Friday, December 19, 2014

Operaville: A Meeting with the Diva


FREE on Amazon Kindle, Dec. 19.

Author's Note: Thanks to my work as an opera critic and journalist, I've had the chance to meet several bona fide divas - Deborah Voigt, Frederica von Stade, Irene Dalis, Licia Albanese - and, for the most part, have found them to be extremely down-to-earth, far from the spoiled prima donna stereotype. I determined to make my fictional diva, Maddalena Hart, similarly earthy, which is what makes this first meeting with a catatonically star-struck opera blogger, Mickey Siskel, so much fun. My apologies to Samuel Ramey for the fart joke.

Three

For once, my opera-day schedule is devoid of adventure. A half-day pressure wash above the Lexington Reservoir, top of a freakin’ mountain, it’s hard to believe that places like this exist. Much as I hate driving that dirt road to my cabin, I cannot resist the chance to get myself clean. So I take my clawfoot bath, sunlight ticking in through the madrones, doll myself up in the usual black suit, then pick out a striped burgundy tie that Katie gave me.
            So I’m all moussed up and back on Interstate 280. It’s pretty hot outside, so I’ve got the AC blasting away like a Wagnerian tenor. I slip in a Foo Fighters cassette to give myself some audio contrast, and I’m feeling good.
The luxury of time allows me to scout the curbside parking spaces, and I nab one just outside the Civic Center garage, with a meter that stops nicely at 7 p.m. I arrive at the press room a half hour before curtain, and I relish the chance to sit on a couch with a coffee as I scour the program. This one’s got a vastly entertaining piece on the life of Alexander Pushkin, although the language drifts into that neo-Dickens that opera writers feel obligated to adopt.
Just across from me is a television monitor showing the stage. They’ve given the production a full-size title screen, a Russian village in the style of Chagall, Yevgeny and Tatyana drifting overhead, accompanied by a flying cow and a violin. I’ve always wondered if they use this monitor just to track the show, or if they force late-arriving critics to sit here and watch the first act on TV. Fortunately, I have yet to test the system.
I finish my coffee and article and head for the refreshment table, where Delores has arrayed a fine selection of crackers and spreadable cheeses. It’s good to be a critic. Delores is occupied with her twenty-some guests, so I finish my munchies and slither into the hall.
Tchaikovsky is such a mixed blessing he’s almost a frappĂ©. The orchestrations are lush, the vocal lines soaring and graceful, but he’s certainly in no hurry to tell a story, and not overly fond of quick tempos or jaunty rhythms. I saw Joan of Arc last year, and it literally put me to sleep. “How could you possibly make Joan of Arc boring?” you ask. Mostly by following that brilliant Russian tradition of keeping all the action strictly offstage. That way, all the characters can gather to discuss it after-the-fact. It’s like skipping the football game so you can get to the exciting post-game wrapup.
Pushkin was hardly innocent of this himself ; his works are more dependent on social commentary and descriptive details than plot. But somehow his verse novel inspired Tchaikovsky’s most entertaining opera. Perhaps because the composer and his co-librettist, Shilovsky, preserved much of Pushkin’s language and were happy just to skim the cream from his story. They didn’t even call it an opera, opting for the phrase “lyric scenes” and trusting that their audience had already memorized the original novel.
The cast is certainly promising. The title singer is Jesus Cortez, a Venezuelan baritone who came up through SFO’s residency programs and is threatening to become the company’s biggest find since Anna Netrebko. Playing Lensky, Yevgeny’s best pal, is Ramon Vargas, a tenor who utterly knocked me out in last year’s Elixir of Love. That pure, lyric – dast I say Pavarottian – tone, delivered with such ease, and a remarkable level of comfort on stage. With the two of them, the papers are calling it “the world’s first Latino Tchaikovsky,” but of course at the opera it’s just another night.
The most preposterous role is Tatyana, a teenager who is rarely played by anyone under 30. It takes at least that long just to develop the required vocal skills. But for once it’s not Maddalena’s singing that’s impressing me so much as her acting. I’ll save the details for later, but her handling of the Letter Scene is a revelation.
It’s a traditional production, sometime in early 19th-century Russia. They’ve outfitted her in a white country dress with floral patterns in blue. Her honey-blonde hair hangs long down her back. She’s gorgeous, as usual.
At the end of the act, I’m entirely wired on the performance. I’m loitering between the lobby and the south hall when I find a woman in a beaded silver-blue dress advancing my way. It’s Delores.
“Mickey! I’m so glad I found you.” She hands me a blue envelope. “Sorry, have to run. Ta!”
She heads off to the lobby, leaving me feeling like the straight man in a Neil Simon play. I open the envelope to find a photographic note card portraying a collection of pineapples, mangos and bananas in Mozartean gowns and waistcoats. The caption reads Cosi fan tutti-frutti. Inside is a handwritten note in a smooth cursive.

Would love to talk with you about your writing. Please meet me at Jardiniere one hour after curtain.
Grazie – Maddie

I scan the walls, looking for hidden cameras.


The rest of my evening is its own rather enjoyable brand of hell. I need to take in enough to support a reasonably intelligent review, but how is one bit of it going to penetrate my brain when I know that I will soon be talking to Tatyana herself? (She turns down Onegin, standing in her regal scarlet ball gown, nicely married to royalty, every woman’s dream revenge for a first love scorned. And yet, she is heartbroken.)
The worst part is that post-performance hour. I understand all the cleanup, undressing, meetings with friends and fans, but it leaves me with sixty absolutely unkillable minutes. The ushers are eager to clear everybody out, so all I’m allowed is my visit with Miss Tebaldi and the adjacent men’s room. Five minutes. After that, I figure it’s a good idea to fetch my car and re-park it nearer to my final destination. Ten minutes. Then I take a stroll around City Hall, but it’s getting cold. I am downright euphoric to find a copy of the Bay Guardian, sitting alone in its box, and I make my way to the bar to sit and read.
Jardiniere is like the most elegant retro-‘60s Eichler living room you’ve ever seen. Entering the double glass doors, you encounter a wide curve of staircase to your left. Straight ahead is a horseshoe bar with cut-glass ornaments, and along a brick wall to your far left you’ll find a series of long, straight couches with square leather cushions, the seating enclaves marked off with armchairs and glass-topped coffee tables.
The hostess, a young brunette dressed in black pants and shirt, leads me to one of these couches, nicely sheltered by the bottom of the staircase. Looking up, you can see dining-room tables next to the upstairs railing, patrons peering over as if there’s some kind of a show down here. A nice-looking redhead in the same black uniform perches on an ottoman and takes my order, a lemon-drop martini. But no appetizer. I’m hungry as hell, but I don’t think my stomach would be able to handle it.
The place is pretty full, but not packed. It’s hard to figure the demographics – locals? business types? tourists? – but the clothing and hairstyles project a general air of wealth. I open my paper and pretend to read, but the final fifteen minutes are horrible. Every voice that jumps out of a conversation, every opening of a door yanks on my strings. I feel like an actor doing his first Hamlet. I can’t pull this off! They’ll never buy it. What’s my first line? Oh shit. Why couldn’t Maddalena Hart remain in the comfortable realm of mythic figure? What the hell does she think she’s doing, fraternizing with commoners?
She’s wearing blue jeans. Black pumps, a gray suit jacket over a black blouse. And a gray fedora with a silver band. She stands in the open area, looking around, and her gaze settles on me. She smiles. Why the hell would Maddalena Hart know my face? Perhaps I’m mistaken, perhaps I’ve got myself thinking that every woman who comes through that door is a diva. But here she comes, and those enormous green eyes cannot possibly belong to anyone else. I rise from the couch and I manage not to fall on my ass. She smiles and takes my hand. I hope I’m not sweating. I hope my breath doesn’t stink.
“Mickey!”
“Hi.” One word, two letters. That’s all I’m going to venture.
“Excuse the film-noir hat. I don’t exactly have a Britney Spears paparazzi problem, but we are near the opera house, and for some reason the hat seems to throw them off.”
“Oh. Yes. I…” Three words. I’m useless.
She nods toward the armchair. “May I?”
Silly question. She can sit wherever she wants. She can set fire to my hair. What am I, the armchair police?
“Yes,” I say. “Please.” Okay. That was pretty good.
She sits down and crosses her legs. Her face is very large. That sounds odd, but I have heard that it’s advantageous for performers to have large heads. I’m sitting across from an album cover. Cripes. The waitress arrives and asks about a drink. Maddalena is wearing pink fingernail polish. She dangles a hand over her knee. Her hand is very white.
“Whatever he’s having.”
“Lemon-drop martini?”
“Ooh! Yes.”
The waitress leaves. Maddalena studies me, as if I’m supposed to say something. She has heavy eyelids, a sleepy look. Bedroom eyes. Lauren Bacall.
“Lemon-drop, Mickey? Isn’t that a little gay?”
“Well, I’m… I guess… Sweet tooth.” I’m pathetic.
She runs her left ring finger along her lips, done up in a subtle pink, almost mauve. Her lips are almost as pillowy as on the album covers, with those little crinkles at the edges. Her speaking voice is husky, tired from the night’s work, though clearly soprano, her accent that enunciated American that verges on European. No trace of her native New York.
God, Mickey. How do we get you past this celebrity thing? I know there’s a real person in there, and I want to talk to him. But you’re all decoupaged into place, like I’m talking to a Rodin. Would it help if I farted?”
“I’m… sorry?”
She leans forward and lowers her voice. “Opera singers have tremendous control. It’s all in the diaphragm. Backstage at the Met, we have competitions. Watch out for that Samuel Ramey. If he’s had cabbage or Brussels sprouts, he has been known to fart the overture to Giovanni.”
It’s that last image that gets me. I chuckle.
“That’s it?” she says. “A little snort? This is some pretty top-notch material, buddy.”
I attempt to sip from the lemon-drop, and I realize what a precarious vessel is a martini glass. But the sweet and the cold of it does me well.
“I’m sorry. It’s just… you’re stupendous. You’re everything I…”
Maddalena places two fingers to my lips. “No! Don’t even start. I know exactly what you think of me, so… just… No!”
Maddalena Hart’s fingers on my lips. I’m going to pass out. She sits back and gives me a sly smile, a little wider on the right. She flicks her tongue along her front teeth. I’ve heard that singers do this, always adjusting the equipment.
“I get more flattery than a person should. There’s a certain pressure, having to answer to all that admiration. As for tonight’s performance, I’d rather read about it on your blog.”
The waitress arrives. Maddie gives her lemon-drop an appraising sip.
“Mmm. The citrus feels good on the throat. And, where was I? The blog! The level of understanding, so much more important than flattery. It’s like this: I’ve been reworking Fiordiligi with my voice coach, Luigi Corazonne. I do this every few years; it keeps my performances fresh. So I asked the staff at SFO to gather all the reviews for me. I wanted to see what kind of impression I was making.
“Most of them? Garbage. Either critical for all the wrong reasons or favorable for all the wrong reasons. Drives me insane. But way down at the bottom I find a printout of your blog, and I am mesmerized. This historical/critical hybrid, I’ve never seen anything like it. And all these connections between Adriana and the role. We all know the basic story, especially the loony tessitura, but I have never seen all the threads drawn together like that. The affair with da Ponte. The custom-composing by Mozart, Adriana’s lesser-known shortcomings.
“I felt like I had never fully understood why the part was written that way. And your description of the drops – the hang-glider, the toe-dipping. That was so affirming, because that’s the flaw in almost every Fiordiligi I’ve ever seen. I was so determined not to stomp those notes. Visualization is drastically important to me, and now I have this lovely image to help me whenever I sing the part.
“I’ll tell you, Mickey, most of the critics out there are so damn sure that they know everything about opera, and never do they land on something like that. It’s all bluster. When did they all give up on learning? I didn’t. You didn’t. And no offense, but I get the feeling that your operatic knowledge is anything but encyclopedic. But maybe it’s the humility, the not knowing, that opens the way to discovery. Where did you come from, Mickey, and how do you come up with this stuff?”
Maddie Hart the opera star is tapping her finger into my chest. I cannot force a word past my mouth. I’m an imposter. She immediately makes matters worse by taking off the fedora and unpinning her hair. She shakes it out with a hand and lets it settle along her shoulders, revealing subtle gradations of platinum, straw and sand. An elderly woman in a black sequin gown creeps up from behind, program in hand.
“Ms. Hart? I hate to interrupt, but you were fabulous tonight! Could I trouble you…?”
She hands Maddie the program and a pen and waits as she signs the cover.
“Thank you so much!”
“Thank you for coming to the show.” The woman walks away, and Maddie turns to me with a smile.
“You see what I mean about the hat? It’s like an invisibility cloak. But opera singers have the most well-behaved fans in the world. I would hate to put up with those obnoxious movie fans. I asked you a question, young man!”
She slaps me on the knee, another injury to my sense of reality. In doing so she leans forward, allowing me a generous view of her cleavage.
“I’m sorry. What was the question?”
She gives me a broad stage laugh. I can see the little wrinkles at the corners of her eyes.
“Let me rephrase it. How did you arrive at this unique approach to critiquing opera?”
“Oh. Well… I…” Hell. I was just going to have to tell her the whole mediocre truth. It has to be some sort of felony to perjure yourself to a diva. I take a deep breath.
“Absolute ignorance. I came to opera late in life, with little musical knowledge. So I listened to everything I could get my hands on, and I read everything I could. But still, it wasn’t enough. I had to see it firsthand, but I couldn’t afford the tickets. I have this friend who works at a community newspaper, and she said the local performing groups were always offering her free tickets, whether she wrote about them or not. With print media dying off, and arts coverage being hacked to pieces, they’re desperate for any recognition they can dig up.
“So she told me I should start a blog about opera, and request comps from the regional companies: Opera San Jose, West Bay Opera, Mission Opera. If they gave me any trouble, she could vouch for me. But they gave me no trouble at all. Fortysomething guy, corporate demeanor, no problem.
“After that, however, came the real puzzle: how was I supposed to write about these operas? I didn’t have enough expertise to offer much of an opinion about the singers. Or the production values, or the directing. So I covered my tracks with research, and I discovered that almost every opera ever created has some fascinating backstage story. So I connected that to my reviews, and I came up with something that was, at the least, entertaining.
“The rest is in the details. I had my newspaper friend hack up my stories until I became a decent writer. I learned to upload photos, and made sure I got the credits right. I double-checked the calendar and ticket info. Then I sent an email to the opera to make sure they read it.
“A year later, I began to find my reviews being quoted on singers’ websites, and on the season brochure for West Bay Opera. I sent a query off to San Francisco Opera and was absolutely shocked when they gave me tickets for the entire fall season. The second production was Figaro, with Maddalena Hart as the Countess. But that’s the story. I’m an imposter. I snuck in through the back door. And now I’m sitting here talking to my favorite singer.”
“Favorite singer?” she says. “Or most famous singer?”
“Absolute favorite.” I’m about to tell her the car story, but I decide that it would be too much. “How far back in my blog did you read?”
She gives me an embarrassed smile that takes off twenty years. (Perhaps embarrassment is a youthful endeavor.)
“Okay. You got me. I searched your blog for every reference to me, and I didn’t read about any other singer. But I was pressed for time! Honestly!”
I raise an accusing finger. “Aha! So you are a soprano.”
Now that our flaws are on the table, the conversation rambles freely, and it’s easier to forget the golden identity of the person with whom I am speaking. And I have always found this to be true: find two people with a passion for opera, and the time melts away. In this way, Maddalena Hart is everything I have wished for: an intensely focused performer with a need to constantly poke and prod at the secret meanings and nuances of her craft, to do anything to increase her understanding and sharpen her skill. I try my best not to sound like I’m interviewing her, but I do pick up some tidbits that are bound to pop up in my review.
Maddie and I close down the bar, and we find that my car is parked directly behind hers. She opens her door, tosses her bag and fedora inside, and turns to receive whatever farewell I might offer. The lights of City Hall strike the low overcast and fall over her in a soft mist, spelling out the brighter tresses of her hair, glimmering in the corners of her eyes. Even if she were not Maddalena Hart, I would be in love with her. I take her hand and bring it to my lips. Being a diva, she knows how to accept this, with a smile and the subtlest dip of her knees.
“I can’t even tell you,” I say. “So I won’t. Thank you for appreciating my appreciations.”
“Thank you, Mickey. I can’t wait to read your…”
Maddie stops and looks down, rubbing her eye as if a piece of dust has landed there. She looks up with tears on her cheeks.
“Don’t ever stop writing, Mickey. You do lovely work.”
She kisses me on the lips. Then she gets in her car, gives me a wave and drives off. I wave back. Maybe five minutes later, I remember to get in my car and start it up. I doubt very much if I will have a problem staying awake.
On the lips. I wait until I can see the Stanford dish, and then I play “Song to the Moon.”

Photo by Paula Grenside.

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