[an opera novella]
[written as Daphne]
Alme belle innamorate
Dite voi che amor provate
Se resister più si può.
[Mozart, La finta giardiniera]
It is not a closed-mouthed stage kiss.
Helena is actually kissing her, with enough force to have Myka take a step backwards. Lips move against her own, and Myka tastes wetness beyond the stage lipstick.
Helena’s hand curls into her shirt, her knuckles grazing the bandage that flattens Myka’s breasts and Myka is caught up in a rush of shock and excitement, unable to grasp at either emotion, while her senses implode into one another.
And just when Myka’s brain catches up and it occurs to her that this is a bit much even for Helena, when she manages to separate Arminda and Ramiro – it makes sense to have them kiss here, the way they play them – from Helena and Myka – and how that makes a shocking amount of sense to Myka, too – the moment is over, and Helena pushes her away.
“Do what you will!”
Myka stumbles forward as Helena storms offstage. Her mouth is torn open and the evening breeze is cool against her lips. It takes her a second to remember that Helena is supposed to be with her for the aria, that this is not how they staged it, that she is alone in front of a live audience with no rehearsed moves. She takes a steadying breath, and then another, and makes eye contact with Hugo, who hurtles into her aria.
“Sure, run into somebody else’s arms, you mean, ungrateful woman…!”
Among racing strings, Myka fights to command her breathing, and her fury wins out. Her voice opens up easily, powerful enough to wield the phrases like sword blows.
What the hell is Helena thinking, to cap off the scene like this? Is it another instance of being somewhere in the dark, of touching Myka under some kind of pretext, only to go back to being blasé about it by daylight? Is this just another ploy to get both of them deeper into character? Myka does not know where Arminda ends and Helena begins anymore. Although she wants Helena – wants her on a level beyond her comprehension – she does not want her like this, not as half an illusion up on a stage.
“…that’s all I’ll ever be to you!”
Despair and outrage flood into the music, shape it, and Myka finally owns this aria. Tonight, it is her strongest piece, better even than Dolce d’amor compagna. But despite the applause it garners her in the end, Helena has no right to spring something like that kiss on her, on opening night to boot, and Myka hates her for it, and hates herself for wanting to do it all over again.
She waits for her last appearance on the side stage and watches the big duet between Sam and Amanda, listens to how they shape their individual phrases, until their voices blend in jubilant togetherness and it echoes through Myka as longing when she steps back onto the scene. Arminda is arguing with the bailiff over following through with the wedding to the Count. Sam and Amanda, preceded by a gleeful Todd, arrive as newlyweds instead and when Arminda calls it “Treachery!”, it is the choked retort of someone who has lost the last barrier between herself and her own desires.
Arminda apologizes to Sandrina, and it is very much an imperious Helena apologizing to a wary Amanda, two primadonnas where there is just space for one, before Helena’s eyes land on Myka. “If it is all right with you, Uncle…”
But even though Helena addresses Bennet, she does not look at him. She remains focused on Myka, confused and hopeful at once. “The faithful Ramiro…”
It is a run-of-the-mill happy ending, in tune with the convention of marrying off everyone on stage within the last few minutes, no matter how sudden the couplings, but Helena is throwing all that she has into making Arminda’s change of heart believable. Her eyes remain on Myka – on Ramiro – even while the Bailiff gives his consent and Myka crosses the stage to walk right into that beseeching gaze.
“One could not ask for more.”
“He’s such a lawyer”, both Helena and Claudia had quipped at this line – Myka’s last – but Myka gives it a breathless, overwhelmed note. She bends down to kiss Helena’s hand, just as they have staged it. Over her head, Helena is supposed to stare at Sam longingly once more, while Kelly jumps into Todd’s arms. Myka thinks she could sculpt Helena’s hand, the slender width of it, its knuckles and the veins that run across its back, just from holding it blindly in her own.
It is the briefest, very much professional touch of lips against skin, but her lips still tingle when Hugo leads them into the final piece. She breathes in and projects, allows her voice to rise once more, to build within her and then move beyond her body, tempered by her lips, her jaw, the focus behind her eyes.
Helena stands next to her and for the last few bars, she leans into her, lightly, leaving her head tucked against Myka’s shoulder. The lights go out, and as their glow fades, Myka can make out the stars, huge above the rows of seats. Helena is still leaning against her, her breaths coming fast.
Applause swells up and the lights flare back to life.
“Perfect!” Helena is reaching for her hand, for Todd’s on the other side for a first bow. “Can you sense it?” She is not talking to Myka, or to anyone in particular. “We got them!”
Then Helena is all over the place, squeezing raised hands, accepting congratulatory kisses to her cheek from Todd, from Bennet. She still has an arm around Kelly as they regroup for the solo curtains and she hugs Kelly briefly, laughing with relief as they rush forward for another bow.
Myka can only stare at Helena as she soaks in the cheers, drunk on the reaction from beyond the stage.
A show, Myka reminds herself. It is only a show. The people left and right of her pull up her arms for another bow and she lets it happen, she does not even know who is next to her now. She struggles to surface and break out of the story’s hold that keeps the relieved smiles and the cheers around her at a distance. The applause tells her that the night has been a triumph, but she has not yet arrived in the moment. Only when she steps forward for her first solo bow, amid cheers and even some hollering, the fog lifts and her smile joins the others.
Directly after her, Helena makes the applause well up once more. Myka watches her sink down into a curtsey that would be over the top for just about anyone else, but not for Helena. She is standing far enough to the left to see Helena’s face, not just her back, and Helena, to her surprise, looks humble.
One curtain turns into another, until Myka loses count. Everything is a whirlwind. Someone presses a glass of champagne into her hand. Abigail is hugging Helena and Myka can see her laugh across Helena’s shoulder. Helena’s blouse is made of smooth silk that shifts under Abigail’s fingers and Myka takes a hasty sip of her drink, feels the pearling echo against the roof of her mouth.
“Myka Bering.” Sam’s agent – Linda’s colleague – has suddenly appeared next to her and clinks his glass against hers. “Congratulations! A fine performance. I am very glad we took you on!”
He has to shout a little above the cacophony of voices, of laughter still tinged with nerves. Myka nods and remembers to smile. She takes another sip of champagne. A bit ahead, closer to the building, Artie is smiling widely. It is a sight so unfamiliar that Myka is momentarily baffled. He has every reason to be happy with the show – even with the second act finale – although Dame Vanessa standing at his side is perhaps just as much the cause.
“There will be critique,” a grinning Claudia announces when she drapes an arm around Myka from behind. She waves a little pile of notes that she balances in the same hand as her glass and a bit of champagne splashes down onto the courtyard. “Whoops.”
“I better change out of this, in case you plan to bathe me in champagne.”
“Sssh, don’t give Helena any more ideas!” Claudia points at Helena, who is angling her head so Abigail can say something into her ear. “Though I’ve got to say, Bering, you two came up with a few nice additions. Artie will kill you both, but still. Very nice.”
Myka tries to make her way through the stage crowd towards the dressing rooms, and not think of those additions. Flashlights go off, making her squint, and she has to balance her glass left and right as people stop her to shake her hand or clap her on the shoulder. She takes a sip too large, thirsty after the evening under the heat of the spotlights, and sputters, the liquid suddenly sharp against her throat.
Instead of going in to change, though, she walks on past the courtyard and suddenly she can hear her own steps on the ground again. The air out here is cool and dewy against her face still flushed with the evening’s labor and success. She draws up Ramiro’s collar. Just a minute of quiet to catch up to herself, then she will head inside and change before the wardrobe department throws a fit.
Steps and voices are coming her way and Myka can make out the bright rectangles of program books. She steps deeper into the shadows and unexpectedly finds herself close to the small estate chapel. Without knowing why, she moves past the barricaded front, further along the wall, and ducks below the wooden beams of the decayed backdoor.
Myka is enveloped by deeper, stiller cool, in which she can hear her own breathing, and it takes a minute until her eyes adjust to the darkness.
She remembers sneaking in here before, weeks ago. Another minute, Myka tells herself. She does not want to share a dressing room with Helena right now, does not want to witness how Helena sheds her role as easily as layers of silk and leather, when all Myka can think of is kissing her.
With a soft brush of fabric against stone, another shadow pushes into the room.
“You,” Myka sighs, because of course it has to be Helena.
“I saw you leave.”
Helena leans against the wall opposite Myka, her costume glimmering like an apparition. Myka has kneeled over her in this outfit less than an hour ago. Her palms tingle with the memory of the silk blouse, and she wants to grab Helena and shake her until the fabric tears under her hands.
“You are still mad at me.”
“Ramiro was mad.” Myka corrects her. “Now, I am mad.” She takes a breath, hears it leave her body. “Why the hell did you do that? What were you thinking?!”
“You never sang it better,” Helena says.
“That’s not the point,” Myka bites out, although perhaps it is. “You left me hanging on stage! And why on earth did you suddenly spring that kiss on me?!”
There is not enough light to make out Helena’s eyes across the small room, but Myka can see how she blinks.
“Because it made perfect sense.” When there is silence, Helena adds, “Doesn’t it?”
“Of course it does,” Myka says bitterly. The question is on the tip of her tongue whether Helena kisses Sam like this, too, in the second act, but she does not want to know the answer.
“…and because I wanted to,” Helena says quietly.
They are two shadowed figures, opposite one another in the dark of the chapel, and Myka sighs again.
“What do you want, Helena?”
Helena takes three small steps forward. “But you must know –” She stops and looks at Myka, and at the closer distance, the black of her hair separates from the color of the night around them.
Myka stands very still, and Helena steps closer, speaks again. “You know. You have to know.”
The chapel is small, and when Helena stretches out a hand – her left, the uninjured one – Myka is within her reach.
“Around you, my hands don’t obey me,” Helena observes softly. “They know far too much of what I want.” Her fingers hover close to Myka’s hip, graze it ever so slightly. “This… for this, I am indebted to Arminda, that she let me – I am in such debt –”
“You don’t need Arminda.”
Myka is caught up in the gleam of Helena’s eyes, black against small corners of white, framed by the stark lines of stage make-up.
“The beach,” Helena breathes, and the air curls against Myka’s face.
“The be…” Myka clears her throat. “The beach?”
“Since we went to the beach,” Helena murmurs and her voice drags across Myka’s skin. “You played volleyball, stretched out in the air, and I could not think… You took a walk with Sam… With Sam!” Helena scowls in a way that sends heat along Myka’s cheeks. “You stood and bent over to roll up your trousers. You must have done it on purpose… And I wanted to push them back down so you would have to do it all over again.”
Helena only has to lean in the tiniest bit to have her lips brush against Myka’s.
“And your little fencing displays…”
“‘This does not work’, you said.”
“Not for the scene,” Helena murmurs. “But on me…” Her hand, at last, lands more firmly on Myka’s hip, but it does not stay still. Her fingers move restlessly, as if they could burrow into skin the way her breath moves beyond Myka’s lips when she speaks. “The first time I heard you sing Dolce d’amor, I thought I would die.”
“You did not even look at me afterwards!”
Myka tries very hard to think, but Helena’s lips are so soft and her voice is so hard to resist.
“You see what would have happened, don’t you?”
The only thing Myka sees is a flash of stars when Helena’s hand moves higher onto Myka’s waist with the same insistence.
“I did not want to lose my head – ” Helena exhales, and the air trembles. “But if you would – at all – be amenable…”
Her breath hitches and Myka realizes that her own hands have found purchase on Helena’s blouse, wrinkling the elusive silk as they clench and unclench with the beat of her pulse, and then she is kissing Helena with weeks and weeks of pent-up longing.
She kisses her, kisses her more passionately because in part she still wants to shake Helena, but Helena simply sinks against her and her mouth is slick and hot, and Myka herself is shaking. She is aware of the sweet, powdery taste of their stage make-up and the uneven stone wall against her back when Helena presses into her more firmly.
Helena’s fingers tug deftly on Myka’s shirt, pull it free, and Myka shivers at the rough cool of the stone and the heat of Helena’s palm. The hand moves up, fingers skimming across Myka’s ribs and then pulling uselessly at the bandage that keeps Myka’s breasts bound, and Myka thinks she will pass out at the frustrated little moan Helena utters into their kiss.
Helena’s fingers move downwards again, along the waistband of Myka’s pants, and find the two buttons that hold them in place.
“We shouldn’t –” Myka gasps, and she is terrified by how much she wants it regardless. “This is a chapel!”
“We sang Mozart in here,” Helena hums, her lips once more against Myka’s.
“Mozart is sacred.”
Mozart, after this night, is a saint Myka will pray to for the rest of her days.
“And is this not sacred?” Helena’s teeth drag across Myka’s lower lip. “God knows I would worship you.”
Her hands move again, onto Myka’s hips, and then slide down her thighs as Helena sinks to her knees.
Myka’s cheeks burn with embarrassment, and with something beyond that, more visceral than shame.
“In here, people will have voiced their most fervent desires,” Helena murmurs, and now her breath is hot against Myka’s stomach. “Will you hear mine?”
She undoes the first bottom with no qualms whatsoever and Myka clumsily grasps at her shoulders, fumbling to pull her upright. The second button pops when Helena’s mouth returns to hers, with an insistence that renders Myka lightheaded.
It is very likely that Helena is still on a performance high, in a place beyond control. It is very likely that Myka does not care.
Through the haze, she feels a sharp tug on her waistband, gasps at the sensation, a breath that Helena swallows with a hum, then fingers slide beyond the pressed wool of her pants and beyond her underwear.
Myka’s breathing stutters, stops and then shapes a completely unreasonable sound at the back of her throat. Her head falls back against the chapel wall with enough force to leave a bruise, tomorrow, but now Helena’s lips move along her neck, mouthing feverish whispers against her skin.
Myka pulls at silk, finally finds skin and pulls Helena closer, pushes Helena’s wrist into her skin with the movement and feels arm muscles driving the fingers below. One of her legs ends up between Helena’s in a half-conscious motion and Helena sags at the contact, the weight of her hips dropping into it.
Myka is a runner. Her muscles know instinctively how to tense along her thigh, how to hold up until she will quiver with the strain. Helena’s fingers falter in reaction, lose their rhythm for a few seconds that have Myka suspended around the single thought of more. She fumbles for the clasp of Helena’s pants with one hand and despairs at the long line of small hooks and buttons. There is no space, yet she pushes onward, feels the fabric tear even as the waistband cuts into the back of her hand, the back of her forearm. Her fingers touch wetness just as Helena’s tongue swipes along Myka’s neck.
Helena stumbles, leaving Myka gasping for contact once more.
“It’s not my good hand,” Helena breathes against her ear, half in apology, and Myka wants to say that this is more than good, and that she is not sure she would survive anything else, but she does not get farther than drawing breath, than cool air curling into her throat, then Helena’s teeth graze her skin and her hips move frantically against Myka’s fingers. Her torso curves forward, a sensation of yet more warmth against Myka’s arm that is trembling with the effort.
Helena’s breath comes against Myka’s neck in hot gushes, quickening, until it turns erratic even as her hips go still, and then spasm into Myka’s touch with enough force to twist Myka’s wrist in a way that should hurt, but Myka cannot think beyond Helena’s breath against her throat, and it is not just her arm that trembles now.
Her other hand moves blindly across Helena’s back, grasping for a hold as every one of her nerves curls inwards, winding tighter and tighter. Her shoulders hunch forward on a helpless exhale, closer into the space of their embrace, always closer towards Helena, and she explodes against Helena’s fingers, into a touch both too much and not enough, never enough.
Myka’s legs are shaking. She gulps in too much air and her throat is parched. Helena’s breaths still come against her neck when Myka raises her head and blinks her eyes open, at Helena’s dark gaze close to her own, Helena disheveled and with her lips still parted, dusted with an incredulous smile, and Myka wants to undo every hook on Helena’s clothes, brush all fabric away and clothe her in her embrace instead.
It is too dark to see much, yet the dark is light enough for Myka to feel vulnerable, laid bare before Helena’s curious gaze.
“We’re still in costume.”
“More or less,” Helena agrees and her voice carries the past few minutes on its sound. It is enough to leave Myka breathless again.
“Wardrobe will kill us,” she manages to get out, even though she wants to say something else, something for which she has no words.
“And we are likely expected at whatever reception the festival has planned,” Helena says with regret.
There is a moment of awkwardness as they take hold of their own limbs again, withdraw hands and straighten legs.
Myka stretches her fingers and moves her wrist and the numbness fades with sharp prickling. She watches Helena wipe her hand across her belly, feels her world narrow and expand again at the sight and her body is betraying what she wants before it even turns into thought, swaying towards Helena, and again she forgets everything beyond this wanting.
“Well, then…” Helena says and her voice is still low and close, moving within the space they share.
Myka nods. “Right.”
She moves to fasten her pants, shifting uncomfortably against a touch that is damp cloth, that is not Helena.
Helena, her bandaged hand at her side, does not even bother trying to rearrange her wrinkled blouse. She looks a final time at Myka and leans in to press a quick kiss against her cheek, then she ducks out of the chapel first, out into the night. Myka follows quickly.
They have barely stumbled back onto the path when approaching steps mingle with their own and Myka nervously recognizes yet more program books in the hands of what has the be the last group of festival audience members, only six or seven people. They have recognized the wayward singers before Myka can even worry about wrinkled shirts and smeared make-up.
“Oh, you were wonderful, both of you! Thank you so much!”
“Would you mind signing my program book, Ms. Wells?”
Apparently, the night is dark enough to gloss over their disheveled state, but Myka fervently hopes that nobody wants to shake her hand right now. She stands back half a step while Helena exchanges a few polite phrases and signs her name. Myka looks on and clutches her hands into fists, but feels the last traces of Helena’s arousal drying on her skin in the night-time air.
It is not cooler than before out here, yet when the enthusiastic visitors hurry on towards buses and cars, Myka wraps her arms around herself and shivers uncontrollably.
Operatic Cliff Notes:
“Beautiful souls in love,
Say, you who taste love,
If one could resist any longer.”
If anything about this chapter makes any sense at all, it is thanks to the Duchess, who once more graciously stepped up to play the Strauss to my Hofmannsthal (or the Hofmannsthal to my Strauss?) for this chapter.
Since I have never worked at Aix, I don’t know whether the receptions for the productions at Domaine de Grand St. Jean happen out there, or back in town.
Also since I never worked at Aix: I am only guessing at the locations of the dressings rooms and floors, and there are various possible reception areas.
There is one liberty that I am taking with the costuming in this chapter: heading back to the dressing room to change is the first thing that happens after the show ends and it reflects in the architecture of most opera houses. In this case, the venue is older than the genre of opera, and, also, in this chapter I wanted certain characters to remain in costume for a bit longer for narrative purposes. But, no, that usually does not happen, just as first glasses of champagne are usually not served to the singers until they reappear in offstage galas for the reception. In case of the Domaine, it could be logistically possible, though.
The chapel. *sigh* Initially, I mixed up up buildings on grainy Googlemaps outlays and placed the chapel a bit further from the central courtyard than it is. In addition, Google Street View for the Domaine is a recent thing (or must have overlooked it when I first plotted the story), and my initial assumptions may have been somewhat off: the chapel is in better shape than I describe, and any description of the interior is purely fictional since I could not find any image material.