[an opera novella]
[written as Daphne]
Che stupor, sono insensato,
Resto immobile, mi perdo,
Io non so che mai pensar.
(Mozart, La finta giardiniera)
Sweat runs freely along Myka’s forehead, with drops pooling at the bridge of her nose as she bends down and stretches one thigh. The muscle is warm and responsive, and Myka shifts her stance a little, pushing herself further. Her soaked shirt clings to her back, the fabric worn soft. Gravel moves underneath her soles and her shadow falls across the ground, across the stone steps that lead up to the guesthouse, and it is a sharp outline in the morning sun.
A second outline moves closer, merging briefly with hers.
It is more of a hum and Myka looks up to see Helena Wells stepping around her with an amused expression, hair pinned up in a loose twist, an empty tea mug in hand.
“Morning,” Myka gasps between two gulps of air. Strands of hair are plastered to her face and a drop of sweat clings to the tip of her nose, clings and falls. It leaves a small, dark circle on the stone steps to her feet.
Helena Wells has already disappeared into the house.
Steps sound behind Myka and when she turns around again, there is Sam, in running shorts, a towel hanging from his neck with the ends at the exact same length.
“Also a runner, huh?”
His shoes are less worn and less dusty than Myka’s.
Myka nods. “Which route did you take?” She still needs to push each word onto her breath. “I didn’t see you.”
“I don’t run outside.” Sam holds onto the ends of his towel and shakes his head. “Treadmill. You never know what’s in the air.”
Myka glances at her shoelaces, neon-bright and frayed at the ends, and covered in dust. From somewhere, there is the hum of an early bee.
“It’s important, though.” Sam leans against the banister for a moment. “It’s the only advantage we have over the Europeans.”
Myka blinks, against the sweat under her brows, and because she does not like what Sam is getting at.
“Being fit,” he explains. “They don’t work out as part of the job. And the market is tight, you need to be fit.”
Sam’s shoulders, Sam’s chest are clearly geared toward the market. Myka has to think of the rather European Helena Wells all but diving to climb over her in yesterday’s rehearsal.
“I’m not sure that’s a national thing.”
“It’s cultural.” Sam jogs up the stairs, then pauses again and gives her a once-over. “Someone from my agency is in town tonight, by the way. I could give you a few pointers, perhaps introduce you?”
“That would be great,” Myka says.
She should feel more elated. Gaining representation and working towards a contract is what she is supposed to do this summer, next to singing this production, unless she wants to be back home come winter and give poorly paid extra classes in music school to fill the gaps in her concert calendar.
She does not think that is the worst that could happen, though, particularly when the rehearsal day shapes up to be trying again. She tries to show up a little later, but she is still early enough make Claudia raise an eyebrow at her, and to see Nick set up the first pot of coffee before Nielsen arrives.
Artie Nielsen is a man of great patience for scenic detail, but no patience for singers. He starts with the very last scene, the third act finale that barely lasts more than two minutes, including the recitative that leads up to it. – “Since I’ve got everyone here this morning, we’ll do all of the act finali,” he huffs, as if it were a personal insult that later today, some of the singers are slated for rehearsals with Hugo.
Myka is used to rehearing scenes out of order, but she finds it difficult to work on the very end before she even knows how her character is supposed to relate to the others and to their stories.
“Why do we do the last scene first?”
It is Todd who asks, who then probably wishes he had not.
“Because it is the shortest of the finali, and you are less likely to aggravate me completely before we have it nailed down!”
“But how are we supposed to do the end when we do not know yet how you want us to play it?” Myka wants to know. Todd, with his ears reddened, shoots her a grateful look. “Are we even happy, or –“
“If you would just listen to the music!” Artie jabs a finger at Abigail at the piano and makes her play the brief piece. “You are singers, how can you not listen? – It’s Mozart! Here, take those four floating bars in piano on ‘rallegrar’: This is a full stop in a chorus that is so brief, so blindingly straightforward. Here, you get an inkling of the underbelly, of the doubts just underneath the surface. Think of the very end of Figaro, of the bars that lead to the final presto, or of the ending of Così, the sudden swerve in the vocal lines among all that gleaming C major. This is the same composer, don’t forget that!”
“But how do we do it?” Myka asks again, doggedly. “Do you want us to play happy, or unhappy -“
“Both!” Nielsen thunders. “Don’t dissolve it! – And it is not what I want you to do, it is what the music tells you to do. If you would just listen!”
Myka bristles at the implication that she does not listen to the music. She has listened to Finta Giardiniera so many times that she has memorized most of the other parts in addition to her own. And, fine, she has only just received her concert diploma, but she has worked with different directors already. She has been told “enter left, exit right” and nothing else, she has been told to “feel” every scene, and she even has been seated next to giant stuffed seagull once, and been told to “communicate with it”. And she has done as she was told.
But Myka has no idea whether her Ramiro is supposed to be happy when Arminda asks to marry him at the end. She cannot know because she has barely spent a minute in his shoes, much less in scene with Helena’s Arminda, so she does not know yet how their story will play out.
Nielsen is not impressed with her, or with anyone else, either.
“I could get more response out of a group of paper cutouts!”
“Good luck with making those sing,” Bennet mutters, standing forlornly in the center of the scene. His part may be the easiest here, because he is alone in the end and does not have to think about whether he is happy or unhappy about getting married. He looks at Amanda with longing, and even here Nielsen cuts in.
“Don’t you think you are a little bit happy that things did not work out? That your fantasy of the enchanting gardener Cinderella will never turn into the mundane reality of a marriage?”
“I’m guessing he is not married,” Todd whispers behind Myka’s back.
“At least not anymore,” Kelly whispers back, from where she has jumped into his arms. They seem to have decided that their characters are happy about ending up together.
Myka is standing next to Helena, who has an arm linked through hers but is staring at Sam, who in turn is dipping Amanda into a romantic movie kiss.
“Hideous,” Nielsen declares. “Hopeless!”
He moves on to the first finale and Myka breathes a sigh of relief. This is a longer piece of music at least, and it will give her a chance to build up to something and interact with the others. She does not get farther than her first phrase, though.
“Stop!” Nielsen yells, and Abigail lifts her hands from the keys. Nielsen points at Myka. “I can’t see what you are thinking here. – What are you doing?”
Myka looks around herself, where Sam and Amanda, the ex-lovers, have just run into each other, only to be surprised by Helena, who is Sam’s – the Count’s – new bride.
“I am here to introduce myself to the Count,” Myka says. “And before I can do that, I recognize her.” She points at Helena. “And then I am so distraught that I forget about it.”
“You are distraught?” Nielsen repeats.”You are mad! You are jealous!!– And why do you even introduce yourself to the Count?”
Myka blinks. “Because it is the polite thing to do.”
“The wedding party is huge!” Nielsen has walked onto the stage again and is moving in between them. “More people than you could shake a stick at. And your link to the wedding is ‘bride’, not ‘groom’. One, because you are friends with her uncle, and two – off the record – because she used to be your lover. So why would you follow the Count here into the garden, and start introducing yourself? What are you playing at?”
Myka wants to say, “You tell me, you are the director,” but that is exactly the kind of petulance she prides herself not to indulge in. She is a professional.
Next to her, Helena suddenly straightens. “She is about to tell him about me.” She takes two steps closer. “I realize that she is going to tell him.” She is in between Myka and Sam now, positioning her body like a buffer.
“What are your exact words?” Nielsen prompts, and now he is chasing a detail, and he is smiling.
“Count, allow me –“, Myka recites.
“Allow me what?”
“To introduce myself. – But…” Myka looks back and forth between Sam and Helena.
“You do the same thing in the second act finale,” Nielsen reminds her. “You go after the Count…”
“…and I challenge him to a duel.” Myka nods. She knows her part.
“Because you want Arminda back,” Nielsen says.”Desperate times, desperate measures. – But…”
“But I want her back before that,” Myka interrupts him, and she feels a first puzzle piece click into place. This Ramiro, when he is singing about having escaped love’s clutches, will be lying. This is an angle that allows her to work, finally.”I want to tell him that I am Arminda’s lover, and that she is mine.”
“I beg your pardon,” Helena drawls.
“That I want her back,” Myka amends and barely suppresses the urge to roll her eyes.
Helena nods and takes another, small step that leaves her closer to Myka. “Of course I am not giving up my marriage plans,” she muses, playing along. “But also, I cannot help but be a little impressed that you have the courage to confront the Count.” She looks at Myka, assessing her. “Especially since courage was probably not your most prominent feature while we were together.”
Myka sputters. “Excuse me?!”
“Otherwise it would not capture my attention like this,” Helena reasons, and Myka is not sure whether she wants to concede the point – it is a good one – or hit her over the head with the nearest prop.
Nielsen nods, satisfied for now, which sends Claudia scurrying to jot down things in the directing score even as the rehearsal continues.
Myka’s next entrance does not get interrupted as she intercepts a raging Arminda. She is careful to remain behind Helena since she does not want to end up in a chokehold like Sam did yesterday.
“Why do you keep holding me from behind by my shoulders in every scene?” Helena complains at the next stop. “It feels stilted. – Besides, I could shake you off quite easily.”
Myka swallows the reply that it is called acting for a reason. “I am trying not to block your singing, or your view of the conductor.” She does not point out that that is called common courtesy. Myka does not care if Helena has won all the prizes Cardiff has to offer, she is insufferable.
“Like this, no one will ever believe that we were an item at some point.” Helena shakes her head. “I do not care if I cannot look out front for a phrase or two, or whether the conductor only sees my back here. We need to tell a story.”
“I thought we did that with our voices,” Myka says testily.
Something around Helena’s mouth shifts and hardens. “I thought that was called a concert career.”
“Again from Amoroso mio Contino,” Nielsen orders.
Myka moves back to her mark and wonders whether taking Helena into a chokehold would tell enough of a story for her liking.
“You look like you could use some chocolate,” Pete comments when Myka walks into the dining room of the guesthouse late in the evening. “A lot of chocolate,” he amends. “And a funny, good-looking trombone player to cheer you up!”
Myka allows herself to sink onto the bench beside him. “You are not entirely wrong.” She has dressed nicely, nice enough to talk to an agency representative, and she hopes that her tiredness is not showing too much.
“Pete!” Claudia pulls out a chair on the opposite side of the table and even in the low light, she looks far more harrowed than Myka. “No coercing my singers with chocolate!”
“I have some for you, too,” Pete offers, and Myka looks on as Claudia accepts a candy bar with a mock frown and a sigh.
“Sugar bribes!” She takes a bite and then looks at Myka. “He has a history with it. Last year, there was this soprano.”
“Really hot soprano,” Pete readily adds. “She did Papagena in the Magic Flute.”
Claudia peels the wrapper off the candy bar. “She did everyone else, too.”
Pete shrugs with a grin. “I wasn’t above sharing. – The soprano, not the chocolate.”
Myka coughs, not sure how much of this she wants to hear.
“Tell me if he gives you any grief. Or chocolate,” Claudia says to Myka, but the way she smiles at Pete makes it clear that she is far more protective of him than she is of Myka.
Myka wonders whether this is her cue to excuse herself, to leave the two of them to it, but when she moves to stand, Claudia holds her back with a hand on her shoulder. With the other hand, she waves over Todd and Kelly, who have just appeared in the door.
“Giardiniera support group,” she declares. “Over here!”
“Nielsen as grumpy as usual?” Pete wants to know.
“I’m not sure,” Myka says. “But I’m getting a better idea of how he works.”
“Artie is an acquired taste, I know.” It takes Claudia no time to organize a bottle of wine and a few glasses.
“I’m still not sold on the concept,” Kelly quips as she slides into a seat next to Myka. “Study singing, they said. Go to Europe, they said. And I still end up in a maid’s costume!”
Pete flashes Kelly a smile. “I am not commenting on that,” he declares. “But you have my vote to dress all maid characters in designer robes of your choice.”
Kelly regards him for a moment. “Points for trying,” she then decides.
Todd looks down when he laughs, the tips of his ears a little red.
“Nielsen’s star is sinking a bit, isn’t it?” Kelly asks. “I mean, he is a big name, but it is too big for our production –“
“Are you doing rehearsal critique?” Amanda sits down with them and places a water bottle in front of her on the table. She has scrubbed her face clean of make-up and wears an oversized shirt, and she looks a bit like a marble statue that has climbed off its pedestal after hours. Her hair is curling around her face from having been pinned up throughout the rehearsal day, and Pete is suddenly very quiet.
“Yes, what is it with Artie Nielsen doing the Giardiniera?” Amanda wants to know. “I know his style is a little dated, but…”
Claudia straightens. “Just what do you mean by dated?”
“Just that his aesthetics are on the conventional side,” Bennet comments from behind them, leaning against the wall. “He isn’t into innovative concepts, and his ‘giving you a motivation for everything’ approach is rather ’70s.”
“And it still works.” For all her grousing, Claudia is quick to defend Nielsen. “Concept styles come and go. – Artie knows his craft and he knows his music. His work is always solid.”
Bennet curls one corner of his mouth in a smile. “Will I still get a glass of wine if I say that ‘solid’ isn’t the same as exciting?”
“It’s up to the singers to make it exciting.” Claudia pours a small glass and slides it across the table.
Only after taking a first sip, Bennet responds. “I find it lazy to leave that to the singers.”
“Who would complain about being given space, unless they have no ideas?” Claudia says, just as blasé.
“Anyone want a knife to cut the tension?” Pete mutters under his breath, but just as Myka wonders whether the entire production time will be like this, with snide remarks and the singers worrying about selling themselves well enough, Bennet dips his head and smiles.
“Well played,” he admits. He takes over Myka’s seat as Myka stands because Sam is in the doorway and motions her over.
“Ooh, private study time?” Pete whistles. “Is that why you’ve got on the fancy shirt?”
“Business, Pete,” Myka reminds him. “My business.”
“I could smack him over the head for you,” Amanda offers, and now Myka wishes she could stay, and have a glass of wine with them instead.
Operatic Cliff Notes:
What bafflement, I am out of sorts,
I remain frozen to the spot, I lose myself,
I don’t know what I should think.