour.”

Skye looks back down the drive, where Bubba is hosing down the Escalade.

Sarge follows his gaze. “I’m very insistent on the car looking its best.”

“No,” says Skye. “Beyond that. Is that Half Dome?”

“Eagle eye! One of many perks here at the Springs. A remarkable series of gaps in the mountains that allow me a view of Yosemite.”


Sarge takes him across a porch guarded by twin rocking chairs and through a door of rough-hewn planks. Directly inside is a black stone floor and a large table pushed against a picture window. The chairs are fashioned from branches with the bark still attached.

“Have a seat,” says Sarge. “Care for some coffee?”

“Always.” Skye turns a chair and takes in the view, the green valley, the scramble of trees and rooftops that signifies Bridgeport, and the red-dirt mountains of Nevada. The table reveals wine-dark swirls of grain, and he realizes it’s a slice of redwood burl. Sarge returns with two foam-topped mugs.

“I took the liberty of upgrading you to a latte.”


He sits down, takes a dreamy sip and blinks his eyes. “Are you well-fortified?”

“Sure. Stopped by Mae’s for some breakfast.”

“Mae’s Pizza and everything else – at least during hunting season. Well. Just wanted to make sure you had some energy.”

“I thought this was just your jazz collection.”

“Yes, but… well.” Sarge runs a hand over his chin and gives Skye an oddly direct look. “Do me one favor, Skye. Don’t ever ask me about my money.”

“I’ll make you a deal: don’t ask me about my family.”

“Why?” says Sarge. “What’s wrong with your family?”

“Oy,” says Skye. “Don’t ask.”

Sarge stands. “Follow me. Feel free to bring your latte.”

They cross the black floor to a hallway with hunter green walls. Forty feet later, they arrive at the hall’s only object, a door of hammered copper. Sarge looks into a small screen and the door slides open.

“Iris recognition,” he says, but Skye is on to other fascinations. The room is vast, thirty feet across, twenty high, and seemingly endless in length. The carpet is a tan berber, the walls lit up in deep blues and greens. At either side stand a town’s worth of mannequins, but a closer look reveals that they are silhouettes, cut from wooden slabs stained a deep burgundy. The first gathering is a quartet in a close vaudeville pose. The only anomalies are silver circles attached to their hands; the tallest holds the circle to his mouth.

“That’s the Hi-Los,” says Sarge. “Those are their pitchpipes.”

A curvaceous silhouette perches on a stool, a metallic flower in her hair.

“Some clever fellow rescued one of Billie Holliday’s gardenias and had it bronzed.”

A cluster of thin men wearing blue bowties.

“Sinatra’s original singing group, the Hoboken Four.”

Cab Calloway’s zoot suit. Ella Fitzgerald’s basket. Django Reinhardt’s guitar with its D-shaped soundhole, next to Stephane Grappelli’s violin. Hoagy Carmichael crouched over an original draft of “Skylark.” Thelonius Monk’s glasses. Louis Armstrong’s handkerchief. Gene Krupa’s drumsticks. And, not surprisingly, eden ahbez’s robe and sandals. The collection goes on and on, until they reach a purple curtain. Sarge waits for Skye’s full attention, then pushes a button. The curtain parts from the center, revealing a stage and a scattering of small tables. The silhouettes number five, and they all have instruments.

“I’m going to let you guess this one,” says Sarge.

The group could be almost anyone: two trumpets, saxophone, standup bass, drums. But one of the trumpets has a raised bell.


“And your second trumpet?”




“Drums? Bass?”

“No freakin’ idea.”

“Ha! Max Roach and Ray Brown.” Sarge pauses to take in the ensemble. “Frankly, I can’t be certain that this lineup ever existed. But they all jammed with each other, in New York, in the bebop era. Call it the dream combo. Oh! And the tables are from the Village Vanguard.”

Skye boards the stage and studies each instrument up close. When he’s done, he finds Sarge wearing a sneaky smile.

“There’s more? Jesus! You’re going to kill me.”

Sarge laughs, holding a hand to his solar plexus. He waves his guest to a door under an illuminated EXIT sign. The lights come up as they enter, revealing three tiers of figures. In this case, the object is not the instruments but the outfits: sky blue tuxedos with silver stripes down each pantleg. They stand before black felt podiums bearing the letters DEO. The centerpiece is a white grand piano. A silhouette hunches over the keys, wearing a silver tux and top hat, plus a gold ring with a large sapphire.

“Any idea?” says Sarge.

Sky is thrown by the word DEO, Latin for God. He holds up both hands.

Sarge answers by whistling “Take the A Train.”

“Yes!” says Skye. “The Duke Ellington Orchestra.”

“Give the man a prize.”

Skye appreciates a hamburger that you can eat without feeling like you have to unlock your jaw like a python. He also likes the grilled red pepper, the slice of heirloom tomato, melt of gorgonzola, and an edge to the meat that he can’t quite name.

“What’s the…”

“Elk,” says Sarge.

Skye lifts an eyebrow.

“That’s how we eat in hunting country. Much better for you, too. Not some cow standing around like a sofa with hooves. This meat had a life!”

A burger is the last thing Skye should be curious about, but everything else is a little overwhelming. He sits on a granite chair, at a granite table, next to a granite wall, perched upon a shelf carved into a granite cliff. Five feet away, a stream settles into a pond occupied by a dozen white koi, then continues over the cliff in a lacy spray.

“You do make an impression,” he says.

“Not my intention,” says Sarge. “But thank you. This is my second-favorite spot.”

Skye takes another bite and wipes his chin. “So your jazz museum is built into the mountain?”

Sarge nods. “Had a head start. A failed silver mine. The insulating effects are marvelous. Especially during our horrendous winters. You should see Bubba drive through the snow.”

“No thank you.”

Sarge chews on a shrimp. “So. A journalist. What kind?”

“Performing arts. A weekly in San Jose.”

“Ah! Which explains your interest in jazz.”

“I’m sure the interest would be there regardless. But the access is good.”

“Any big names?”

“Joshua Redman. Branford Marsalis. Bobby McFerrin. Herb Alpert. Al Hirt.”

Love Al Hirt.”

“Al was great. My dad played cornet in high school, worshipped the man. So I snuck him backstage at intermission. Al was larger than life, big ruffly tuxedo, big ol’ stogey, big rolling laugh. My dad brought an old album for Al to autograph. He said, ‘Damn! I haven’t seen this one in years.’ I swear, my dad looked about sixteen years old.”


“Y’know, though, that’s not the funny story. Harry Connick, Jr. was engaged to a Victoria’s Secret model. Jill Goodacre. She showed up at the concert to surprise him, but they didn’t have anywhere to put her, so they put a couple of folding chairs next to the orchestra pit. The manager, Sam Nuccio, came to me and said, ‘Hey, we don’t want Jill to sit up there all by herself.’”


“I said, ‘Sam, sometimes you ask entirely too much of me.’ It was kind of strange, though. Very visible, a few feet from her fiance, and the last thing I wanted was to be one of those overfriendly celebrity-whores. So I sat there like a stiff. And eventually, of course, Harry decided to sing a song to his girl. And it all got very romantic, and they brought in the tight blue spotlight, just Harry and Jill and Who the hell is that guy?”

Sarge shakes his head. “Fantastic. Hey, are you up for some exercise?”

“Sure. Not really dressed for it.”

“No problem. Follow me.”

They enter a triangular opening in the granite and board a moving walkway that seems to go on forever. It ends at a well-lit portico lined with shelves. Sarge points them out. “Shirts, shorts, shoes, socks. Changing room.”

Skye returns in white shorts and a blue golf shirt, and finds Sarge similarly attired. He hands him a tennis racquet and leads him through another triangle.

The string of remarkable rooms continues, this one the size of a small gym. The ceiling is a chunky, scraped-out gray, looking exactly like the roof of a mine. The roughness continues down the sides until, at ten feet, the walls turn into buffed granite, long planes of light gray with freckles of black. The floor is a tennis court, royal blue with white borders. At least, until it hits the net. The far court is weirdly murky, with lines that glow in the dark.

“I’m almost afraid to ask.”

“You strike me as an old-school guy,” says Sarge. “Borg? McEnroe?”

“Ha! The vastly underrated Pete Sampras.”

“You got it.” Sarge goes to a square on the back wall and punches a few buttons. Skye hears a low hum and finds a dot of light spinning into life at the far baseline. The dot supernovas into a ghostly incarnation of Sampras, bobbing from one foot to the other, spinning his racquet.

“Don’t worry,” says Sarge. “I’ve got him at warmup speed. Well don’t be rude. Hit Mister Sampras a ball.”

Skye bounces one and hits it into the net. He laughs and gets the next one over. Sampras dances rightward and chips it back. Skye hits it into the net.

“You’re not exactly lighting up the place.”

“I’m a little distracted,” says Skye.

“Here. Let me join you.”

It’s obvious from Sarge’s form that he does this regularly. He places his feet with care. He waits till the ball is on top of him and sends it back with short, even strokes. Playing two-on-one, they produce long rallies and run their faux Sampras all over the court. Sarge hits another button and they play a set, losing by a respectable 6-4.

“Had enough?”

Skye is feeling the effect of yesterday’s angry hike. “Yeah. I think so. Any chance you can explain to me what’s going on here?”

“Sure. The hologram was compiled from about a thousand hours of videotape. As for the rest, I’ve got a handy little demo setting.”

He punches a button. Sampras blips out, and the lights come up. The court looks fairly normal, except for subtle lines marking the surface like graph paper.

“Go ahead. Hit a ball.”

Skye strikes a lazy shot toward the middle. A series of pipes rise from the floor just beneath the arc of the ball. When the ball reaches the apex of its bounce, the final pipe spits a ball toward Skye, then all of the pipes drop back to the floor. Skye catches the ball and gives Sarge a look of vast amusement.

Sarge smiles. “The trigger is the point at which the hologram racquet intersects the ball. The return is effected through air pressure. The spent balls are funneled to a collection device, which loads them back into the pipes. The lighting – or lack of same – serves to hide what’s going on, as does a noise cancellation device. I don’t entirely understand it myself, but it’s a great workout.”

Skye uses the ball to wipe his forehead. “All this fabulosity is wearing me out. You got anything normal we can do?”

“How ‘bout a smoothie?”


He follows Sarge through a sliding door into a well-lit room with a set of booths like those at a diner. An air conditioner kicks on, and Skye finds himself in the path of the ventilation.

“Oh! That’s beautiful.”

Sarge hands him a fresh towel. “So what manner of smoothie do you prefer? We have a berry blend, strawberry lemon, mango pineapple…”

“Stop right there.”

“A tropical man. I’ll have the berry.”

He says this as if they’re speaking to a waitress. Skye feels a moment of dizziness, which he assigns to exertion and altitude. Sarge lifts his gaze to the end of the room, where a woman enters with two frosty glasses. She is short, pleasantly rounded, with coffee-colored skin and a shy smile.

“Andorra! What took you so long?”

“It takes a long time, you know, picking all those berries. One of them bit me!”

She hands Sarge a glass of purple, Skye a cup of sunshine.

Sarge takes a sip. “I believe you two have spoken.”

“Mister Pelter.” Andorra offers her hand. “It’s a pleasure.”

“Enchanté.” The touch of her fingers jogs his memory. The woman on the phone, the subtle Asian accent. He’s guessing Filipina, or Hawaiian.

“I hope you’re enjoying the tour.”

“One weird thing after another.”

“Mister McCollum enjoys astounding people. He tires of keeping his treasures all to himself. Well! Enjoy your drink.”


Andorra returns from whence she came. Skye sips at his smoothie and gives it a curious look.

“What the…”

“Secret ingredient. My best guess is lemongrass, but Andorra refuses to divulge.”

“Unbelievably tangy. Kind of a raw edge.”

“Watch out. It might be heroin.” A console at the counter lets out a beep. Sarge stands. “We’re there.”


“The other side of the mountain. My personal subway system.”

“We’ve been moving? Geez, let a guy know.”

“You heard Andorra. I love a mystery. Off we go.”

Skye takes a sip and follows. The doors slide open to blinding sunlight.

They stand on a graveled vista bordered by a stone wall. Skye braces his hands on the top, looks down and continues to look down. Far, far below, a ribbon of whitewater cuts the bottom of a V-shaped canyon, the walls a lunar landscape of rock and dirt. A ridge cuts off the horizon in a line just beneath the sun.

Sarge joins him, wearing a pair of aviator sunglasses. “Straight ahead is Tioga Pass. Just over the ridge is Tuolomne Meadows. That river actually ends up in Bridgeport. Heavy snowmelt this year. Listen.”

He holds up a hand. Skye hears the low thunder of the water.

“Well!” says Sarge. “If you will follow me.”

A trail heads off to the right, narrowing to a one-person strip along a sheer wall of granite, a cable strung along its outer edge. Tiny streams drip from an overhang, creating a small rainstorm.

“Just about there,” says Sarge. They enter a long hallway cut into the granite. When they come out the other end, Skye sees three lines of white Christmas lights.

“Be careful,” says Sarge. “These steps are a little irregular.”

He hits a switch, firing a series of theater-style lights embedded in the rockface. Beneath each lamp is a granite slab, two or three paces across, descending in an extended ess. Sarge stops at the final slab and reaches for a brass post. A golden light fills the back wall, revealing a high, shallow cave cut into the rock like a bandshell. The focal point is a pair of rocky pools, sending plumes of steam to the ceiling. The Christmas lights outline a bar with a glass counter and brass fittings, next to a table constructed from an enormous natural crystal.

“The Springs,” says Skye.

Sarge strips off his tennis wear and jumps into one of the pools. He sees Skye’s startled expression and laughs. “Sorry. Should have told you I was going to do that. Come on in. It is unbelievably delicious.”

Skye is no prude, but he does find it reassuring that he gets his own private pool. He slips over the edge and is relieved to find that it’s been outfitted with smooth seats. The water carries a hint of sulfur and has an effect on his muscles like a thousand leprechaun masseurs.

Sarge settles on a seat where the two pools adjoin. “Skye, check this out.”

Skye shifts to the adjacent seat. He follows Sarge’s gaze to the ceiling, where a diamond-shaped opening offers a view of the sky, peppered with an army of tiny pink clouds.

“I don’t think the agent was going to show me this spot. I suppose he was going to save it for himself. But then I began to hesitate. Once he showed me this, how could I say no?”

“Smart man.”

“What kind of martini do you prefer?”

“Is that a philosophical question?”

“Why don’t you find out?”

“Okay. Gin, straight up. A little dirty.”


“Once in a while. Poker games, bachelor parties.”

Sarge looks to the pink clouds. “Let’s have a CAO Brazilian pour moi, and for Monsieur Pelter, a La Traviata.”

He’s doing it again – ordering from the invisible waitress. A minute later, Andorra appears with two martinis. She wears a tight-fitting tropical dress, lava orange with yellow hibiscus. Sarge takes a sip and sets his glass into a circle etched into the rock. Skye finds a matching circle for his. Andorra extends two cigars, like someone performing a magic trick. She inserts them into the side of the pool and pulls them back out, their ends neatly clipped. She hands Sarge a dark torpedo. He taps a button and a flame appears next to his martini. Skye turns for his cigar and finds Andorra lighting it for him, twirling the tip as she works it into a flame. The flame dies into an orange cap, and she hands it over.

“Thanks.” He gives it a draw, pulling in a flavor like an earthy sherry, with a rumor of pecan praline. When he looks up, Andorra’s gone. Next to the bar, a gas flame starts up a teepee of quartered logs.

Sarge sends a cloud of smoke into the steam. “These interview stories. Do you have a favorite?”

“Of course.”

“Care to tell?”

“Of course. I’m in college. San Jose State. Arts editor for the school paper. Ray Bradbury comes to town. I head to the library for some background, and I discover that Bradbury and Carl Sagan are having a debate over something called the Lamarckian theory of evolution. Lamarck posited the idea that a species could wish itself into adaptation. A short-necked giraffe looks at the high leaves and thinks, Man! If only I had a longer neck. This desire registers on his DNA and Voila! He produces offspring with long necks. His kids eat the high leaves, they survive to reproduce and Shazam! more long-necked giraffes. Lamarck’s theory was pretty much consumed by Darwin’s, but Bradbury argued that modern technology has returned him to legitimacy. Through the development of information processing, humans have consciously expanded the intellectual grasp of future generations, and thereby played a part in their own evolution. Because they wished it so. Ergo, Lamarck. To which Sagan said, Clever, but hogwash.

“So I go to Bradbury’s speech. He’s an optimist. Human potential. Inspiration. Creativity. The power of the mind. A little corny, but he’s entitled. Afterward, I head backstage, where Bradbury has been cornered by three broadcast majors asking brilliant questions like, ‘So, what’s it like to be a famous author?’ Bradbury looks bored out of his mind. I let this torture go on for a few minutes, then I step in and say, ‘So did you and Sagan ever resolve that debate about the Lamarckian theory of evolution?’

“His eyes just lit up. He spent the next ten minutes outlining the argument. The radio guys looked on like two cows in a field.”

Sarge rolls his cigar. “Fantastic.”

Skye sips from his martini and clears his throat. “The sad part was, I was not yet confident enough to use that story in the article. I wrote up the speech in a competent but pedestrian manner. But I’ve been telling the Lamarck story ever since. And, just for the record, I do tend to agree with Bradbury.”

“I will second that.” Sarge lifts his gaze to the diamond sky, where Cassiopeia has made her appearance. He hums a tune in a low baritone. Skye makes it out as “Send in the Clowns.” Sarge comes to the bridge and stops.

“Do you like Andorra?”

“I love Andorra.”

“That’s good to hear. I will be candid with you: I hired that girl for illicit purposes. But she proved so proficient at everything else – notably the procurement of jazz artifacts – that I have found it wise to keep our relations platonic. She does get lonely, however, and once in a while she meets a guest who piques her interest.”

The lights dim. Andorra enters naked, an assemblage of sienna arcs, semicircles, radii. She slips into the pool, settles next to Skye, and brings his hand to her breast. Skye feels a flush of self-consciousness, but glances over to see Sarge occupied with a white-skinned Japanese girl. The cave goes dark. The music comes up. Piano. Thelonius Monk.

Skye wakes up underwater. Also, under surveillance. He is hovered on all sides by eyeballs, mouths, fins. He stretches sideways and discovers the eyes he likes best: smoky brown, wide-set, marquis cut.

“Good morning, wonderboy.”

Her lips taste like mint. She brushed her teeth just to wake him up.

“You’re a marvel.”

She cups her breasts. “What makes you say that?”

“You have internal muscles that American girls seem to lack.”

She rolls her eyes. “American girls think the job is over once you open your legs. Filipinas are instructed by their mothers in the ways of pleasing men.”

Skye laughs. “You’re mostly right. I have had the good fortune to meet some exceptions.”

“No doubt raised by Filipina nannies.”

He falls back on a coven of pillows and looks around: a dome-shaped bedroom wrapped entirely in fishtank. The contents are decidedly tropical: a foot-tall angelfish with streaks of mustard warpaint, a leopard shark, a green boxfish with black spots.

Andorra curls beside him and inspects his penis. She lets it drop with a disappointed expression.

“Jesus, woman! What do you expect?”

She peers through her bangs. “I was hoping for one more ride before you leave.”

“Why would I ever leave?”

She pats him on the belly. “Sarge is a very generous man. For example, he built this room based on a single account of a snorkeling trip I took as a child. But he also has his rules. You arrived at one o’clock yesterday, you will leave by one o’clock today.”

Skye finds this thought to be terribly sad. Still, he wouldn’t dream of pushing his luck. He gives his dick a slap.

“Wake up! Bastard.”

Andorra giggles and kisses him on the forehead. “You’d better hit the showers. In the bathroom, you will find your clothes from yesterday, cleaned and pressed. Meanwhile, tell me your fantasy breakfast.”

Skye recalls a creekside restaurant in Ashland, Oregon. “Marionberry pancakes. Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon. And guava nectar.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Skye works his way to his feet and scans the room.

“Oh,” she says. “Stand on that copper circle and say the word ‘Down.’”

He finds the circle at the foot of the bed, but pauses to watch naked Andorra walk toward the angelfish. She says “Open” and the tank slides to the right, revealing a meadow dotted with crocuses and stalks of purple lupine. A picnic table stands near a fountain, with a fresh tablecloth and two settings.

“Down,” says Skye. He sinks into the floor.

Andorra escorts him to the front room – the modest farmhouse – and leaves him with a quick kiss. He steps outside to a dark sky, and to Bubba Yoshida, hosing down the Escalade.

“Precisely on time. You would be surprised how difficult it is to get people to leave this place.”

Skye is still alarmed at the Orson Welles voice coming from the marionette body. “After the best day of my life,” he replies, “I like to get the hell out of town.”

“Ah. Before the complications set in.” Bubba opens the passenger door. “Sarge would have preferred to send you off himself, but he has a rather important conference call.”

Skye buckles himself in and takes a Zen breath. Bubba proceeds at an absolutely normal rate of speed. He notes Skye’s expression and reveals a bright smile. “I thought you might like to enjoy the view this time.”

A good half-hour later, they pull up to Skye’s room at the motor court. His truck is parked out front, looking amazingly clean.

“Please,” says Bubba. “Come inside. We have one final matter to discuss.” He enters the room and waves Skye into the armchair. Bubba folds his hands. “Again, Mister McCollum thanks you for joining him yesterday. He had a splendid time.”

“My pleasure. Absolutely.”

“Now, the sad realities of modern life. As you may have guessed, Mister McCollum is strongly protective of his privacy. In consideration of the entertainments he has provided for you, he asks that you sign a non-disclosure agreement.” He pulls a fold of papers from his jacket and hands it to Skye. “Essentially, you agree not to discuss Mister McCollum, the nature of his residence, or, especially, the location. And especially not to the press. Should you break the agreement, Mister McCollum’s squadron of soulless amphibian lawyers will make a considerable degree of trouble for you. One the plus side, if you do sign it, you will receive a generous cash incentive.”

Skye takes a pen from his writing case, flattens the paper on his nightstand and signs it. “Mister Yoshida, your employer found me after one of the most depressing fiascos of my life and threw me the world’s most glorious lifeline. I should be paying him.”

Bubba laughs and takes the paper. “I hardly think that Mister McCollum…”

“I’m sorry. Mister Who?”

Bubba stops, then points a finger at Skye. “You’re good.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“All right, Olivier. Here’s a copy of the agreement for your reference. Mister Pelter, I regret that I may not ever see you again.”

Skye remains seated as he accepts his handshake. “Thank you, Bubba.”

“As my father used to say, Sayonara, cowpoke.”

Skye watches the little man stride from the room, and listens to the crunch of gravel as the Escalade rolls away.

Skye awakens to a Spanish-language novela. A family of gorgeous, quick-talking women gather at the bed of an ailing uncle, breasts spilling from their dresses like eager puppies.

It takes Skye a few minutes to understand that the dream with the granite cliffs and Pete Sampras and the fishtank was not a dream – and to regret, just a bit, that he has given away the right to talk about it. He spies the word Traitors in his writing case and has a Spanish paroxysm: Aye! Que lastima! He pays a quick visit to the bathroom, grabs the book and paces into town, where he finds the miracle of a post office with fifteen minutes till closing. Traitors is the book he abducted from his father’s nightstand. It’s a World War II aviation tale, wonderfully sharp and fast-paced. He loaned it to his dad – a retired Navy pilot – for the Tahoe trip, but now it must go to Cincinnati. Skye earns generous amounts to screen entries for a novel competition at a writer’s magazine. Traitors is one his finalists. He hands his package to the clerk and allows himself to breathe.

Outside, the clouds have dissolved their union, allowing the orange sunset to play along the aisles like kids at a matinee. He stands in the middle of the street as they drift in his direction. A headlight snaps him into motion, and he finds himself at Mae’s Pizza. He enters a room half-filled by hunters and orders the namesake product with pepperoni and mushrooms. When he gets the bill, he hits the little barside ATM, wincing at the $3.50 service fee. A few minutes later, he finishes his beer and spies the young Clint Eastwood riding across his television. Skye takes out his wallet. Is this Pale Rider? Pulls the ATM receipt from its spot next to his library card. Nah. Gotta be one of those Italian movies. Angles it to the light. If I could just hear the soundtrack. His account appears to contain an extra hundred thousand dollars.

Photo by Elaina Generally (model: Betany Coffland)

Friday, October 10, 2014

Frozen Music: FREE on Amazon Kindle, Oct. 11

FREE on Amazon Kindle, Oct 11.


Allegro, poco a poco accelerando

A truck backs up to the end of a dead-end road, loaded with shipping flats. A squad of workers toss them down to the beach below. Two hours later, the bonfire is hitting its prime, orange flames licking up from the sand and coloring a ring of partiers in hues of pleasure. It’s a birthday party, Stacy’s thirtieth. My backstage pass is the result of my membership on the softball team and nothing more, but after three beers I have convinced myself otherwise. Rough-hewn ropes connect my movements with those of the guest of honor. After all, we have a future together. Only, according to Kenny, I am not supposed to act like we do.

I am trying with all my energy not to seek out the villain, the burly Italian guy with a beer in his hand and an arm around a buddy. I have information that he’s here, and I am wondering if I should leave. But, according to Kenny, I need to be around. I am a soldier for Kenny’s book of etiquette.

For a minute or two, my right fielder, Toby, supplies some small talk, but after a while I feel the need to separate. I leave the ring directly after the traditional off-key cantata of “Happy Birthday” and head toward the waves, a dark, empty slate lying in wait for the chalk marks of a tolerant god. This is a good spot. If not for the fantasy of the birthday girl coming out to join me, I would be fine. But that’s not going to happen. My job is to stand square with the Pacific Ocean and watch one star straight out, blinking on and off as it is buried and unburied by passing waves. A chunk of black boat moves over the water like a chess piece, peering ahead with one glowing red eye. My turn is coming. My turn is coming.

The next scene takes place at the Hind Quarter, a bar about as classy as its name: phony gas fireplace, varnish an inch thick on the tables, bevy of olding girls hiding behind blonde caps with arrow-straight hinges of dark roots. The men lean T-shirted bellies against the wooden bar, dodging their neighbors’ heads, watching Monday night football.

Our heroine sits strangely alone in the center. She looks as weary as the sojourner, and her needs are more, because she is thinking of what she needs and what he can give her. When he walks in, it is as if she had typed out a purchase order and some remarkable bureaucrat had flashed by two minutes later with three of everything.

The sojourner is surprised, as well. He is tired of the wait. He is ready to strap on the chute, set the stopwatch, and walk out on the wing. He greets her with a hug and sits down. The two football teams happen to be his favorite and her favorite, so he scoots next to her and watches. Our heroine’s team comes back with a startling last-minute drive and beats his, but he is winning the battle of breaths, nudges, the music of fabric against fabric and one bold kiss. Right there in the middle of the Hind Quarter. They talk and laugh and whisper about nothing in particular, but the words gather force and draw them to his apartment.

His room is small. His bed is small. Headlights flash by across his drapes. They pull off their clothes with urgent, clumsy fingers. They are unlettered freshmen in the art of each other, have no notion of how their bodies fit together. The sojourner nestles himself into our heroine’s body, sketching out her shadow. The feeling is as warm as the color of toasted bread, but he suspects that they have made a mistake.

Ah, home. Tear off the tie, pull out the shirt, kick off my shoes, fall into my chair thinking, Thank God. I could have stayed pleasantly supine till rehearsal, but there was my round orange friend under the dresser, pleading, “Bounce? Bounce?” Poor little guy was slick as a watermelon. My little brother stole him from a playground ten years ago. I rolled him out and took a few swipes with my bicycle pump, then spun him up on my finger, reborn.

My Thursday ritual was a session of hoops at this Catholic school a few blocks down the road. (Some Hungarian friend told me once that if a parish had to choose between renovating the altar or buying new backboards, he’d have to flip a coin.) The sun is out and I am the only soul on the asphalt. My basketball ritual is a numbers game: a few warmup shots, then sink a long one and off to the free throw line. Sink seven out of ten, and on to the next step. The next game is, sink a shot, let the ball bounce three times and shoot from that spot. Ten in a row, it’s on to the next step.

Don’t get sucked in by the mathematics. Basketball is music: you can analyze it and toss the geometry around forever, but you can’t define that last leafy touch of the rhythm. You hit a certain righteous flow, sometimes on a single shot. Hop out, ring up the ball, top of the key, slap it behind you, switch it around falls in your hands just right, loose, on a string, gather the spring up from your toes, limber, nudge it off the tips of your fingers. Curve high, arrow off the bow, no doubt, not a thing but net, and the strings let out a sigh: Fwip! Aaaaahh… Some shots are not attempted but imagined.

I imagined a little too much, however, because the sun was dipping toward the horizon. I gathered my orange friend and trotted off down the street.

I got to the choir room door and checked my watch – 8:15, break-time in fifteen minutes. I turned an ear to the crack and heard the Magnificat of the Mozart, Amy calling instructions: “You’ve got to float this one, tenors. If you can’t hit it light, then just carry it into head voice. It’ll come through, don’t worry.”

The tenors muttered among themselves like, well, bachelor ducks, then she started them through again. Our section sounds pretty damn fine on the high soft ones, even with one of their finest stranded outside.

I didn’t want to cut into class now and get ninety pairs of eyes. I slipped out the back door and looked for Sam the Cat. The night was getting cold, and in my rush I’d grabbed my thinnest jacket. I needed coffee.

“Say-eeh,” Sam called. “Ain’t you one o’ them Kwy-ah Boys? Where’s yo’ compan-ee-uns?”

“Uh, yeah, Sam. I’m kinda runnin’ late. Ah’m afraid the resta them boys won’ be outchere for a while.”

I’m a terrible mimic. Sometimes I don’t even know I’m doing it. Sam didn’t seem to notice.

“Well, what’d yuh want, uh…”

“Michael,” I said.

“Mike. Okay. Whadjuh want there, Mike?”

“Just a coffee.”

“Okay, Mike. Ah’ll do that.”

Sam filled up a cup while I fished around for my wallet, which wasn’t there.

“Oh, jeez.”

“What? You foget yo’ money?”

“I’m afraid so. I…”

“Hey! Foget it! This one’s on the house, Mistuh Mike. I know how these things go.”

“Well, thanks Sam. That’s… that’s great.”

“Jus’ tip me real good next time. I know you Kwy-ah Boys. You’s good kids. Enjoy.”

I took the coffee from his hands, and I noticed Largo next to the cart, tonguing his fur like maybe he could get that gruesome color out of it.

“Pet Minestrone for me.”

“Well, huh!” Sam laughed, rubbing his whiskers. “Thass the fust time one ah you Kwy-ah Boys evah got that cat’s name right.”

I headed for the fountain. Maybe Alex would come out after he’d called his wife. I sat and sipped my coffee and got to thinkin’ (thinkin’ in Sam-talk), it’s so easy to make people happy sometimes. Free cup of coffee. A cat’s name.

“How are you, Mr. Moss?”

I’d expected a tenor. This was an alto. Where was my tongue?

“I… hi, Amy. Fine… um… late, I guess.”

“I noticed.”

I set down my coffee and pocketed my hands to keep them somewhere I could find them. What was she doing here?

“Um… I’d explain myself,” I said. “But you’d never believe me.”

“Try me,” she said. She sat down next to me and reached back to dip her fingers in the water.

“Had a basketball game. Got carried away, you might say.”

“You did say.”

“I did. Uh…” Why did she care? “Why do you care?” Did I say that?

Amy pocketed her hands, too. Aviator jacket, mall-bought. Hazel eyes, islands of green opal in a light brown sea. She watched the choir men troop across the courtyard, then came back to me.

“Why is it none of the women go over there?” she asked. She’d given up the subject. I was glad. “I always see the men, but never the women. Do you guys look at dirty magazines over there? Or smoke cigars?”

She smiled: no harm done, no explanations needed. Mozart, lips, olive skin. Magnificat. Come back, Michael.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess the guys were just there first. The women are probably sick of us anyway.”

“That sounds about right,” she said, distracted. Amy stretched and looked skyward, twin puffs of cloud billowing back the yellow suburban light. Her legs swung up and kicked back against the bricks. She placed a hand on my shoulder. “Michael. Look at me during the Mozart, okay? It distracts me when you don’t.”


“Oh, I know. Choir veteran like you, Mozart’s a little boring. So logical, so four/four, six/eight, no tempo changes, no Hebrew. But this is important to me, Michael. I need your eyes on me. Would you do that?”

“Sure, Amy. I’ll try.”

“Thanks, Michael.” She ruffled a hand over my hair, then stood up and smoothed down her pants. “I better head back in and talk to Mr. Stutz. Post-game wrapup. See you later?”

I caught a breath. “Yes. You will.”

She smiled at me. Mozart. Lips. Chestnut hair.

“Good.” Amy headed back, hands in her pockets. Alex came out and met her at the door. They talked for a moment, then he let her through and came out to me.

“Hello, Mr. Moss, sir.”

“Hello, Alex. Sir.”

“You look a little pale.”

“It’s… cold out here, Mr. Blanche.” I reached back and dipped my fingers into the water. “Like some coffee?”

Photo by MJV