[an opera novella]
[written as Daphne]
Dunque nell’atto istesso,
In quell dolce momento, in cui ti trovo,
Io perderti dovrò?
[Mozart, La finta giardiniera]
Tracy calls again the next afternoon to ask for details on Linda, clinging to a cup of morning coffee while Myka is getting ready to take the bus out to the Domaine.
“Your hair!” Tracy says instead. “Just like when you tried to look like an adult for prom.”
“Not you, too,” Myka grumbles and Tracy perks up.
“Who else thought you were primping for prom?”
“This is the director’s choice,” Myka corrects her. “And the costume designer’s. And nobody mentioned prom. You did.”
“But someone said something.” Tracy’s eyes are more alert across the rim of her coffee cup. “Oh, it was Miss Cardiff.”
“She doesn’t like it,” Myka says. “And I don’t even know why I talk to you.”
“Because I am your only sister.” Tracy takes another sip of coffee. “Which also makes me the only one entitled to nag you about your hair, or your crushes.”
Myka just sighs.
“I take it is going badly, then?”
“It is not going at all,” Myka says. “It’s tonight and then we open, and after that, we only have to see each other for the performances and we will be out of each other’s hair in a few weeks. Which is for the best. End of story.”
“You don’t give me much material to work with,” Tracy complains. “Either way, I actually wanted to wish you to… break a leg. Unless that’s bad luck, too, if it’s said two days early?”
“No, it isn’t.”
It is two more days, and despite knowing what would be for the best, Myka sits with her eyes on fields of burnt gold and green as the bus rattle past them, but with her awareness full of Helena who sits two rows in front of her, water bottle in hand, bent over her score.
She tries not to ignore Helena too obviously while they change, least of all when Amanda casts a knowing glance her way. Myka chats instead with the wardrobe assistant, Jeannine, who is helping her with the bindings for her breasts. She winces when Jeannine closes the last clasp and leaves the bandage cutting sharply into the skin above Myka’s ribs. It is only a minute, then the sensation fades, and the assistant slips the shirt over her head, adjusts the cuffs and Myka is shifting her stance when she catches sight of herself, Ramiro beginning to look at back at her.
She heads to Make-Up with Kelly, far more relaxed than yesterday, but the calm is gone in a heartbeat when they nearly collide with a tall, blond woman in the door.
“Oh, I apologize,” she says, as Myka and Kelly all but gape at her. “I didn’t mean to be a bother.” Up close, her hair is more grey than blond, and she is not actually that tall, but she easily commands the entire space around her.
“Dame Vanessa,” Myka says and hopes that she does not sound as starstruck as she feels.
“’Vanessa’ is fine,” Vanessa Calder replies with amusement. “Myka, isn’t it? A lovely rehearsal yesterday, particularly your second aria.” She smiles at Kelly. “I’m looking forward to hearing you again tonight.”
“Was that Dame Vanessa?” Amanda whispers, catching up to them as they stare after the singer.
“That’s Dame Vanessa all right,” Kelly says and blinks. “But what is she doing here?”
“There is that rumor about her and Hugo –“
But there is no more time to wonder about that as they get called into Make-Up. Claudia’s thirty-minute alert comes quick tonight and the buzz of a much bigger audience is filling the courtyard. Unlike Linda yesterday, the imposing figure of Irene Frederic stands out among the crowd, and next to her, Kelly points out Dame Vanessa.
“Fifteen minutes to curtain!”
Hugo makes a last stop backstage, the orchestra is beginning to settle in, and the evening is underway before Myka can fret about it. The first act flies by without any mishaps while the summer sky above them slowly thins in color. Dusk seems to lie in wait in the trees around the courtyard and Myka catches Helena’s profile against the waning light and aches.
Helena is radiant tonight, less aggressive than she had been yesterday and even though she has mentioned her nerves to Myka, they are not apparent at all. If anything, the entire show is coming together too smoothly for a dress rehearsal, but by the time break rolls around, even a haggard Claudia is smiling.
“That’s because the second act is still ahead,” Artie grumbles while he paces among them and effectively spoils the exuberant mood. “Remember the finale, don’t pile up in front again like a parade of headless chicken!”
A hand lands on his shoulder, and Dame Vanessa appears at his side. “In my day, the critique happened after the rehearsal,” she observes as she tucks her hand into his arm with a gesture that bespeaks a thousand other instances of this very movement. “For which you might perchance need to save some of your energy?”
Artie takes a breath, exhales, and softens under Vanessa’s gaze. “No chicken pile!” he stresses, but it does not sound half as upset any longer.
“They are an item?!” Amanda whispers next to Myka, eyes round.
Helena looks just as startled. “I did not know that.”
“And of course you would know all the gossip going around the Royal Opera,” Amanda says, and it is about more than Dame Vanessa. Sometimes, Myka forgets that Amanda is slated as the leading lady in this production.
Helena does not respond, but Myka can see how she squares her shoulders. Then something down the sidestage draws her attention and when Myka follows her gaze, she sees Sam standing in between prop tables as he struggles to talk to someone who is not Irene Frederic, but who has the same tilt of head and the same no-nonsense air about her, despite a much gentler demeanor.
“Leena Frederic,” Helena supplies. “The junior partner of Frederic & Frederic. Someone not to underestimate.”
Myka recognizes how Sam shifts, how he will now smile in his most convincing manner and try to explain something to Ms. Frederic.
“Oh please,” Helena mutters next to her. “As if they would ever take him on!”
“He is a good singer,” Myka feels obliged to point out.
“Not good enough.”
“All the better for you, isn’t it?” Myka snaps. “That way you can upstage him to your heart’s content!”
“That’s not what I… Myka, wait!“
Helena saying her name should not affect her like this. It slows her step, but Myka walks on and when she faces Helena again, it is to fight over a sword and broken promises in Mozartean lines that could have been part of their backstage exchange just now. It is far too easy to channel her private rancor into Ramiro, and she feels uneasy about that. She cannot blame Helena for not returning her affections, yet that is far too much at the core of Myka’s delivery. Helena’s abrasiveness, her arrogance, her aloof push-and-pull – she could begrudge her those, but they do not ring as much through the lines that they hurl at each other.
Myka tries to resist the pull as Arminda’s anger blends into Helena and back again, and even though it should have no bearing on the action, their final embrace comes out stilted. It has Myka mad at herself all through the post-rehearsal notes, which they receive sitting at the edge of the stage while the crew is cleaning up behind them. Helena is leaning back onto her hands and gazes up at the stars that are now dotting the countryside sky and Myka reaches for a pencil and turns away until Helena is only a silhouette at the very edge of her vision.
There are fewer notes today, which has Artie and Claudia equally nervous as they tick off the comments on their list. On Artie’s other side, in the first row of the now vacated seats, Dame Vanessa is a picture of casual calm, even as everyone’s eyes stray to her time and again.
“Most of you will be familiar with Dame Vanessa Calder,” Artie says eventually, gesturing at her with the same gentle ease that she displays around him. “She will not dissolve into thin air, so there is no need to gawk at her.”
But she is still Dame Vanessa, even if she is here “just for Artie, nothing else” and suggests going out for a drink with them. Myka catches her later, a beer in hand, going over two phrasings with a glowing Amanda regardless. She also speaks at length with Helena, who is the only one of them who has met Vanessa before, having taken a master class with her, but Helena seems, if unwillingly, just as much in awe of her as the rest of them.
Myka has not seen either of the Frederics approach Helena. She debates whether she should ask her about it, but in the end, the opportunity does not present itself. She does not see Helena the next day, either. It is an odd off day, a downward spike in energy between the dress rehearsal and opening night, and Myka keeps herself busy by strolling through town and looking for opening night gifts. She stumbles upon a shelf of little solar flowers that move their tiny plastic petals with the light, hideous and much too colorful and cheap. They are perfect.
Later, she sits down to study the paperwork of her contract in depth. She calls her parents, and she calls the law student she used to date – the one whose existence Tracy keeps doubting – with a few questions on the small print. She has the sensation of signing away her soul, not to mention a tremendous amount of royalties, when she finally places her signature on the dotted line and heads back out to the post office. She does not even mind when the post worker on duty asks her to repeat what stamp values she needs. She officially has an agent now.
Linda briefly calls her on opening day to arrange a meeting later in the run – “I need to sign someone in Drottningholm tomorrow and then I’m in L.A. at the Operalia semi-finals, but I’ll be back in Aix after that” – and Myka is still a little overwhelmed by the prospect of long-term plans and being suggested projects. Linda is already thinking about collecting review blurbs for Myka’s future entry on the agency website, while Myka is thinking about tonight and joins an early crew transport out to Domaine de Grand Saint Jean.
She takes a walk around the premises and enjoys the relative quiet, breathes in the air that is slightly cooler underneath the trees, and when she relaxes her jaw and hums a few notes, her voice responds perfectly. Linda should get a few reviews worth quoting out of this premiere.
Neither the make-up artists nor the costume assistants are on site yet when Myka slips into the dressing rooms to leave gifts and little notes. She is not the first one. When she walks into the women’s changing room, she finds a few little tokens already in her place, and when she returns from an impromptu coffee with Claudia – coffee for Claudia, Myka is sticking to water so close to the show – there are more: a little smurf with glasses and a law book, single roses, a candy sunflower.
Myka reads the well-wishes and, slowly, the nerves set in. Hummed triads carry over from the men’s dressing room. Out in the corridor, costume rack wheels squeak across floors uneven with age. Everything beyond these rooms is beginning to fall away.
Kelly is even giddier than usual. Both of them look on from the window while Amanda is being photographed for an interview down in the courtyard. Sam is on his phone, standing to the side, probably sending out a last tweet to the fanbase he is trying to groom. He and Myka wish each other toi-toi and spit across the appropriate shoulder, and it is a little awkward to touch him now.
“I’m including Leena Frederic in it, too,” he says, and pushes another button. “She’s lovely. And who knows…”
“Sure,” Myka says carefully.
“They took on Helena,” Sam adds. “Did you know? – And she had the nerve to negotiate over her contract! Back and forth, apparently. I heard it in the office this morning. I don’t know whether I would have signed her after that stunt.”
“I suppose they have their reasons.”
Sam frowns at that, and Myka knows that he dislikes Helena, but even he would have to admit that she is an exceptional stage singer.
Myka only sees Helena when she herself is already in costume and on her way to Make-Up. Helena walks in brimming with tense energy, her gaze detached from everything around her, a force collecting on itself to be unleashed once the footlights come to life.
“I didn’t even see you yesterday,” Myka says and she cannot help but smile at seeing her now. “Congratulations on Frederic & Frederic, I only just heard.”
Helena waves it off. “All that matters now is the show.” She allows herself a little smirk. “But it was rather lovely to see Sam turn three shades of white at the news.”
“You don’t have to be petty about it,” Myka mutters.
“Oh Ramiro, my lawyer. I forgot.” Helena sits down at her dressing table and reaches for a bottle of water. “It must have been one review clipping too many that put me off. – But didn’t you switch to trombones?” She screws the cap back onto the bottle.
“You forget about the soprano,” Myka says. “Didn’t you suggest a threesome?”
Helena looks amused, as if she knows very well that Myka will never follow through on that. “That’s right. I lost count.”
“Thirty minutes to curtain!”
Claudia’s voice crackles through the worn speaker in the make-up room.
Myka adjusts her shirt, her pants, moves her jaw and ignores Helena as she tries another scale under her breath. A copy of the Code civil and a small bouquet of rosebuds poppies and lavender have appeared on her dressing table while she was out, but she is too nervous now to look at the cards attached.
“One more damn bouquet and I’ll be the next one with a hay fever attack,” Amanda curses next to her. She pushes at an elaborate arrangement. “This smells enough to give me a headache!”
“Fifteen minutes to curtain!”
Myka looks out of one of the windows at the trees beyond the bustling courtyard. For a moment of sharp nostalgia, she wishes her parents were here. She wishes for Pete and another of his obnoxious brass jokes, but Pete is playing The Maid of Orleans at the Archevêché tonight.
Their own orchestra is moving into place, Myka can hear the pluck of a double bass, oboe runs, a trill in the flutes. The most startling sight of the night is Hugo in a crisp dress shirt and sharply ironed trousers, his hair in place for once.
The last moments pass sidestage in a blur of whispers and clasped shoulders, fervent wishes of “Break a leg!”, and Claudia herding everyone into position. And then Hugo raises his baton.
A violin string rips before the overture is over, Todd needs the prompter for a small hang up, and there is a prop mix-up in the first finale that causes Claudia to curse under her breath loud enough for Myka to hear it onstage, but the first act still finds its pace. Bennet is more threatening than Myka has ever given him credit for, and Amanda, cast in gentle evening light, looks still more like the Goddess of Gardens than a gardener. The evening’s energy rises as a stream and Myka steps into it and is pulled along, moves it forward echoed by the dust particles and small insects that glitter in front of the footlights, by the contrasting scents of stage make-up and of costumes still new to strain and sweat.
All of them seem to move with more urgency tonight, straining to match the atmosphere. The exception is Helena, who now seems to relax into a space tuned to her at last, even while she treats every interaction with her colleagues like a duel. Myka does not know whether Helena changes things just for the sake of keeping her on her toes, or whether she truly does it by instinct, but she is enough of an artist to admit that it works out perfectly.
It is things so small that Claudia will not have to write a single note, but it forces Myka into new reactions, again and again. How her hand slides just a little more to the side against Myka’s bound chest, making her shoulder appear broader, or how she angles her torso when they struggle over the sword, pushing them closer together. It is a dance of sorts, with Helena pushing and Myka pushing back, skirting an unspoken edge of hurt and anger that seeps offstage as the act ends.
During the break, Helena stands apart from the excited chatter, and Myka only sees the rise and fall of her shoulders where she has turned her back and seems to sink into the falling night. Again she reminds Myka of some primal force, sucking all energy into herself and only releasing it once the music has started again.
The minutes rush by, arias, applause and laughter, and Myka is surprised to find that Bennet’s Gymnastics Aria, as Kelly has dubbed it, is up next already.
“Uncle, I want you to give me my Count, still today.”
Helena is imperious and petulant and Myka is determined to meet her at every corner.
“Very well,” Bennet says.
“My Lord!” Myka brushes past Helena, but then ignores her. “I desire Arminda to be my wife. Still today.”
Bennet nods. “Better!” He does a great show of gradually losing his patience while the audience laughs more and more and Ramiro and Arminda snipe at each other, forgetting about the bailiff in between them as they push him back and forth. Helena hoists herself up on Bennet’s arm, her feet kicking at air, to yell at Myka in another unrehearsed move, and Myka pushes that arm down and watches her tumble to the floor in return, only to have Helena take a swipe at her legs.
There is enough applause by the end of the scene that Myka can take a few deep breaths to steady herself while Helena scowls at her, seated close enough to touch. They correct their position in the spotlights outlining them and Myka’s limbs are warm with exertion, bruises on her knees and her shirt clinging to her back. She is both alert and at ease, a state she remembers from the end of long fencing lessons in school, and she had known then that she would win the final duel.
“Ramiro, let’s be real.” Helena looks at her and even after two hours on stage, everything about her posture is raw and alert. “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 softly as she moves closer. “My sincere love for you, your promises…”
“Yes, that’s all true,” Helena breathes, the aggression tempered for the moment, and when Myka moves to straddle her, Helena does a maddening little stretch, enough to throw Myka off balance and push her firmly across Helena’s hips. “But I have no more time for this. Since I can’t love you anymore…”
Helena shifts against Myka with every breath, every sustained phrase. And Myka should not imagine Helena like this, underneath her with wisps of hair plastered to her face for reasons that are not make-up or the heat of the spotlights, should not imagine Helena moving like this because Myka is touching her, moving because she cannot resist her.
“Get over me,” Helena demands and her hand moves up Myka’s thigh, her grip firm.
Any more, Myka thinks, any more of this and she will forget her next line.
“Get over it.”
When Helena pulls herself upright, Myka finds herself reaching out to steady her and they suddenly hold on to each other.
“…and leave.” Helena sighs, nearly against Myka’s lips, and Myka stays in place.
“Just to appease you.” Myka delivers her line in a murmur, still close enough to kiss, and she can feel the sound of her voice reflect against the skin of Helena’s jaw, her neck. “Cruel one, I’m fleeing from your gaze.” She stumbles to her feet over two barren chords from the cembalo and finds that her legs are unsteady. Helena still kneels, looking up at her, and Myka hesitates.
“Perhaps you’ll regret it someday.”
It is Ramiro who is still in love with Arminda, and it is Myka wondering whether Helena will ever look back at this summer and wonder what might have been beyond these power games. She turns around on her own, needing no prompt to close this chapter for Ramiro, and for herself.
Helena is behind her in seconds, her hand moving along Myka’s shoulder, beckoning her back, and when Myka yields, they stare at each other, caught up in resentment and yet unable to pull away.
Abigail’s last chord fades into silence and then, instead of pushing her away with “Do what you will”, Helena throws herself forward and kisses Myka.
Operatic Cliff Notes:
- Chapter Quote:
So in the same instant,
in that sweet moment in which I find you,
I will have to lose you?
- Chapter 13 has been betaed by The Duchess, with additional input from Paula.