[an opera novella]
[written as Daphne]
“Care pupille belle,
volgete un sguardo a me,
ah se voi siete quelle
che delirar mi fate…”
(Mozart, La finta giardiniera)
Myka goes out to dinner with Sam, which is perfectly reasonable. They had made plans, and there is no reason to go back on them – not because of Pete clucking his tongue, giving his best sassy nurse impression when he catches sight of her in that little black dress again, and certainly not because she suddenly finds herself perpetually out of breath around Helena.
Being attracted to Sam is a lot more reasonable.
And it is a reasonably nice dinner they are sharing, in a very nice restaurant.
“I can call Linda and make sure she sits in on a rehearsal where you have your second aria,” Sam offers. “Or your first. They’re both strong, and you don’t have Helena taking up the stage.”
“That’s fine,” Myka says with more ease than she feels. “Linda wants to see me onstage, but she wants a few excerpts one-on-one, as well.”
“It still wouldn’t hurt to have the stage for yourself,” Sam insists. “Helena is not very collegial that way.”
“She is a good actress,” Myka feels the need to protest, although Helena might not be an actress as much as someone running on high stage energy, period.
“She will be busy showing off for herself during the final rehearsals,” Sam warns. “Someone from Frederic & Frederic is coming over because of her.”
“Frederic & Frederic?!”
That is not just any management, that is the top of the business, handling singers like Anja Harteros or Felicity Lott. Myka blinks. “Wait, how do you know that?”
Sam shrugs. “I heard them call to confirm when I was at Artistic Management last week. We are almost at final rehearsals. Helena is catering to her contacts. Or what do you think she was doing at my recital?”
“She enjoyed your recital.”
“I’m sure she did,” Sam mutters darkly.
“You came across great,” Myka tells him.
“Well… – Oh! Harold sent over two reviews that only appeared in print -” Sam digs out his cell phone because of course he has those two saved away, too. Myka already knows that he has an entire Evernote folder of clippings and she has to admit that he has garnered quite a bit of deserved praise for his concert.
“…with a flexible, youthful tone and beguiling charm…” Sam reads, and Myka laughs.
“Did they actually write beguiling?”
“It’s a perfectly good review word,” Sam says.
“Perhaps they write for Scrabble points,” Myka suggests and Sam laughs along with her. Myka feels victorious. They are at ease, flirting gently, and it is a perfectly nice date.
“I’ll have to rethink ‘youthful’,” Sam says.
“We are in the junior production,” Myka points out.
“But we don’t want junior contracts after all this exposure.” Sam purses his lips. “I think I need new headshots. Something projecting more seniority.”
Myka does not know what to say to this, so she smiles. Sam has organized the restaurant reservation and is taking her out, so the least she can do is make an effort.
“I could put in a word for you with my photographer, by the way,” Sam says. “He cuts me a special deal, but I am sure I could organize the same for you, if I ask him.”
“I don’t even know yet where I’ll be next season,” Myka says.
Sam is undeterred. “He travels. And perhaps…” His confidence falters for a second. “I thought perhaps you might visit me, at some point?”
Sam has a half-season contract in Belgium lined up, one of the smaller houses.
“I might be in Darmstadt in the fall,” Myka admits, not quite sure what she is offering, but Sam’s smile at that is unguarded. He truly is handsome, Myka reminds herself, and she agrees readily when, after dinner, he suggests a stroll back to the guesthouse.
His hand slips into hers seamlessly as they walk out into the street and Myka wills the tiny spark she feels to blossom into something brighter. She holds onto his hand more tightly for balance since her dress shortens her steps and her heels catch on the countless cobblestones.
“Well…” Sam looks at her expectantly when they arrive, his eyes wide and happy, and Myka feels guilty and frustrated enough at the absence of butterflies in her stomach that she leans in and kisses him first. But even though Sam kisses her back eagerly, hands at her waist beginning to wander, Myka’s breath does not catch. She is horrified at herself when she catches herself going over a few phrasings she had looked at before dinner. She pulls away and tries to make it look smooth.
“I’m sorry. I… I should head in.”
“Of course,” Sam says, and he does not push her. “Good night, Myka.” He plays with a stray curl of her hair for a second and he smiles softly as if he knows that Myka will come to him eventually.
It irks Myka, just as Helena’s games do. It is too late to head out for a run, but instead of going to bed, she picks up her score and heads to the wing with the rehearsal rooms. It is late, but if she keeps it down, she can claim a piano, enjoy the quiet, and work on those phrasings in earnest.
It is not as quiet as she hopes, though, since there is the sound of a piano drifting down to her when she climbs the stairs. Gentle scales, G major, voices. Light falls from a door left half open. Whoever is in there does expect company up here at this hour as little as Myka had.
The pianist misses a chord, there’s a soft curse, then the accompaniment switches to a marked rhythm and it takes Myka barely more than the intake of breath to place the voice that sets in.
“The enemy shouteth…”
It is Helena, much more in her element now than with gentle scales.
“The enemy shouteth,” a second voice echoes and Myka wants to leave. She creeps closer, careful to remain out of sight, and from here she can see the lit reflection of the room against the night-tinted windows.
“The godless come fast!”
Helena stands next to the piano and Abigail echoes, “The godless come fast!” from her position at the bench as she steps in for the entire four-voice choir between her hands and voice.
“Iniquity, hatred upon me they cast!”
It has got to be around midnight, and Helena, hair haphazardly swept from her face and wrapped in something knitted that looks worn and soft, stands with one hand placed on the piano and dishes out her phrases with the fervor of verismo opera.
“The wicked oppress me –”
Her consonants are sharp, taking up too much space between the vowels. The voice cannot fully open and it comes across uneven as a result.
“Ah, bloody hell –” Helena curses and reaches for a pencil and Abigail laughs softly. It makes Myka want to scowl. “I apologize. I am keeping you from your recital program, and I am botching this up to boot!”
“Please.” Abigail waves her off. “I can play the Chaminade in my sleep.” As if to prove her point, her hands switch into a dramatic show-off run that sounds very much 20th century without losing a beat. “And this here is keeping me sharp.” She is back in G Major in mere moments and prompts, “The Wicked oppress me…”
“Ah, where shall I fly?” Helena continues, and it is a long note that finally allows her voice to catch roundness and soar. “Perplex’d and bewilder’d, O God, hear my cry!”
Myka knows this piece, or pieces like it. It has to be Mendelssohn by the harmonics, one of his showpiece psalms for soprano, and she is comfortably certain she has sung it as a choir alto at some point.
“Are you really sure you want to sing this at a wedding?” Abigail does not stop playing. “I just hope your friends have a sense of humor. – Are they two tragic actors?”
Helena just laughs in reply and touches Abigail’s shoulder. They actually work together, and perhaps that it is really all they have been doing these past few weeks, but there is an easy camaraderie between them that Myka still envies fiercely.
“O God, hear my cry!” Abigail takes over for the chorus, covering most of the parts. They toss the phrases back and forth, a bit more of recitative, Helena botches up a few more lines and curses, but delves ahead into yet more drama. “With Horror overwhelm’d, Lord, hear me call!”
Myka cannot make out their faces, but she sees Abigail shake her head at Helena. And then Helena stands still when the piano dies down to a whisper.
“O for the wings, for the wings of a dove. Far away, far away I would rove…”
It is a long, spun line interwoven with triplets and Myka stands rooted to the spot, by a piece and a style she would never have associated with Helena, whom she only gets to see in relation to Arminda because Helena never ever cuts that link. But this right here, this is a new side to Helena, bared in song, suppliant and hopeful.
Myka feels herself melt away and rise again as something she did know herself to be. She does not see more than Helena’s back, now bent forward to squint at the score over Abigail’s shoulder, yet she is absolutely mesmerized. Myka curses Mendelssohn and his surging build-ups, his triplets, and his damn effectiveness, and she curses Helena, everything about Helena. She curses her own inability to turn around and shrug off this pull that draws her to Helena with an intensity that should frighten her far more than it does.
“In the wilderness build me a nest…”
Myka tiptoes back to the stairs, away from the blurry sight of Abigail and Helena. One floating D sharp stops her short for a brief moment, and something within her clenches at the modulation, unsettling and anchoring her at once.
It is just a few more weeks, Myka tells herself. Barely a week until they open, and after that, she will only have to see Helena for the evening performances. And after that, she will not have to see her again at all.
Myka opens her laptop to see whether Tracy is online, by chance, but the icon is inactive. Myka’s fingers hover over the keys and she has typed in “Cardiff Singer of The World” before she can think better of it. She ends up on YouTube, where someone has meticulously uploaded most of Helena’s entries from the final rounds. And Myka cannot quite bring herself to stop, not until she makes it to the finals and Helena in Prussian blue raises an eyebrow into the camera on her screen, with her head held high against the nerves – Myka sees the tension in her hands, can pinpoint the moment where Helena realizes it, too, and makes an effort to relax them – and she briefly closes her eyes before she eases into Parry’s O mistress mine.
It is an obscure song, but Rebecca has always liked the obscure, which is why Myka knows the title without looking it up. She is not sure whether she is grateful for it right then.
Helena’s voice is not cut out for song. It is constantly straining at the edges towards something bigger, but Helena has an uncanny knack for reeling the narration into the sound as she is beckoning her lover – the pronouns tease at Myka’s heartbeat – with nonchalant earnestness.
Myka must have watched the song, and the brief flutter of eyelids against cheek that precedes it, for the fifth time when there is a knock on her door. Myka’s first, absurd thought is Helena and she shoves her laptop away quick enough to have it topple over.
She wipes at her eyes a moment too late.
“Hey Mykes.” Pete leans against the doorframe and peers past her into the room. “How was dinner? – I saw you come in, but then I caught Mr. Hunkentenor downstairs…”
Myka crosses her arms over her chest. “Is Amanda out?”
“No,” Pete says comfortably. “I told her I’d go check out the gossip for a moment. She really wants to know whether she has to put in an extra effort at rehearsal tomorrow. You know, in case you grew tired of his tenor face and knocked him out.”
Soft applause draws both their gazes to the bed, where Myka’s laptop has landed and Myka would curse the autoplay function if she still had any curses to spare.
Pete cants his head to the side until his sight is aligned with a miniature Helena in mossy green, who takes a breath and smiles at her audience.
When Pete looks at Myka again, his eyes are very gentle. “So… not the tenor, huh?”
Myka weakly shakes her head. “No. Not the tenor.”
Operatic Cliff Notes:
- Chapter Quote:
“Dear, beautiful eyes,
turn a glance my way.
Ah, if you are the ones
that are making me lose my mind…”
- Obviously, I have no idea about the managements of either Anja Harteros (possibly the best lirico spinto out there at the moment) or Dame Felicity Lott (gracefully withdrawing these years, but a lyric legend), but I needed a point of reference.
- “Hear My Prayer” / “Hör mein Bitten” is billed as a “hymn for soprano and choir” (also known as “Psalm 55”) by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. It’s so pretty that it’s bordering on kitsch. Fine, it probably *is* kitsch, but it is so very effective. The original score is for organ but there is an orchestra version, too. It’s pretty well known and standard church repertory fare, which means that there are A LOT of versions on YT (I’m not sold on any, but you could start here. the segue into the hymn part with the triplets happens at the 5’15 minute mark). The score is on IMSLP, if you want to have a look.
- Large parts of “Cardiff Singer of the World” (which, btw, Harteros won a few years ago) are covered and aired by the BBC, with much of it available on BBC Player afterwards, so the competition does come with quite a bit of exposure. Usually, Eyes has us covered!
– Hubert Parry’s “O mistress mine” (mind the Shakespeare lyrics!) is probably one of the most obscure songs, period, and virtually no one knows Parry, but it’s a very nice song setting and I imagine this Helena would pull it off perfectly, all subtle and confident (just mentally replace the young tenor here with something smooth and seductive). The score is on IMSLP (English Song Lyrics, 2nd Set, No. 1).