[an opera novella]
[written as Daphne]
Ah che gira il mio cervello,
va balzando qua, e là.
(Mozart, La finta giardiniera)
The work lights are still off when Myka enters the rehearsal stage. A row of dusty neon bulbs high overhead and a green sign reading sortie de secours are the only sources of light in the windowless space. It is not as if she would be that early, the rehearsal is about to start in less than an hour. And Myka prefers to be on time, and well prepared. The score under her arm has a few new marks – phrasing advice from Hugo Miller, and if Myka were the kind of person to fawn over the stars of their very own circus business, she should probably be squealing about it. But Myka is not that kind of person. She has little patience for attitude – “but you cannot expect everyone to be as diligent as you are”, Rebecca has schooled her more than once – and refuses to be impressed by anything but musicianship.
She gets along well with Hugo, even though she cannot help but wonder how much more he might get done if he were a little bit more organized. They have already worked through her first aria, and Myka is much more impressed by his unpretentious musicianship, by how he knows just where to let her breathe and where to anchor a line, than by any of the genius whispers surrounding him.
Myka does not believe in mystical talent. Myka believes in hard work.
She moves past worn set pieces and racks of clothes with their telltale stale scent of long storage. The low light throws the layers of scuff marks and scrapes on the rehearsal floor into relief, here and there covered by bits of colored mark tape. And even Myka cannot skip that small, dizzy moment of awe in walking across so much history.
How many productions have taken shape here before? The steps of which singer might she be retracing, unbeknownst, right now?
At the head of the room, past the piano, past the large directing desks, Myka spots a familiar redhead bent over a small table to the side.
“Not good. Not good!”
“Good morning,” Myka volunteers, and she succeeds in making Claudia jump.
“Don’t sneak up on me that!” She squints at Myka. “And what are you doing here at this hour? Is this your quirk?”
“Every singer has a quirk. I learn them. I deal with them.”
“Being on time for rehearsal?” Myka does not care if she sounds a little prim.
“More like wandering about beforehand. Just like Artie.” Claudia glances past her, to the end of the hall. “Costuming isn’t here yet, to fit you with your rehearsal outfit. So…”
Now Myka does feel a little self-conscious about her time of arrival. She shifts the score in her grip and gestures.
“Can I help you with that?”
“Nah, almost done. I got it.” Claudia looks at the dismantled percolator in front of her, then at Myka again. “Besides, you don’t offer to help the Assistant Director if you want to be taken seriously.”
When Myka looks at her blankly, she sighs. “You are new to this, aren’t you?”
Myka tries not to bristle. “I’ve done productions before.”
Myka watches as Claudia assembles the percolator with quick fingers, replaces a broken piece of plastic with a toothpick and some duct tape, and tests the mechanism.
“The food chain.” Claudia replaces the lid and whistles on two fingers. “You’re a soloist, not an intern, so when the coffeemaker isn’t working, you don’t offer help, you throw a tantrum instead.”
“I’m not a diva,” Myka protests.
Claudia snickers. “I like you, Bering, but the diva types will stampede right over you.”
Myka straightens. “As long as they come well-prepared for rehearsal -“
The head of a young man pops up from behind a piece of scenery. “You called, Claudia?”
“Got it running, Nick. Now get to that first pot, pronto, and pray that Nielsen doesn’t arrive before it’s done!” To Myka, she mutters, “Artie without coffee in the morning is no man you want to work with. Or for.”
Artie Nielsen is many things, as far as Myka knows. He has been, for decades. He is one of the big names in his directing generation, too big for the junior production at Aix. Myka would have expected him to do the main event instead.
She looks around and does not know where to sit. She perches awkwardly on a desk, score in hand, and watches Nick prepare coffee, watches Claudia run about and argue with people on the phone.
“Still catching up on notes?”
Sam is standing in front of her, Myka hasn’t heard him approach. He nods at her score with a smile that is a tad too smug. It goes well with his cravat.
“I’d like to hear Nielsen’s pitch first.” Amanda follows suit and pulls up a chair from the directing table. “If his take goes against Hugo’s…“
Myka keeps looking at her score. Sam walks over to the piano, plays a chord and hums under his breath. He does it a second time, a third, and the sound becomes smoother.
Myka smiles into her notes.
“They’re all just human, and they all need to work on their breathing.” That is another one of Rebecca’s catchphrases. “Everyone needs to work on their breathing. All the time.”
So does Sam, Myka concludes, even if he has sung his role before, and even if he is very talented. It takes work, and yet more work, to make a voice gain shape and balance, and each of them, no matter their attitude, has to get up every morning, and breathe.
Only then, there is the chance at one of those magical nights, when everything feels organic and seems to flow effortlessly, without any strain, and when even the air seems to move differently around one’s body when walking offstage in the end. But that kind of magic is, again, the result of much hard work. And Myka knows that she can work hard, it has brought her here.
Once, in Toronto, she attended a master class of Dame Gwyneth Jones, and the air around Dame Gwyneth had been crackling and shifting without any effort at breathing whatsoever, even when she had not been singing. But she is the only exception Myka has ever met, and it is probably due to the decades that Dame Gwyneth has spent working hard, or the fact that Dame Gwyneth always seems to be onstage, even when she is lining up in the cafeteria.
The air is calm here. It is Aix, but the laws of physics apply in Aix, too. Sam is still playing chords and humming under his breath and Amanda is massaging her jaw, while the bustle around them increases.
Finally, Artie Nielsen arrives, a somewhat disheveled man in a crinkled shirt with an armful of papers – Myka notes that at least as far as appearances are concerned, he and Hugo harmonize well – who looks around the rehearsal space with disapproval.
“I asked for a ballet floor. Why is there no ballet floor?”
“Budget,” Claudia says. Her nod sends Nick scurrying to Nielsen’s side with a mug of coffee that he accepts without any acknowledgement.
“Not budging,” Nielsen grumbles. “Call them. They know how I work. I always work with a ballet floor.”
“And now there are budget cuts,” Claudia repeats calmly. “I already called, they are checking the depot, but you can outline the concept without any kind of floor.”
“Sure, why don’t we all float, when we’re already at it?” Nielsen is still disgruntled, but it is obvious that Claudia is not intimidated by it.
Myka stand hastily when he drops the folders and papers onto the desk where she has been perched. He does not acknowledge her, either.
“Fine, the concept,” Nielsen huffs. “We’ll do 1920s.” He nods at the singers around him. Todd – who sings the servant – and Kelly – who sings the chambermaid – have arrived in the meantime, as has Bennet, the tenor who sings the bailiff. Helena Wells is still in Cardiff, it seems.
“We’ll do 1920s because it’s pretty,” Nielsen continues with a scowl. “And because people are shallow and enjoy pretty things.”
That seems to be the end of it for him, but Claudia is quick to jump in. “And, as you said, the setting raises issues of class within the work, and it allows for a perspective on industrialization versus nature, on the women’s movement –“
“And nobody will get that, anyway,” Nielsen cuts her off. He addresses the singers again. “We’ll block through most of the first act today, so that I can see what kind of work I can actually do with you.”
It is Claudia who then waves over the set and costume designers, who both seem unfazed by Nielsen’s abrasiveness, and who pull at folders and papers to lay out the different stage sets and wardrobe styles for the singers.
“A countryside mansion wedding,” Amanda mutters, while she and Myka get fitted with rehearsal costumes, cordoned off by clothing racks and a chipboard set piece. “With me getting hired for the event landscaping. It does make sense, I suppose.”
She has to stand still while she is tied into a corset and Myka, who is grateful that she simply has to slip a shirt over her head, thinks that Amanda looks even less like a humble gardener now.
“And with both of our characters knowing that it is our exes tying the knot…” Amanda nods. “I can get behind that. It’s easier to pull off than playing it all ingénue, don’t you think?”
“I guess so.” Myka tries not to glance down at Amanda’s bare shoulders.
Nielsen’s idea is not that easy to pull off, though.
Nielsen, in sneaker soles, is quicker than his frame lets on. The first aria is Myka’s, a piece about being burnt by love and not wanting to fall again.
“But you are still in love.” Nielsen has crossed the rehearsal stage and is standing at her shoulder, closely, as she is trying to sing, to move. “You are so much in love that you are willing to watch her marry to someone else, just to see her again!”
Myka feels her shoulders tense, she stumbles.
“I can’t see it in your body.” Nielsen moves right along with her, soundless on his feet. “I need to see it. This –“ His hand touches lightly between her shoulder blades: precise, a physician’s touch. “This is abstract, detached. Your body knows nothing of the love you are singing about.”
Myka does not want to be in love, she wants to sing.
“Too kempt,” Nielsen says, and Myka has barely launched into her next phrase.
She cannot sing, she cannot focus on her sound like this. It is Mozart, and no phrasing is as kempt and balanced as Mozart.
From the chairs next to the directing desk, all the other singers are watching. The répétiteur at the piano stops playing – Myka can only see a long fall of dark hair that eventually stills – and Myka’s feet feel too heavy, her throat tight.
“We move on to the next recit,” Nielsen declares.
Myka’s cheeks are burning.
After her, Bennet merely marks his first aria, as does Amanda, and Myka feels stupid for having sung in full voice.
“Of course everyone would linger to see the arrival of the bride,” Nielsen reasons as he tries to set the scene for the entrance of the bridal couple, all the singers huddled around him onstage. “With the exception of Ramiro, who knows the bride better than he should. – But everyone else, yes. The entire household has been preparing for this day for weeks! The bailiff even had the gardens redone! So who wouldn’t want to get a look at the bride, to see what the fuss is all about?” He waves at Claudia, impatiently. “The bride! – What are you waiting for? An extra week of rehearsal time that will magically fall from the skies?!”
“Great,” Myka hears Claudia mutter as she trots past Myka, just behind the set piece – it will be a car later – from which Arminda is supposed to emerge. “It’s day one, and I already have to cover for absent sopranos?”
Nielsen motions at the répétiteur to start the next recitative before they have even had the chance to move into position. Myka hears the first chords among the shuffle of feet, sees the fall of hair of the répétiteur – she introduced herself as Abigail – tumble forward again, sees Claudia straighten behind that set piece, and it’s Myka’s cue to move offstage.
“Of course you want to see Arminda, that’s why you are at the mansion in the first place,” Nielsen had explained, ever impatient. “But just before she steps out of that car, you realize you can’t take it, and you rush off.”
Claudia draws breath to mark Arminda’s first line, but before she can utter a note, someone rushes in, pushes in front of Claudia, and takes the small, decisive step onto the scene.
“Questa tardanza è una somma increanza!”
Helena Wells has arrived at last. She is wearing jeans and she has to look up the tiniest bit to meet Myka’s eyes, but that is about as far as Myka gets in her assessment before Helena Wells curls a hand into her shirtfront and then shoves her aside dismissively, only to push past Todd and Kelly, too.
“Egli dovea prevenire il mio arrivo.”
It is just a simple recitative during a first run-through, but Helena Wells does not seem to be the type to take prisoners. Myka looks at the way she sets her feet, as if she were indeed stepping out of a fancy car into a decorated courtyard. Myka straightens out her shirtfront.
It is Sam’s first aria up next and Myka has to admit that he sings it beautifully, but all eyes stray to the side, to where Helena Wells sits, crossing and uncrossing her legs, contemplating her nails for a brief moment, and tapping a foot on the floor.
Nielsen, wearing a scowl, gestures for Myka to hide deeper inside the set, and Myka moves offstage: she has forgotten, for a brief moment, that she is to be out of sight.
Arminda’s first aria will follow, and Nielsen does not call for Abigail to stop playing, but he does keep glaring at Helena Wells as if he is uncertain whether she is the best thing that could have happened to his production, or whether he should strangle her.
Helena is unperturbed, she launches into her aria. She does not mark, either. Her voice is arresting, with an edge of metal, bronzen and iridescent, that Myka would not have expected from her credits. It is a little uneven and Myka is not sure whether it is that Helena has had no time to warm up, though even as the tone becomes smoother, that trace of metal remains. It is not a voice of sheer beauty, but it does draw the listener in.
Sam, as Arminda’s suitor, is meanwhile taken into a chokehold and gets his shirtfront unbuttoned, and by the time the aria ends, even his hair is tousled. He and Nielsen are the only ones not laughing at the scene, but Nielsen still does not call for a stop.
The four lovers stumble into each other in the garden next.
“Closer!” Nielsen yells from the director’s desk. “I need to see the conflict in your bodies. Give me one big set of Twister!”
Myka, who feels left hung out to dry running on improvisation like this, puts one hand on Sam’s shoulder, and then Helena is throwing herself at her to get past Myka at Sam. The moment is a jumble of quicksilver energy and shifting air, a brush of black hair and the push of jean-clad legs against Myka’s own, and Myka counts and focuses on her breathing.
Nielsen does not look that grumpy any longer by the time Abigail plays the last chords of the act with a flourish.
“If you’re going to be my ex-lover, you’ll have to be more convincing than that,” Helena Wells quips at Myka while she straightens and stands. Her eyes are very dark, and her breaths come quickly in a way that Rebecca would not approve of. The air around her seems to vibrate and crackle, and Myka is so unnerved that she does not come up with a reply.
“I take my time building a character,” she could have said, she reasons later. Or, “I will wait to see where Nielsen wants to go with this. You have not even heard his pitch yet.” Or perhaps, “Well, we did break up for some reason, didn’t we?”
By the time the evening rehearsal ends, Myka just wants to bury her head in her pillow.
“So, the audience price?” Sam asks Helena smoothly – too smoothly – as he passes her on the way out. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” Helena says, just as blasé.
Myka has not even thought to check the website to see whether the Cardiff competition is over, or who has won.
“Especially since so often, the overall winner also takes the audience prize,” Sam adds.
“Not this time,” Helena replies with a dazzling smile.
“You won the audience prize at Cardiff?” Kelly asks with big eyes. “That is amazing! – Shouldn’t we celebrate this with a drink? You haven’t even met the whole team yet.”
“I haven’t unpacked yet, either,” Helena says, and she motions at the two suitcases behind her. “I apologize, but I will have to decline.”
“I’m out, too.” Amanda shakes her head with sigh. “I still need to talk to my agent.”
Myka does not even have an agent yet. Myka just likes to sing, and right now, she wishes that she had stuck with her teaching degree. All her colleagues seem to know each other, and seem to have places to go or people to call. Myka only knows that she should probably curl up with her score some more.
“It’s late, anyway,” Sam says while he draws up the collar of his jacket. “And I still want to look at my notes from today. – Same as you, hm?” He looks at Myka as if he wants to tell her that she really could use some more study time.
And Myka will do that, but she needs something to eat first. It earns her yet another condescending smile when she orders her food in a French Québécoise enough that she has to repeat her order, twice. In the end, she finds herself sitting on the back steps of the guesthouse in the dark, not hungry any longer and breathing deeply against a sudden onslaught of homesickness.
Pete the trombone player is sitting down on the worn doorstep, an arm’s length away. He looks at Myka, looks at his wapped sandwich, then at Myka again.
“You look like you could use a bite.” He sighs, then holds out his sandwich to Myka. “This, and perhaps this?” He slides a little bit closer and pats his shoulder. “Standing offer. It’s waterproof, even.”
Myka snorts and toys with the sandwich wrapping as she blinks against the sight of the stars sprinkled above.
They sit in silence for a while, Myka picking at the sandwich and Pete at a little distance, looking up into the night sky along with her. Only when Myka starts eating in earnest, he says, “I was overwhelmed last year.” He is still looking at the sky. “First day with Salonen conducting, and he dressed me down in front of everyone.”
Myka takes another bite. Then she asks, “What did you do?”
Pete shrugs. “I thought it couldn’t get worse, right? I practiced like crazy, but the next day, my breathing was off and it was just as bad. So after that rehearsal, I thought ‘what the hell’ and challenged a horn colleague on the Xbox instead. And I won. – And the next day, Salonen was happy with me.” He moves in, just for a moment, to bump his shoulder against Myka’s. “They did hire me for a reason. And the same goes for you. Things will work out.”
Now Myka does rest her head against his shoulder, just for a moment. “Thanks, Pete.”
“And even if not – they still make this amazing beef and artichoke sandwich just around the corner.”
“The sandwich is really good,” Myka has to admit. She breaks it in half and Pete is not above accepting part of it back.
“You don’t happen to play any Xbox, do you?”
Operatic Cliff Notes:
Ah, my head is spinning,
it’s jumping all over the place.
- I made up the rehearsal stages in Aix, but most rehearsal stages I know look like that, so I hope I’m not too far off.
- The Junior Production at Aix is format for early-career singers: people in the last year of their diploma, just having obtained it, or those who are in the brief vortex between the diploma and a contract/contracts, which can last a few years where they can still sell themselves as hopefuls before being sorted into the ‘failed/mediocre’ category (it’s much like academia in that regard). This means that the cast for such productions is usually not that seasoned yet – some people come without international experience, some come without their diploma, nobody is comfortably established yet (if there is such a thing as ‘comfortably established’ in the business).
- Dame Gwyneth Jones (of Wales) was one of the most important heavy dramatic soprano voices of the 1970s in particular. Her biggest production was perhaps the 1976 Chéreau Ring at Bayreuth, where she sang Brünnhilde.
She is still very active, she is teaching and she starred in “Quartet” in 2012. Her singing is not unequivocally admired, but most everyone will concede that she is a fantastic performer.
- Abigail as a répétiteur is clearly inspired by Abigail at the piano in apparitionism’s wonderful “Soon”; I cannot unsee Abigail at the piano now.
- Assistants (or more commonly interns) taking over as stand-ins during rehearsals is fairly standard practice, especially when there are no understudies around. It’s also fairly common for singers to just mark arias during staging rehearsals.
- Rehearsal schedules are generally 3-4 hours in the morning and 3-4 hours in the evening, with costume fittings, vocal coaching, etc. in between.
- Esa-Pekka Salonen (longtime conductor of the LA Philharmonic) conducted the – fantastic! – 2013 production of “Elektra” in Aix (I don’t know if he ever had any issues with any trombone players, or how he would resolve those).