[an opera novella]
[written as Daphne]
“se tu sapessi…
(son fuor di me) che smania,
che tumulto ho nel core,
né so se sia speranza, oppur timore.”
[Mozart, La finta giardiniera]
Wardrobe and Make-up take nearly an hour to straighten out Myka’s hair and settle on a sleek ponytail for her Ramiro.
“It’s not very 1920s.” The make-up artist complains while he works to bring out Myka’s cheekbones and harden her jawline. “But Nielsen didn’t want wigs, so…”
“Mhm,” Myka says, careful not to move her lips. Whatever Artie’s motivation – it’s “Artie” now, after Claudia dragged them all out to a pub after a disastrous run-through of the Second Act and made them collectively drown their sorrows – Myka is grateful that she will not have to worry about wearing a wig. None of the cast is fitted with one because apparently in junior productions, one can get away with it.
“Since most singers still have full heads of hair at our age,” Kelly had quipped, who sits in the chair next to Myka and barely needs any cover-up. It is the first time they are in make-up and costume, for the main piano rehearsal, which already takes place out at the Domaine. This means that the directing rehearsals are officially over, unless Artie turns out to be one of those directors who frantically keep redoing scenes throughout the final orchestra rehearsals.
Myka glances at herself in the mirror, at Ramiro taking shape with a darker tint down her temples, and she sinks another bit into his skin.
“Less beard, more eyebrows!” is Artie’s only comment when he sticks his head into the room for a moment and Myka deflates again.
“He’s one to talk about eyebrows,” Kelly says.
“Why do you look so different?”
A startled Helena cuts to the chase when she walks in, riding costume already fitted to her frame.
“I’m in make-up?” Myka ventures with mock patience.
“No, your hair…” Helena rounds the chair, looks at Myka. “This is different. This changes things!”
Myka’s accented eyebrows rise upwards. “You will berate me differently because I have straightened my hair?” She has done so for many concert appearances, and Helena’s overt disapproval puts another damper on her mood.
“It makes you a different type…” Helena runs a hand through her own hair in frustration. “The curls were much more Byronic!”
“Never mind Byron. I would go out with your Ramiro,” Kelly reassures Myka and winks at her through the mirror.
“He’s still my ex-fiancé,” Helena says haughtily and Myka does not want to revel in that small display of possessiveness.
Instead she says, “Oh, so we were engaged now?” as blasé as she can manage, and she is not sure whether she feels complimented at the Byron reference or whether she wants to roll her eyes along with Kelly when Helena sinks into the last vacant chair. At least they are set up within the old countryside palace, where thick walls keep the heat at bay. The prop department has not gotten so lucky and is residing in mobile containers on the other side, vocally unhappy about it.
“At some point, statistically, a wild boar will come out of that thicket,” Bennet argues as they walk out onto the stage and blink against the sun.
Myka moves out of the way to let two technicians with a floodlight pass. “At this hour, every boar is asleep in the shade.”
Amanda grins at her and she looks perfectly lovely, clad in shades of pastel and with her hair curled softly. “Besides, any boar walking up here would roast himself.”
“We will perform at dusk,” Bennet reminds her, and he still eyes the edge of the wood with distrust.
It is hard to imagine a mild evening now, in between the glistening light and the heat baking the castle walls. Myka has sweat running down her back before she even finishes her first aria, struggling with a stiff shirt collar that is still unfamiliar. She is relieved that they do not yet have to squint at Hugo in addition.
When they do, the next morning, and when even the perpetually relaxed Hugo Miller asks for a sunshade in clipped tones, nobody moves more than absolutely necessary. With the exception of Artie, who wears cracks into the side stage and complains about them having forgotten everything – “Hugo is not a snake! You do not have to stare at him like a paralyzed troupe of rabbits, and if you do, don’t do it in the front!” – and with the exception of Helena, who drives Arte crazy with trying out small details that are not written down in the directing score.
“We didn’t agree on that!”
“But it might work better, here,” Helena readily disagrees as she allows herself to react to the sounds and the scenery around her.
Myka envies this ease of connection. In her theory classes she once heard how the Greek, unlike the Romans, built their theatres into nature, to have the stage and the action blend into it, and Helena reminds her of that.
Helena reminds her of many things, or perhaps it is that everything reminds her of Helena now.
She stays on the side stage to listen to Helena’s entrance aria, with Helena a silhouette against an impossibly bright sky.
“So easily do lovers promise things these days,
and the poor, hapless girl believes it
and is trusting enough to say yes…
But I don’t.”
Myka squints. She cannot make out Helena’s face, but she sees the tilt of her head, the set of her shoulders, and it has been weeks of work between that first take where Helena had breezed onto the scene with cool disdain, and this display now, with pride and insecurity intermingling. This Arminda is younger, more hopeful, and Sam – in pastels that match Amanda – stands to the side like the perfect Prince Charming.
“Clear and done deals before I tell you yes or no!” Helena tucks her hand into Sam’s arm and the way she gazes up at him makes him look even more dashing. “You will be my one and only, my hope…”
And Myka knows of whom she is jealous.
“But if you ever betrayed me…”
Perhaps Helena sees Myka standing there, next to Artie, or perhaps she simply cannot resist the chance to upstage Sam once more, because now her gloved hands move down his shirtfront, much as they will trail down Myka’s in the third act tonight. But Helena’s hands move lower, across Sam’s waistband and lower still, and Myka finds herself unable to tear her gaze away.
“If I ever found you lacking… I’ll know to use my hands!”
From where she is standing, Myka can hear Artie guffaw just as Helena’s fingers close and squeeze.
“Wells!! Not in the script!”
Artie covers his face with his hands for a moment and Myka is glad that he cannot see her right then. She does not know who looks more flushed, Sam onstage or she herself on the sidelines. Helena pushes Sam into a corner, once more perfectly aligned with Artie’s official vision, only to linger a moment longer. It is a really good idea, Myka has to admit. And she hates it.
Helena removes her hand far too slowly – it is the bandaged one – and Myka stares at those fingers and absently brushes a palm against her thigh. She wants to be the one to pull off that glove, the one to sit next to Helena again during a recital in the dark.
Abigail’s concert is tomorrow, on a night the musicians will have off because the light crew needs the stage, and Myka has given far too much thought to the question whether Helena has merely given her a ticket, or whether she will attend the concert, too – she should, as Abigail’s friend –, and if so, in what seat.
For now, she watches Helena turn once more towards Sam, everything about her posture proclaiming desire, and Myka tells herself firmly that Act Three is on Hugo’s schedule for tonight, so no matter how Sam is now sliding an arm around Helena’s waist, the day will end with Helena tucked against Myka’s side, nevermind her staged parting glance at Sam. It will be a few moments under the stars, just like at Hôtel Maynier d’Oppède. Unless Helena decides to try out a new ending to Arminda’s story, as well.
But Helena does not do that. With Ramiro, Helena sticks close to the script, from their choreographed grappling for the epée to the moment where Myka briefly straddles her and speaks of past promises. Myka finds, with a blend of regret and relief, that she never manages to relish those moments as much as she secretly wants to. They pass in a blur between the action and her breathing and keeping an eye on Hugo’s baton, and she will not linger beyond what the score dictates. She is not like that.
Pete looks at her expectantly when she gets back late – very late – from rehearsal critique.
“So, did Helena really get hands-on with Sam’s…”
“An original sassy nurse would come up with a witty descriptor, you know.”
“…most vocal chord?” Pete suggests. “His very low C?”
Myka groans. “How do you even know about –” She does not to finish the question. “Amanda.”
Pete shakes his head, takes a swig of his beer and pushes another one across the table at Myka. “Baptiste from the woodwinds, actually.” He grins. “Apparently, half the section was wincing in sympathy, while the other half wanted to sign up.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Myka mutters.
“Mhmm.” Pete raises his bottle again. “You may have to step up your game.”
“I don’t have any game, Pete.”
Myka is tired, and not up for Pete’s teasing or for second-guessing Helena’s motivations. Linda from the management agency will sit in on the pree-dress rehearsal, and Myka will focus on that. Aix means only a few more weeks, and Myka needs a perspective beyond that. She has no larger network in Europe yet, and a few scattered concert gigs are not enough to pay rent, no matter where.
“You could always bunk with me,” Pete offers.
Myka gives him a fond look. “Pete, you are bunking with someone.”
“I have my own room,” Pete protests. He has a small contract as an extra in Nuremberg, with the Philharmony, and travels from there. “And the room has an extra couch, so…”
“And Amanda will be lounging on it for most of the season, won’t she?”
“Amanda – “
Pete falls silent.
To Myka, this French summer is warping into a sample of French import cinema, the kind she watched and never quite understood as a teenager, before she realized with chagrin that it was not supposed to be understood: a slew of unresolved situations. There is one, however, that she can clear up when Sam slides an arm around her shoulders during orchestra rehearsal the next morning.
“How about we go out again after we open, just and me? To celebrate?” They are on the side stage, while on the scene, Hugo works with Helena and Kelly on a recitative transition. Sam tugs Myka closer in a way that feels like a display, and it is lined with impatience. “I can get us reservations again…”
“I’m sorry,” Myka says. “I don’t think I should. I mean, I like you, but – I simply have a lot on my mind right now.”
Sam takes his arm away, stands next to her and nods. “Yes, I get that,” he says easily. “It is your first big production, after all.”
Myka wants to bristle at that, but takes her cue from there instead. “Yes, and to now add a summer fling to that…”
Sam looks at her with a smile that does not quite manage to cover the dashed hope in his expression. “I wasn’t just looking for a summer fling.”
“Oh… I…” Myka is mortified at his quiet admission. “I am sorry. I honestly didn’t think that far ahead. You are much more –”
Helena swoops in at this very moment.
“More dinner plans?”
She looks more at Sam than at Myka, as if she is contemplating whether she approves of his head remaining attached to his shoulders.
Myka rolls her eyes. “Not tonight. I have a concert ticket, remember?”
“Of course.” Helena smiles. “I think I can make it, too.” Her gaze touches upon Sam again, fleetingly, and Sam steps away.
Myka finds herself protective of him. “You’re obnoxious.”
Helena shrugs. “You aren’t missing out on much.” She adjusts the glove above her bandage, moving her fingers suggestively.
“And you’re five years old,” Myka adds. “And gross.”
“Never mind his knob,” Helena scoffs and mockingly imitates Sam’s voice. “Come to my recital, Myka! Clap for me, Myka! Make me look suave! Read my reviews! – Did it ever occur to him to read yours for a change?”
Myka glares at Helena. “Did you eavesdrop?!”
“With how he broadcasts? – Watching him shove his mobile at you puts some people off their breakfasts, you know.” Helena shakes her head. “The last time I dated a tenor, at least he didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Russian.”
“Right, what could possibly go wrong then?” Myka says dryly.
Helena shrugs again, her expression frank. “Our egos didn’t quite fit into the same room after a while.”
“You don’t say.”
Claudia walks up to them with a few urgent notes at this point. Others follow later, while the entire cast huddles in the shrinking shadows inside the palace patio and Artie reminds them of each and every staging detail they have forgotten while they were trying to adjust to Hugo’s pacing.
On the drive back into town, Myka keeps her head in her score and ignores everyone around her. She spends the entire afternoon in the practice rooms over the arias for her audition and refuses to think about Helena and some faceless Russian tenor. Perhaps she takes a little more care than necessary in getting ready for the evening. Her hair is curled once more, even though Make-Up will straighten it out again just as meticulously. She wears her little black dress and feels out of place as soon as she steps inside the small concert venue. The crowd is informal in a way that differs from Hôtel Maynier d’Oppède. Here, it is fewer festival tourists and more hip art connoisseurs who have dressed down elaborately.
The chairs are worn, set up in untidy rows, and the floor is scuffed. When Myka looks up, she sees aged wooden beams crossing the length of the room. The only thing looking new is the grand piano, polished to a gleam.
The whole scene seems a set-up for a high-brow architecture spread. The seats are not numbered, either, and Myka tries to ignore the pang of disappointment at realizing that she will not be sitting next to Helena. It is for the better, she sternly tells herself and looks for an unobtrusive seat somewhere in the middle.
“Myka! Over here!”
Helena waves at her – from the front row, of course –, early for once, and she has her other, injured hand slung across the back of the chair next to her, keeping it free. Myka walks forward and does care shockingly little about what would be for the better.
Helena is dressed to match the photo shoot that could occur at any moment, wide pants over scuffed boot tips, a white dress shirt with the cuffs and collar unbuttoned, and what looks like an untied bowtie slung underneath.
Myka misses a step.
“Myka. Good evening.” Helena removes her hand from the chair. “I reserved you a seat and fought off any contenders to it.”
Myka bathes in the warm smile directed at her. This is the most removed from Arminda she has seen Helena; gone are the territorial flirtation and the challenging undertones. Perhaps Helena away from the circuit would be like this, perhaps she will be, in a couple of years, when she gives interviews during the festival season. Myka has little doubt about that happening as she sits down next to this Helena, who is cordial and relaxed and who might joke about how she once dated some tenor whom she could not even talk to.
This is perhaps how Helena and Abigail relate to each other, with an ease born of professional respect, without any tumultuous yearning underneath. And Myka wants this, but she does not stop yearning. She wants Helena’s obnoxious remarks, too, and Helena’s fingers on her thighs and every stubborn “This does not work”.
Abigail walks out in a sleeveless red sheath and Myka hears a few cameras go off before the welcome applause swells up. The Heritage Concert Series is no stiff affair. There is not even a program book, but an emcee in very fashionable dark eye frames, who gives an introduction to every piece. Now and then a chair creaks, and when Myka throws a startled glance back over her shoulder, she sees someone leaning forward, elbows on their knees, and to the right, she can make out a couple of thirty-somethings with perfectly groomed beards who are sitting with their arms around each other and hold hands.
Most of the music, Myka has never even heard of – a réverie by Augusta Holmès, another by Germaine Tailleferre. Abigail plays without sheet music, without need for anyone to turn pages. It is just her and the grand piano on the makeshift stage. She does not move around much, yet Myka momentarily finds herself distracted by the shift of muscle along her upper arms while she plays, and when she catches Helena admiring the same sight, she is ridiculously jealous.
She shifts in her chair, which promptly catches on the uneven floor and ends up with a tilt Myka has to balance. Helena glances at her, a smile playing at the corners of her eyes. The emcee announces an Air russe, and Myka’s chair tilts again and squeaks just as the piano quietly sets in. Without looking at her, Helena reaches over and places her hand in between their seats like a wedge, holding Myka’s chair steady.
Myka stares at Helena’s hand for a moment. She does not dare to put her own on top of it.
The music pulses forward under Abigail’s fingers, yet hers are not the fingers Myka is most aware of. She could cry right then, between the pulse of the music and Helena close enough to sense the minuscule shift of her shoulders as she breathes. Helena does not take her hand away, which leaves her angled toward Myka, and Myka does not dare to move at all even as she strains against her own skin to push beyond its barriers and closer to Helena.
It is Helena who moves, who lifts her hands to clap, but when the applause dies down, her elbow falls to the backrest of Myka’s chair.
“Sorry,” she whispers, while the emcee talks about the piano works of Cécile Chaminade. She does not remove her arm, and now she is sitting even closer than before.
Out of nowhere, Abigail draws impatient leaps and wild arcs from the keys, echoing Myka’s turmoil. The sound then switches to something solemn, of fervor and vows in pews, and at first Myka only notices the shift in warmth when Helena slowly extends her arm, allowing it to rest along Myka’s back in a touch light as a feather.
At this distance, Myka can glimpse the expanse of skin framed by Helena’s open shirt buttons, can make out the small herringbone pattern of the bowtie under the collar, and she knows that this moment will stay with her for as long as she lives.
Helena does not remove her arm for the length of the entire sonata and with every breath Myka takes, she can feel the warmth against her back grow more solid. Two fingertips brush against her neck, perhaps on purpose. Once, twice, and Myka is not aware of anything else. And among rising and rising chords, a breathless Myka vows to try and kiss Helena goodnight later, if they walk home together.
But as soon as the music fades away and the final applause sets in, Myka’s resolve crumbles. However contrived, Helena has merely kept her chair from tilting. Myka does not even know if –
“Helena!” Abigail waves at them across the hall with a large bouquet of flowers in her hand. “Myka!” She is surrounded by a group of concertgoers.
“Congratulations,” Myka tells her.
Abigail beams at her. “Thank you for coming out tonight!”
“It was wonderful,” Helena says. “Your Chaminade in particular. Hypnotic!”
“It was fantastic,” Myka agrees. It nearly made me kiss Helena, she does not say.
“We’re heading out for a drink. You’ll be joining us, won’t you?”
“Of course,” Helena says, and Myka wants to decline, but she does not want the evening to end. It is still early, she tells herself, and she ends up nursing a water and enjoying the evening, although she is careful with how much and how loudly she speaks among the small crowd. Helena laughs across the table, a hand in her hair as she pushes it back and the cuff of her shirt rides up with the gesture, and it is another moment Myka wants to keep with her. She looks at Abigail and hopes that she herself will be as relieved and nearly satisfied – “But the accented runs in the Farrenc!” Abigail says with a grimace – come tomorrow night.
“You audition tomorrow?” Abigail blinks when Myka finally excuses herself. “I didn’t know!”
Hardly anyone knows, because Myka is nervous enough as it is.
Helena is caught in conversation with the emcee right then and Myka puts a hand on her shoulder in passing, bends down to tell her “I’m heading back in” among the noise in the bar. Helena turns her head and laces her fingers through Myka’s for a moment.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, then. Good night.”
Myka walks back to the guesthouse on her own. She is acutely aware that she is alone, but at the same time, she is overflowing with emotions, a kaleidoscope throwing wild whorls onto the sky that suddenly make perfect sense. She wants to cry, and yet she thinks she may never have been as happy at the same time.
This is crazy, and it is good that it will be over soon, but as she looks up into the pale stars above the city, she also wants it to never end at all.
Operatic Cliff Notes:
- Chapter quote:
“If you knew…
(I am out of my mind) the longing,
the uproar I have in my heart!
I don’t know whether it is hope, or fear.”
- This chapter has been imprived subtantially through the keen eye of The Duchess. Thank you! Thanks also to nondramafly and yvonne for the test drive.
- Some words on final rehearsals in opera: I’ve had trouble with finding rehearsal terminology, so you’re very welcome to suggest better terms here. I’ve found “dress rehearsal” for both the final (Generalprobe) and the penultimate (Hauptprobe) rehearsal, and no term at all for “Klavierhauptprobe”, which is the first complete run-through, on stage, and also the final rehearsal with piano solo, with the whole staging already done and with the original costumes and make-up, though still with rehearsal lights and rehearsal sets.
After this KHP, there are usually a few days of the technical staff setting up the original set, interspersed with light design rehearsals that are staffed by extras (and interns) and not by the singers themselves to mark positions. Then there is a group of final orchestra stage rehearsals (Bühnenorchesterproben). I’ve generally seen four to six, but if you’re out of luck or not an important conductor, you may get only two or three. Those are the rehearsals for the conductor, where they call the shots and can decide to stop or repeat (or scream at everyone and run out in a fit), and they’re about coordinating orchestra, singers and, on a second plane, the action. Hence they’re mostly in rehearsal light, rehearsal costume and without make-up.
The stage director’s work is mostly done at this point, they usually just sit in and take notes to later review with the cast. In the first of these main orchestra rehearsals, with all the singers suddenly focused on the conductor, a good portion of the staging tends to disappear (hopefully, just temporarily). It’s also where conductor and director may clash over unresolved scenic or musical choices.
When these orchestra stage rehearsals are done, there are two more rehearsals (run-throughs), the penultimate and the dress rehearsal, with the full works: Stage, orchestra, original sets, original lights, wardrobe and make-up. In between dress rehearsal and opening night, there’s often a night off in opera, as a concession to the voices.
- The aria Helena is singing during the orchestra rehearsal would be “Si promette facilmette” (1st Act).
- Abigail’s recital features French women composers from around 1900 – Farrenc being a little early to the party and and Tailleferre a little late, but it’s not my area of expertise. The Augusta Holmès is so obscure that it is not even on YT (the Tailleferre is). Farrenc’s Air Russe with the pulse is this one. And then there is the piano sonata No. 1 by Cécile Chaminade, which clearly is climbing up to *somewhere* and perhaps nicely illustrates Myka’s emotional landscape at this moment; score on IMSLP.