[an opera novella]
[written as Daphne]
- In 2005, I had an idea for a lengthy (think “Campus”) opera novel. This is not that story. Unfortunately, that plot draft, stored in the top drawer of the nightstand for the past decade, did not come with the necessary years of writing time. I have no idea when or if I will finally get to that plot, but I have decided to write a little (or not so little) opera etude on the way to that project.
- Since I am not yet over Bering & Wells, or over putting them into all kinds of different settings (back in the Xena and Voyager heyday, we called that Über – I just realized it’s been 15 years since I started writing within fandom and I feel nostalgic. Also, I feel old.), I am drawing from a Warehouse 13 character set-up, but this should just as well make sense if you have never seen an episode of that show. Or if you have never been to the opera (then again, if you have been to the opera, it won’t hurt).
- Chapter-specific notes, quotes and links will always be situated at the end of the individual chapters. (this is opera. I may occasionally turn obnoxious).
Che lieto giorno
(Mozart, La finta giardiniera)
The air outside smells like summer.
As if in reflex at the whiff of wheat and lavender, the tenor next to her pulls up his shirt collar.
“Sam, isn’t it?” Myka asks him with a smile, even though she would not have to. She has studied all the biographies on the website beforehand, even his, and he is a last minute replacement. He nods, and he looks at her with polite interest, just long enough to gauge whether she could be a useful contact on the way further up.
“If you get those looks, it means you’re moving up,” Rebecca had told her during their last lesson, before Myka had boarded a plane with a one-way ticket from Toronto to Paris, and then to Marseille.
“It’s bad manners,” Myka had sniffed, and Rebecca had given her half a laugh and looked up at her with something close to sympathy.
Sam has sung Belfiore before, in Stockholm – Myka makes it a point to read liner notes down to the fine print – so technically, he does not even belong here, in the junior line-up. Sure, they have all done studio productions before, concerts, the lower rounds on the competition circuit, but this is the first big festival production for most of them. It is just the up-and-coming show in Aix, but it is the up-and-coming show in Aix.
Myka takes another glance out of the window to her side – it is not bigger or cleaner than the windows of the practice rooms back in Toronto -, and she still cannot believe that she is here.
Behind them, behind the seven chairs next to the piano, members of the festival body are moving in and out of the rehearsal room and Myka looks back down at her own pristine score. She twists the cap off her water bottle, twists it on again and tries to relax her throat. There is one patch, between g sharp and a, that feels tight. Perhaps it was the air on the long flight, or perhaps it is the jetlag, but it does not feel like it is supposed to, not like she has trained it to feel.
She stops herself before she can go through a scale under her breath; she does not want to seem pretentious.
“Pretty impressive, isn’t it?”
Startled, Myka looks up to find a man about her own age leaning onto the empty chair next to her. He smiles broadly, and there is no gauging in his gaze at all.
“Your first year?”
Now it is Myka who is hesitating. “Not for you, then?”
He shakes his head. “Second.” It does not seem to have dampened his enthusiasm. His smile, impossibly, widens, and it is disarming. “Let me guess… you are singing the spunky maid?”
“No. I’m the mezzo,” Myka volunteers. She looks at his well-defined arms where he is still bracing himself on the back of the chair. Orchestra, she guesses. “Double bass or brass?”
He blinks. “Trombone,” he confesses then. „I’m in the Tchaikovsky.“ He stretches out a large hand.
“Pete, stop chasing the meat!”
Myka is caught with her hand stuck mid-air because Pete raises his arms above his head in defense. “I wasn’t doing anything!”
“Like hell you weren’t.” A redhead just this side of scrawny comes barreling down the main aisle. “I lost far too much sleep getting you out of trouble last year, so how about we don’t even get into trouble this year, hm?”
“Don’t listen to her,” Pete pleads with Myka. His smile is still disarming.
“Don’t listen to him,” the redhead counters as she joins them. She seems to be perpetually out of breath, with bulging pockets and thick-soled sneakers. At the closer distance, Myka can see that she is young, but not as young as Myka would have thought.
“Claudia, you really have – “
But Myka does not find out what Claudia really has, since the door opens to admit a disheveled man in a disheveled shirt, who sends a whisper through the room. Immediately, the air cracks with the nervousness of a new production.
To Myka’s left, Sam straightens.
“Mr. Miller,” he says, standing.
But Hugo Miller, score underneath his arm, brushes right past him. “I haven’t been Mr. Miller in forty years,” he says, not unkindly, while he takes a seat at the piano and opens his battered score.
“He’s not one for formalities. Word has it he had a life-altering experience in Dame Vanessa’s wardrobe in Covent Garden,” Claudia mutters. “Back in ’75.”
“And life-altering could only mean so many things in ’75,” Pete mutters back, but Myka can hear them anyway.
“I’m simply Hugo,” Hugo Miller proclaims, just like everyone told Myka he would do. “And we’ll be making some music together. All right?”
Around Myka, everyone straightens in their seats. So does she.
The only empty chair remains the one to Myka’s right.
The British singer who is listed as Arminda has made it to finals at Cardiff Singer of the World and will be a few days late, if she shows up at all. Myka supposes that if she wins Cardiff – and if the woman’s aloof headshot is anything to go by, she probably has her sights set on nothing less – there will be a replacement. Or a lot of attitude.
Myka has not heard of Helena Wells before, but there are a lot of names in her age group on the European circuit she has never heard, despite her best efforts to the contrary.
As Adwin, her old repertory coach, used to point out, “You need to know the shark pool, if you want to swim with them!”
Rebecca had always protested. “I am not teaching marine biologists!”
Myka had not entertained the thought of an international career in either field at that point, and yet here she is, with her scuffed dress shoes and a still unmarked score, and with her headshot – done by a friend of a friend on a studio stage during lunch break – printed in the program book next to the $2000 portrait of a perfectly coiffed Helena Wells.
There are five more photos in the book. Sam – he is the romantic lead, Belfiore – does not look as young as in his headshot any longer. Opposite him, as his aristocratic lover Sandrina, sits Amanda, a statuesque blonde who makes Myka wonder how the costuming department will ever sell her disguise as a humble gardener.
There is the second tenor, who is singing the pompous bailiff, the one who will chase after Amanda’s not so humble gardener persona. That leaves the two very fresh-faced singers – even from Myka’s perspective – sitting across from Myka as the bickering servant and chambermaid.
Myka herself will take on the lovelorn young knight Ramiro, while the elusive Helena Wells will star as the bailiff’s temperamental niece, Arminda.
Myka is no stranger to singing boys’ roles. “That’s going to be your fate, I’m afraid,” Rebecca had said. “You may not be a pure lyric, but you’re tall and lanky and the business has become so much more about selling looks than just voice. You’ll probably spend much of your stage career in pants.”
Myka finds pants to be very comfortable. To her, the far more incredulous fact is that she might actually have a stage career.
Hugo clears his throat, squints at the score and flexes his fingers, once, above the keys. “Everyone from number one.”
This is it, then. Myka opens her score, flips to the opening ensemble number, intends to relax her shoulders.
If anyone had told her a year ago that she would be sitting around a piano with Hugo Miller, in Aix-en-Provence, with the ink on her diploma not even dry yet, she would have laughed. Yet here she is.
Outside the window, lavender and gold and green seem to move in time with her breathing. It is probably the jetlag catching up with her, but she is here, she is in Aix, and it is summer.
Operatic Cliff Notes:
What a lovely day,
Everything around here
- La finta giardiniera (1775) is an early Mozart opera of the sentimental comedy variety. It showcases three couples who struggle to find their way (back) to each other at the mansion of the local bailiff (the Podestà). Each couple represents a different musical style:
- There are the leads, Count Belfiore (tenor) and the Marchesina Violante (soprano), who embody the new ‘natural’, sentimental style of the 1760s onward. They are ex-lovers; he believes he has accidentally killed her and is now planning to marry the bailiff’s niece, Arminda. Violante is, however very much alive and lives undercover as humble gardener “Sandrina” on the bailiff’s estate. To complicate matters, the bailiff is after “Sandrina”, and the bailiff’s niece isn’t as unattached as she claims to be.
- Up next as couple No. 2 are Arminda (soprano), the bailiff’s niece, who might best be described as high-maintenance femme, and her ex, Ramiro (mezzo), who is still pining away for her (let’s just dub him “the lesbian”). They are a homage to the old opera seria style with contrasting arias, flowery prose, languishing lovers’ complaints and wild, temperamental outbursts. Ramiro was originally written for a castrato (the heroes of the old style) and is currently generally cast with a female mezzo-soprano. Arminda dumped Ramiro to climb up the social ladder by marrying the Count Belfiore, while Ramiro, in very lesbian fashion, simply can’t get over Arminda.
- Couple No. 3 is made up by Nardo (bass), Violante’s faithful servant, who also poses as a gardener, and who is trying to woe the sassy chambermaid Serpetta (soprano), without much success at first, since Serpetta’s plan was basically to land the bailiff and become lady of the house, only now the bailiff is after “Sandrina” and Serpetta is not amused. Nardo and Serpetta belong to the buffo-style characters: comic relief, sassy best friend, etc. with song-like, strophic music.
- There is a lot of sopranos in there, because there are a variety of different styles when it comes to sopranos (and all voices): lyric voices (Sandrina); heavier, more dramatic voices (Arminda); light, agile soubretta voices (Serpetta).
- For this story (not I have given this a disproportionate amount of thought) I picture Helena as a soprano somewhere between lyric and dramatic (think Harteros, early Caballé, early Naglestad – going on lirico spinto) and Myka as a mezzo-soprano that is also a little heavier than a sheer lyric type (think Barcellona, Donose or early Troyanos).
- Apropos lyric mezzos (other than HNNNG): those are the singers that usually get cast in the so-called trouser roles, as in “male parts to be sung by female singers”. Some of those roles were written for women, some of them were originally done by castrato singers. I’m not picky. It’s like lesbian heaven with music and making out with lady sopranos (just see the opers section of this blog, particularly the “White Shirt” tag, for further enlightenment).
- The festival of Aix-en-Provence is one of the big French summer festivals (the other one being the Chorégies d’Orange), established in the 1940s. Much of it is open air (rather unusual for opera), and next to its big productions with star power, there is usually a junior production for new talent on the side (they actually did La finta giardiniera for that in 2012).
- La finta giardiniera – Synopsis, background information and libretto in English (and French, and Italian and German): thank you, harmoniamundi, for uploading your booklets!
- Sample productions: I’d go with the fun, flashy 2006 Dörrie production for Salzburg, or with the classical Drottningholm by Järvefelt from 1989. And, of course, there is the 2012 up-and-coming from Aix with a nice look at the outdoor scenery (even if the character staging is a little odd)