[an opera novella]
[written as Daphne]
“Tra questa e quella
Non so risolvere,
Non so che far.”
(Mozart, La finta giardiniera)
“Anchor the phrase here… and here.” Hugo follows the vocal line with a finger. “See? Make it rounder here.” He plays directly from Myka’s score, swiveling back and forth on the piano bench while they work on her third aria.
Myka nods and tries to pencil in the accents without crowding an unperturbed Hugo. His own score lies to the side, covered in dog-ears and colored post-its, and the accompanist who had originally been scheduled to play for them has long since disappeared. These are Myka’s favorite rehearsals, when it is just the two of them, at ease with their shared, unpretentious focus on the music.
“Now, here again…”
Hugo signals another arc and Myka’s brow is furrowed in concentration. Helena’s rendition of “Vorrei punirti, indegno” yesterday has egged her on and she soaks up every little bit of advice Hugo is offering.
“This is the companion piece to Arminda’s second aria,” Hugo himself has pointed out. “Very seria style. Grand drama, grand passion, lots of temptation to lose the line and gasp for air like a fish out of water.”
Myka hopes that this is not a critique of her attempts so far.
“There are nothing but outbursts throughout the A part, but you need a line – this is still Mozart.”
And so Myka is breathing, and trying to build a line, and she knows down to her bones that this is where she is supposed to be.
“The hardest part is the second phrase, isn’t it?” Hugo nods at her. “You’ve got all that ire in the first and you can’t really top that.” He reaches for her pencil. “You can sort out the energy of that with Artie, but musically —“ He links the first phase to the second. “Keep the tension here. That’s the key point. And then just take all the wild stuff that happens in the orchestra –” His hands tear across the keys. “All that? It’s a huge pendulum, moving back and forth… but you’re on top of it. Don’t forget that.”
Myka struggles to come up with a short phrase to pin that down and leaves a mark on the page for later. After her rehearsals with Hugo, she finds herself for an hour or two hunched over her score, writing out his comments in the margins. She has already learned so much from him. But next to the solo rehearsals, she also loves the ensemble ones, especially now, when they get to work together with the orchestra and it feels like one shared breath, even as Myka can make out the different lines and the voices of her colleagues, and she is soaring among them.
She is relieved that she gets a chance to work through this aria before she has to try it onstage. In the end, more than a week passes since that rehearsal where she and Helena manhandled Bennet between them, only then Nielsen puts the scene back onto the roster.
It is the day of Sam’s recital and he has been complaining about being scheduled for many heavy scenes with Amanda these past few days. Claudia seems to have organized a breather for him, by the looks of it, since he is mostly there for scene transitions today and is going over his concert scores the rest of the time.
“Remember, physical!” Nielsen says when Claudia arranges Bennet, Myka and Helena on the floor.
“No need to tell me,” Helena says and Myka glares at her.
She would prefer to do Bennet’s aria once more instead of jumping into this moment cold, but Bennet crawls away, making a very undignified exit for a bailiff, and leaves Ramiro and Arminda seated awkwardly on the ground, too close to one another.
“Ramiro, let’s be real.” Helena says, standoffish. She has been standoffish for the past few days in general, nervous about an audition for a new agency, the name of which she will not mention.
“Oh, does it start with a G., too?” Myka had finally said.
“You don’t even have a website yet,” Helena had bitten back, and that had been the end of it.
“What do you hope to gain from a woman who despises you instead of loving you?”
“That you will finally come back to it and remember,” Myka says, but she knows that it lacks the note of longing even as she says it. “My sincere love for you, your promises…”
“Yes, that’s all true,” Helena cuts her off. “But I have no more time for this. Take my advice: Since I can’t love you anymore, get over me, get over it, and leave.”
She stands, leaving Myka to scramble to her feet, too. “Just to appease you,” Myka scoffs. “Cruel one, I’m fleeing your from your gaze. Perhaps you’ll regret it someday.”
Helena shrugs. “Do what you will.”
Myka is left staring after her as Abigail segues into her aria.
“Sure, run into somebody else’s arms, you mean, ungrateful woman…!”
“Stop!” Nielsen shakes his head. “Again. And this time, try not to look as if you are arguing with your accountant over the tax returns.”
“Fine,” Myka says and squares her shoulders.
“Fine,” Helena echoes, and it sounds like a challenge accepted. She sits even closer as they move back into position, and this time, she waits. She waits until Myka and everyone else in the room is very aware of their proximity.
“Ramiro, let’s be real.” It is still standoffish, but there is an edge of challenge to it. “What do you hope to gain from a woman who despises you instead of loving you?”
Myka takes a breath, and she reminds herself of Helena in Entremont, of Helena dancing next to her in a crowded club. “That you will finally come back to it and remember…” There is the note of longing she has aimed for, and she leans in for good measure. “My sincere love for you, your promises…”
“Yes, that’s all true,” Helena admits, but instead of getting up, she moves in and pushes Myka backwards with her good hand, leaving Myka sprawled on her back and struggling to lift her head as Helena goes on. “But I have no more time for this.” Contrary to her words, she stays, shifts, her knees grazing Myka’s thigh. “Take my advice: Since I can’t love you anymore, get over me, get over it… and leave.” She is staring at Myka, challenging Ramiro to make the first move away.
“Just to appease you,” Myka says and sitting up, slowly, brings her even closer to Helena. “Cruel one, I’m fleeing your from your gaze.” She breaks the moment and stands. “Perhaps you’ll regret it someday.”
Helena shrugs, as if trying to shake off the moment. “Do what you will.”
Once more, Myka readies herself to start her aria, places the focus along her temples and her eyes, connects with her center, but Nielsen interrupts again.
“Better. But now there’s no more steam for Ramiro’s aria. He needs a reason to explode here.”
Helena cants her head to the side, taxes Nielsen first, then Myka. “Oh, I think I can give her one.”
“Him,” Myka mutters, but Helena is unfazed.
And Myka might just be a little bit nervous as they start the scene again, so she emboldens Ramiro a little more in reaction. “My sincere love for you, your promises…” rings with new confidence, and Helena allows Arminda to react to it.
“Yes, that’s all true,” she breathes and Myka is distracted by the tone, enough for Helena to make her tumble backwards when she pushes her.
“But I have no more time for this.” There is anger, and frustration, and her legs are already touching Myka’s, so it takes Helena just a small motion to settle herself astride Myka’s hips. “Take my advice.” Her eyes are on Myka’s, but then they are following the single finger that she is trailing down Myka’s shirtfront. “Since I can’t love you anymore…” She pauses and Myka cannot think beyond the warmth against her stomach, the sight of Helena above her, and for a moment, she thinks she has missed her prompt.
“Get over me,” Helena demands then, and her entire hand rests against Myka’s shirt. “Get over it. And leave.” She uses her hand to push herself upright to a safer distance, but that also causes her hips to do a little roll and Myka cannot think at all. She just wants, with an acuteness that catches her completely off guard. She stares at Helena and Helena looks at her as if she knows.
“Just to appease you,” Myka remembers to say, and it comes out a wheeze. She focuses on her breathing to get the next phrase right, lets the tension expand to her sides, but that only pushes her skin closer against Helena. “Cruel one, I’m fleeing your from your gaze.” She is not fleeing anywhere, though. She is taking shallow breaths and tries not to blush.
“What is going on here?” Nielsen demands to know when neither of them tackles the next line.
Helena turns to look at him with aplomb. “Nothing.”
“At all,” Myka supplies, raising her head from where she is still on the floor, effectively locked in by Helena’s legs.
“The contact is a good idea.” Nielsen nods at Helena. “But too similar to your earlier scene with the Count. And you can’t lose momentum here. This is too tentative. Myka – ”
Helena moves away, and Myka sits up and breathes normally again. “I know,” Myka says. “But like this, would Ramiro move?” There is laughter at this, and Helena’s stands out against the others’. “This is what he wants, right? Why would he leave?”
“You are right,” Helena nods, and she is all work again. “I have to break it up. Unless…”
Myka is looking at the curve of her jaw and the fall of her hair, momentarily transfixed, and she curses her reaction. She does not need a bad case of attraction, least of all to her stage partner.
“Again,” Nielsen demands.
Myka sits up straighter and refuses to think about the prospect of Helena’s thighs smoothed against either side of her.
And it is different this time. Instead of pushing further, Helena leans back, enough to have Myka be the one to move in when she gets to “My sincere love for you, your promises!”
“Yes, that’s all true,” Helena agrees and she is all but reclining, unfazed by Myka’s approach. For a moment, she breaks the scene and nods, motioning Myka even closer, but apparently, it is still not close enough for her liking because she takes hold of Myka’s shirtfront and prompts Myka to move on top of her, reversing their last take.
“But I have no more time for this.” Helena says and it is unclear whether her Arminda wants Ramiro to leave, or to fall forward and kiss her senseless. Myka is staying very still, her weight on her knees so that she will not actually settle across Helena’s hips. She feels warm enough as it is, and she does not need Helena to catch onto it.
“Since I can’t love you anymore…” And now Helena’s hand – her good hand – brushes up Myka’s leg, slowly, and Myka tries to breathe in and out, in and out. “Get over me.” The brush of Helena’s hand turns into a grasp. “Get over it. And… ” And she is tugging on Myka’s hip, using her for leverage to sit up and there’s no balancing on anyone’s knees now.
Helena takes another breath and Myka can feel the shift of muscle and skin where she is pressed against her. “…leave,” Helena sighs and looks straight at Myka.
Time expands, enough to count the single lashes framing Helena’s gaze, and Myka curses herself.
“Just to appease you,” she says, and she has done enough stage work to realize that turning the words on their heads works perfectly here, even if it makes her own head swim. But she is the one who has to move away, with Helena – Arminda – stretched out underneath her. Myka hesitates. She imagines Ramiro so very tempted, but also insulted that Arminda still thinks him so readily at her feet. “Cruel one, I’m fleeing your from your gaze.”
Myka turns away with a note of sadness and it prompts Helena to reach out once more, a tentative had to her shoulder.
Myka turns back around, and Helena’s eyes at a close distance eclipse everything else.
“Perhaps you’ll regret it someday,” Myka hears herself say as Helena stares at her, and for one maddening moment, she is convinced that Helena will kiss her, right here on the rehearsal stage.
A cough breaks the tension and Myka needs a moment to recognize Sam’s voice and by then, she catches the triumphant smirk on Helena’s face.
“Do what you will.”
And now Myka is angry. If this is a show to goad on Sam because of whatever beef Helena has with him, she refuses to be a pawn in it. She shoves Helena away.
“Sure, run into somebody else’s arms, you mean, ungrateful woman…”
She falls into the phrase just like Hugo told her not to, losing too much breath in the first half. “Perfida! Ingrata!” she snaps out, again and again, struggling to catch up to her own impetus.
Helena has Arminda retreat, but does not flee from the accusations, and Myka is thankful that she can play her outbursts off Helena’s reserved expression, though even like this, she feels like she is running behind.
“You need more color,” Nielsen says, when Myka has crumpled against a wall for the B part of her aria and Helena has walked offstage. “I can see your ire, but it you need to harness it. Right now, you make a huge effort, and it is dissipating into thin air.”
Myka nods, smarting from the critique, but she knows Nielsen is right.
“Again,” Nielsen says. “Do less. – Use Helena, if it helps. She is your target.”
Myka does not find the words ‘use’ and ‘Helena’ in direct succession helpful at all and she is chagrined when, on second try, it is Helena who is carrying her through the scene by taking in Myka’s fury and keeping up the tension. Myka barely has to move. Voice first, she remembers. She does not have to do it, she can sing it. She only gets into Helena’s face at the end, pushing her offstage without actually touching her.
“A cruel, spiteful fury…. that’s all I’ll ever be to you!”
“Much better,” Nielsen calls out when Myka slides to the floor again with the subdued opening chords of the B part.
“Since you want me miserable, out of your sight —“ Myka raises her head, looking nowhere in particular, but she is acutely aware of the silhouette to the side, arms crossed, watching her. “…I will die miserably.”
She gets back up, slams a fist against the prop wall behind her with enough force to rattle the wood.
“Run into somebody else’s arms!”
It is more difficult without Helena next to her as an aim, but when she finishes, out of breath in a way that Rebecca would not approve, Bennet mutters, “Remind me not to piss you off, Bering.”
Nielsen wipes a hand across his brow. “Very good,” he says and then waves away Myka’s pleased smile. “But if you do this scene too well, there’s no selling your getting back together with her in the end.”
“I think Arminda should hear this. All of it,” Helena says before Myka can get a word in. She walks back onto the scene. “I don’t just need to see you mad, I also need to see you hurting.” She looks at Myka, and Myka studiously looks anywhere but into her eyes. “It’s important for my change of heart. This is what makes me reconsider.”
“All right,” Nielsen says, as he always does. “Show me.”
Myka looks at Helena’s hairline, somewhat miffed at the idea of Helena hogging the stage throughout the very minutes when Myka herself can show her biggest range of the evening. “It makes sense for the story,” she agrees reluctantly.
“You can still push me offstage in the reprise,” Helena says and smiles.
The aria is easier to build with Helena onstage, even with her lingering out of sight, watching Ramiro as he breaks down, then coming back to him and Myka yelling at her until she leaves. Of course, it also means Helena onstage, which will command a better part of the audience attention, and Myka is adamant not to fall victim to that same pattern.
“You should ask Nielsen to change it back, at least the reprise,” Sam says afterwards. “It’s your aria.”
“We also argue all over Bennet’s aria,” Myka says and if she feels petty about the scene, she will still not admit to it. “And she’s manhandling you in two of her arias.”
Sam chuckles. “It’s nice to see her at the receiving end for a change.”
Myka recalls Helena stretched out underneath her, and shifts from one foot to the other. “I need to head in. Final wardrobe fittings,” she says. Helena stands across the hall at the piano, and Myka really does not need to be aware of that. She digs through her bag instead. “Since I won’t see you before tonight…”
It’s a trinket, at typical opening night gift: a small vase, too small to carry more than a few daisies, with a band of flowers outlined at the rim, because Sam is called Belfiore in the opera and tonight is a big night for him.
“Good luck,” Myka says, and she kisses his cheek.
“That’s sweet, but you shouldn’t have,” Sam says. He turns the glass in his grasp. “I’m not really into superstitions.” But he smiles, and holds onto her hand a little longer. “I’ll see you tonight.”
Myka misses the entire lunch break in fittings and picks up a sandwich for herself afterwards. She brings an extra one for Pete, even though he has had lunch.
“Your point being?” Pete says, and chews. It is Saturday afternoon, and he is lounging on Myka’s bed. “Amanda is out wining and dining some agency representative tonight,” he says. “But she told me to keep the controllers at the ready for later.”
Myka looks up from where she tugs her dress into place – not a concert dress, it does not fall lower than her knees – and asks, “Is that code for something?” She reaches for her earrings. “No, wait. I don’t want to know.”
Pete shrugs and takes another bite. “Fjut yourfelf.” He sits up straighter when he sees Myka’s neckline. “What are you getting all dressed up for? Don’t tell me you’re going out with Mr. Hunkentenor again.”
“Not going out,” Myka says while she fiddles with an earring. “It’s his recital.”
“Go easy on him,” Pete says and eyes Myka’s outfit. “Like this, the poor chap won’t be able to concentrate on his singing.”
Myka glares at him.
“Then again, that one will always concentrate on his singing,” Pete adds.
“If you ever switch to tenor, you’d do great in the sassy nurse department,” Myka tells him.
Pete ponders this in earnest for a moment. “But you can’t have a sassy nurse without boobs.”
Myka bats him over the head with her purse. “And don’t get any crumbs in my bed!”
The concerts at Hôtel Maynier d’Oppède happen in the open courtyard and the gravel leaves dust on her heels when Myka walks up to her front row seat, right next to a fountain that holds no water at the moment. A stage with a back wall for better sound projection has been set up, complete with a grand piano. The crunch of the gravel mingles with the rustle of leaves from above and Myka’s first thought at this wildly romantic setting is that Sam will hate the noise sources that are beyond his control.
The night is perfectly mild and Myka nods at Sam’s agent, seated at the other side of the fountain. Two seats over on her own side, a very heavy-set man takes his place. Myka looks at her purse and listens to the steps around her. The seat next to her remains free until the lights are beginning to dim, then a last set of steps walks up the gravel.
Helena slides into the empty chair, ticket in hand, and Myka forgets that she is trying not to look at Helena anymore. Most of the concertgoers around them wear summer dresses and shirts, Sam’s agent may be the only one in a three-piece suit, and it is enough to make Myka feel out of place in her little black dress. But Helena has her hair up in a chignon and pearls in her ears. A slim pendant is hanging from her neck, down the neckline of something stunningly turquoise. She is striking.
“What are you doing here?” Myka whispers.
Helena crosses one leg over the other, drawing Myka’s gaze to the extravagant heels she is wearing. “Supporting a colleague?”
Myka scoffs. “Sure.”
“Checking out the competition?” Helena offers instead, but at that moment, applause sets in and Sam walks onto the stage clad in a tailored tux, with his pianist two steps ahead. He smiles at Myka in passing and if he catches sight of Helena next to her – and how could he not, Myka wonders – he does not let it on. Sam straightens, establishing contact with the audience, and moves into position for his first aria.
He sings beautifully and Myka keeps her eyes on him with firm determination, even as she is acutely aware of Helena’s presence, of the way she shifts shifts ever so slightly in her seat, causing a whisper of fabric in the silent pause between two songs. Myka looks at Sam, and maintains that he cuts a dashing figure in his tux, but there are Helena’s hands at the periphery of her vision as they applaud, one hand restricted by the bandage, and Myka looks at those hands and remembers the morning rehearsal and those hands on her hips.
She will run out of curses at this speed.
Myka glances down at the fine dusting of white on the tips of her shoes. Sam has given her the ticket and she is here for him, she reminds herself. Helena is difficult and moody and driven, and being attracted to her is a bad idea on every level. Even after more than a month of working with her, Myka does not know how to read her.
She holds onto her purse a little tighter and reminds herself that she is a professional, both onstage and offstage, and this concert – Sam’s concert – is no different.
In the intermission, she sneaks a glance at Helena’s ticket, but it actually spells out the seat next to hers and by the looks of it, it is a regular ticket, not some favor from the management. Helena makes small talk with patrons and admirers who approach her – Cardiff Singer of the World is aired internationally, Myka reminds herself –, a radiant splash of turquoise among the courtyard crowd. Myka exchanges a few polite words with Sam’s agent, who inquires about Myka’s own audition. His agency will not be the only one with access to the final rehearsals and Myka has apparently been deemed interesting enough to warrant small talk beforehand.
Their heavy-set neighbor comes back to his seat early, and, halfway though the first set after the break, he shifts, crowding Helena, which in turn pushes Helena closer to Myka. For a moment, Myka cannot help but think that Helena has orchestrated this move, too.
Helena places her bandaged wrist on the armrest between them – there is really no space to do otherwise – and now she is so close that Myka can feel the warmth coming off her body.
She does not look at Helena. She keeps gazing at Sam with renewed effort, especially when Helena shifts another bit closer. Myka cannot see whether their neighbor is the cause of that, too, because looking at him would require looking in Helena’s direction, and she will not do that. She sees Helena’s wrist from the corner of her eye, though, resting motionlessly on the armrest, with her immobilized fingers curled downwards. It is how the bandage works, but it also places those fingers less than an inch from Myka’s knee, just above the spot where her dress ends.
And now Myka sits still. Very still. She fervently stares up at Sam, and she does not move when one fingertip, perhaps on accident, brushes against the hem of her dress. Myka does look at Sam, but she does not see him. She does not see anything. There is only the sudden thunder of her pulse, and the featherlight touch against her thigh.
A second fingertip joins the first as Helena’s flexes her shoulders. It’s casual enough that it could still be accidental, but when Myka shifts involuntarily, that ends up making the contact just a bit firmer.
Helena is looking at the stage attentively, eyes straight ahead, and for all Myka knows, she is doing this on purpose to amp up the stage tension between her and Sam, or to build a backstory to feed off for Ramiro and Arminda.
A third fingertip lands on the seam of Myka’s dress, so gently that it is barely noticeable. But then its warmth moves, at a maddening pace, and Myka wants to scream as it drifts along the slight ridge of thread and fabric. She holds her breath and forgets to release it when the warmth, finally, comes to rest against skin.
She does not move away.
Sam’s expression falters a little when he looks down into the first row again – this is not a concert hall, they are seated close to the stage and the lights spill over onto them – and Myka does not want any part in this game, but she does not want Helena to take her hand away, either.
Myka glances up at the stars and curses some more.
With the applause in the end, it is as if noting has happened. Helena’s hands are at a safe distance again, clapping politely, and Myka applauds louder when Sam is asked for an encore. Sam smiles and looks at Myka as he bows, and when he looks at Helena, he does not smile any longer.
They move to stand in the end, applause replaced by the crunch of gravel once more, and Myka lingers to congratulate Sam when he emerges from the artists’ rooms.
“I suppose it would be rude not to compliment a colleague on a solo show well done,” Helena says with a smile as she lines up with her, and with her heels, she is nearly as tall as Myka is, and Myka thinks that she should not take such immediate note of this.
She nods at the ticket that Helena still holds in her good hand.
“So how much did this stunt cost you, exactly?”
A demure dip of her head obscures Helena’s smile for a moment.
“Oh, it was worth it.”
Operatic Cliff Notes:
- Chapter Quote:
“Between this one and that one
I am entangled,
I don’t know the solution to this,
I don’t know what to do.”
- Ramiro’s third (and final) aria is “Va pure ad’altri in braccio” (see e.g. Nikiteanu in Zurich, or Chappuis under Haim 2014, or Troyanos, which is older and slower and in German and audio only, but DARN does she nail the hurt affection) – Arminda’s second aria that is referenced as a companion piece is “Vorrei punirti, indegno”.
- Yes, I cut the solo recitative before “Va pure”. I will pretend the Aix dramaturg did it.
- A few impressions of Hôtel Maynier d’Oppède.