[an opera novella]
[written as Daphne]
“Vo cedendo, piano, piano.” –
“Ah perché m’arresto, oh dio!
Perché il piè tremando va?”
(Mozart, La finta giardiniera)
Myka is the first one on the bus in the morning.
“If you showed up in hopes of picking the best seat: there are no best seats,” Claudia greets her.
“Please tell me this thing does at least have air conditioning,” Bennet says when he shows up, and Sam says, “Please tell me it doesn’t.”
Myka does not care either way, she is eighty pages into her travel guide and looking forward to sightseeing on their free afternoon.
“Reading up on Aix?”
Sam folds himself into the seat next to her and peers over her shoulder.
“Mhm.” Myka turns a page. “I like to know beforehand what I’ll be seeing.”
“Are you planning on a tour?”
“Myka could give tours,” Amanda points out from the seat behind them. “Not to the beach, perhaps, but to everything that has been around for at least three-hundred years. Says Pete.”
Myka looks at her over the rim of her book. “I’m not sure I like your spending time with Pete.”
“You should, if you want to go look at old things without an ice-cream stop at every other corner,” Amanda says flippantly. She tries to squeeze her legs into the allotted space and ends up jamming them into Myka’s back.
“I hope you like ice-cream,” Myka says.
Amanda is unperturbed. “After I best him in the rematch later, I will.”
In front of them, Helena and Abigail enter the bus, together. Helena barely nods at Myka, her gaze sliding past as she sits down and smiles at something Abigail has said.
Myka wishes she did not care.
“I could come along if you’d like some company,” Sam offers. He nods at her book. “You do the tour, I buy the ice-cream afterwards?”
Myka smiles. “Deal.”
There is a jibe on Bennet’s part about three-hundred-year-old ice-cream, and Myka laughs along with the others. The first tour guide of the day is Claudia, however, who oversees the unhurried ride out to the Domaine de Grand St. Jean and leads them around the property.
Myka tries to look suitably blasé while she tips her head back to take in the thick walls of the palace.
“Wild boars, mark my words,” Bennet mutters as he side-eyes the woods across the grassy clearing where the stage is set up.
Sam sneezes. “Wild grains,” he says nervously and promptly sneezes again. “God, is it still season for pollen here?!”
“Do you need to take any hay fever meds?” Claudia asks calmly and Myka uses the small commotion to press a palm to the weathered pink and white stone and feel its centuries seep into her skin.
“Quite impressive, isn’t it?” Helena remarks next to her and it is Abigail who agrees, “It is.”
Before Myka can say anything, Nielsen cuts the moment short. “And if you’d all remember we’re not here for sightseeing, but to put on a show. – Second act finale, again!”
It is easier to get into it out here, with the whisper of actual trees close by and their voices being whisked away by the breeze.
“I haibb bhis,” Sam declares thickly when he and Amanda end up curled into each other on the stage floor among bits of leaves and blossoms. Myka thinks that there are certainly worse conditions than being curled around either of them.
She sticks with yesterday’s approach of mostly ignoring Helena and offering Amanda’s Sandrina a hand. She also gets to brandish a fencing epée – “an upper crust 1920s fashion,” Claudia tells her, “And don’t ask me how many books on the issue Artie had me check out in preparation.” -, which is something she always enjoys.
She is in such a good mood that she offers Helena to give it another try in the break. “We could go over the last part again.”
Helena looks down at the weapon that is still fitting comfortably into Myka’s hand. “I’d rather take a stab at it with Abigail first.”
“Fine!” Myka throws up her hands. “Have Abigail sing Ramiro, too, why don’t you?”
She tosses the epée onto the prop carrier and decides to walk a few steps. Not even her detailed guide on Roman monuments in the French Mediterranean seems enticing right now. Still with a frown, she arrives at the small chapel – it is more of a cistern – that Claudia has left to the wayside earlier. It is nestled among trees a bit to the side and its walls gleam brightly in the sunlight, enough to make Myka blink. The entrance is carefully blocked up, but the roof is missing some pieces and there is a splintered back door, and after a moment’s hesitation, Myka pushes past remnants of wood into the room.
Welcome cool wraps around her and when she looks up, she can see bits of blue sky. Single rays of sunshine fall into the space. Myka hears her own breaths in the quiet, and she lets them shape into a hum.
Wood scrapes against stone behind her and Abigail, Todd and Helena slip into the chapel.
“As if it were calling for song,” Helena says after a moment. She stretches out her hands. Her voice is low, but it resounds along the walls and carries high above them towards the battered roof.
“Something sacred,” Todd agrees, and he is whispering.
Helena draws breath.
“Che soave zeffiretto…”
“That’s not exactly sacred,” Myka mutters.
“What’s more sacred than Mozart?” Todd wants to know, and Myka has to concede the point when Helena shapes the next line. She is not a lyric soprano, but Myka finds herself wondering whether she might have been, when the voice opens up smoothly and shimmers on “sera”, evoking a fragrant summer night.
“Questa sera spirerà,” she echoes. Susanna is a little high in tessitura to fit her voice comfortably, but the duet is still within her range.
Then it is Helena again, and it is Mozart, a softly beating pulse even in just an a cappella line.
“Sotto i pini del boschetto…”
For a precious tumble of seconds, Myka feels in sync with the entire universe.
“Sotto i pini…?”
Their voices edge closer to one another. She is singing into Helena’s echo, “certo, certo, il capirà”, and then their voices are finally mingling, metal and velvet, and their effortless fit makes Myka doubt for a moment whether this sound is inappropriate within the confines of a chapel.
Helena is smiling, she segues into the reprise and if Myka had to describe her right now, she would say, ‘serene’.
“Che soave zeffiretto…”
Myka blends into it, one line following another, then the gruppetti, and Helena goes for a soft decrescendo, leaving space for Myka. It is a duet about inviting a man to a date, and yet it is not about any man at all. Their final shared notes dot the air like drops of gentle rain.
Then there is quiet, and again the only sound audible in the chapel is their breathing.
“Hot damn,” Abigail finally mutters.
“It’s a pity you two don’t share a duet in the show,” Todd adds, and Myka does not enjoy berating Arminda for the second half of the rehearsal as much as she had during the first half. She does not have much time to think about duets, though, since Nielsen is thoroughly unhappy with everyone and attests them all a case of hay fever.
“Time to regroup!” Claudia calls out as they line up for their bus again, and she shakes her head at the bedraggled assembly and their assortment of frowns and yawns. Helena has hidden behind her shades, Myka has returned to her travel guide, and not even Kelly is smiling. “All right, time for some team bonding,” Claudia decides. “Change of plans!” She slides into her seat next to the driver. “Take us down to Marseille. These kids need some sunshine at the beach.”
Myka looks up from her book with consternation. “The beach?”
“I wanted to practice,” Amanda complains.
“It’s your afternoon off,” Claudia says. “That goes for your voice, too.”
“Practice for my rematch with Pete,” Amanda mutters, and Claudia looks up sharply.
“Pete will still be there in the evening.”
Sam opens his mouth to protest, but Claudia cuts him off. “There will be no pollen at the beach. Myka, the Roman ruins will still be there on the weekend. – Plus I could use an hour or two of sunshine, and, frankly, group morale could be better.”
“Can we stop on the way to pick up our bikinis?” Kelly wants to know.
But Claudia is not in the mood for further stops, so they end up buying cheap bikinis and sombreros at a ramshackle booth directly at the beach of Marseille.
“You’re in the Mediterranean! Live a little!” Claudia instructs as she lets herself fall backwards into the sand. She has doled out a stack of towels – “You planned this,” Myka accuses her, and Claudia shakes her head. “I am an assistant director, I am always prepared.” – and pops open a can of soda.
Bennet blinks at the countless dots of color in the water and lining the sand around them, bathing suits and hats and sunroofs. “I am beginning to see your point.” He rolls up the legs of his trousers and next to him, Sam gingerly does the same. He has stopped sneezing.
Myka pushes her toes into the sand. Packing a bathing suit has not crossed her mind when she was preparing for Aix, and then nothing crosses her mind for a long minute because Helena and Kelly have changed into their new bikinis.
“Like what you see?” Claudia asks quietly next to her. Myka bolts upright behind her pair of cheap new shades and quickly squints at her book again, even though the sun is much too bright to allow for any reading.
Claudia chuckles. She has offered to watch their belongings for now, while everyone else is heading down to the shore. Amanda is already up to her knees in the water, her summer shirt a splash of red against the sun.
“Want me to bring you back some ice-cream, Claudia?”
Todd, on the other hand, is not wearing any shirt at all.
“See anything you like?” Myka mutters.
“Todd, sweetheart, thank you!” Claudia calls out and she is completely unfazed. “Get me anything with a cherry on top!”
She laughs when he blushes and walks off, weaving his way around towels and sunroofs.
“Do you still believe he’s into Kelly?” Myka asks.
“I think he’s young, and enjoying the summer. As he should.”
“And you think he’s cute.”
A little bit to the side, Helena has brought her score to the beach and is going through the pages with Abigail, while she absently applies sunscreen to her legs. Then she gathers her hair over one shoulder and turns half to the side, exposing the pale length of her back, and passes the bottle of sunscreen to Abigail.
Myka would be quite happy to discuss Claudia’s romantic interests or lack thereof, or possibly the rehearsal schedules from last week, instead of watching Abigail’s hands on Helena’s skin, or pondering her own reaction to that very image.
“Todd is cute,” Claudia concedes and she leans back on her hands. “And he’s a sweet guy, too. All the more reason not to encourage him. – Because first it’s just a night at the pub, but then it turns into the whole summer, and then I could really like him by the time we wrap up, and then it’s heartbreak and pricey long-distance bills until the next production rolls around and the actual question is who will be the first one to move on.”
“That’s a little harsh,” Myka protests.
“On dating on the circuit?” Claudia crosses her ankles and watches the sand roll off her shins. “I’ve yet to see it work. – You get tossed into one emotional hothouse after another. Two incredibly close months, and then it’s over. Even if you don’t want it to be. And then it’s the same with a new crew.” She shrugs. “I try not to let things happen.”
Myka cannot argue with that. “But aren’t you afraid of missing out on something?”
“I’m afraid of missing out on sleep and not putting everything into my work because I am distressed over some Todd or Giovanni or Dmitri,” Claudia says dryly. “And I’ve been there with Giovanni, and with Dmitri, and I am not going there with Todd. Even if he is very cute.”
Myka wants to add something profound to that, but then Helena turns onto her stomach and continues to leaf through her score, and Myka tries to look into her travel guide and not at the shadows that run along the slope of Helena’s neck, and further down, along thin triangles of fabric that are now challenged with gentle weight.
“How about a walk along the shore?” Sam asks from above her and motions ahead, to where the plethora of colored dots thins out. He offers her a hand to pull her up and Myka takes his hand first and only later bends down to roll up her pants. She leaves her travel guide behind.
“So what is the one role you absolutely have to sing?” Sam asks as they walk. When Myka stumbles over a small hole in the sand, he reaches for her hand again to steady her.
“Probably Octavian, at some point down the road.” Sam’s hand is dry and warm, and he has yet to let go off Myka’s fingers.
“I could see that,” he agrees.
“And I have done Dorabella already. I think that is truly my range now, and what I want to do.” Myka looks to the side, but Sam’s features are left in the dark by the surrounding sunlight. She has to squint and takes back her hand, adjusts her shades. “Though my other really big goal is Tancredi.”
“Another good fit,” Sam says. “Not a popular choice, though. – No Carmen?”
“God, no.” Myka laughs.
“You don’t see yourself driving a man crazy?”
Myka measures her reply. “I don’t see myself driving that kind of middle register.”
Sam smiles. “I think you could. – Or are bullfighters not your type?”
“Not if they roar.”
“A very Mozartean answer.” Sam is still smiling, but he is looking at Myka expectantly and now she has to ask the same question in return.
“So what is your dream role?”
“If I play my cards right…” Sam pauses, but he seems pretty confident that the game will go his way. “Don José. Perhaps in five years, perhaps in seven…”
“It seems at least one of us is going for Carmen,” Myka remarks diplomatically. She nods at the stretch of beach ahead. “We should probably head back soon. It’s supposed to be group bonding, Claudia said.“
Sam rolls his eyes, a little, but he does not protest. He even joins the beach volleyball match that Claudia proposes and shows off alongside Todd, who jumps higher and pitches harder than necessary. Myka is tall enough to reach most of the balls either way, unless Helena laughs on the sidelines and Myka grasps at air, her head swimming with the sight of Helena, an unbuttoned shirt – Bennet’s, if she remembers correctly – thrown on haphazardly on top of the bikini.
The skin at Myka’s nape feels tight and sore to the touch by the time they climb into the bus again, but she does not mind. Single grains of sand fall onto the worn seat when she runs a hand through her hair.
“I’m sorry you didn’t get to do your sightseeing tour,” Sam says. His voice is close to Myka’s ear. At the other side of the car, Helena closes her eyes and leans her head against the window. “Perhaps we could still do a small round once we get back?”
“You would do that?”
“Sure,” Sam says. “You pick the sights, I pick the ice-cream afterwards?”
His smile is easier than Myka has seen on him so far, and it does make him look rather handsome.
When they drive up in front of their guesthouse, dusk is falling already and the driver has switched on the headlights that outline the figure of Pete who is sitting on the stairs to the entrance and is trying not to look as if he is waiting for Amanda.
“Here, let me.” Sam moves to the door to offer Myka a hand in helping her out of the bus. “I’ll just go put on another shirt, and we can start the tour!”
Pete watches him walk away, then he steps closer to Myka, his hands stuffed in his pockets. “So, the tenor?”He makes a show of waggling his eyebrows. “Well, if you must… I had pegged you more for Miss Cardiff, though.”
Myka sputters. “Excuse me?” It comes out a little too high.
Pete shrugs. “Well – that, or you’ve thrown her to the sharks.” He looks past Myka, into the bus where Amanda is still gathering her things. “No sharks, then,” he observes when Helena brushes past them. “So…”
Myka is relieved of an answer when Amanda finally steps out into the evening. “What, trombone – you’re not using every spare minute to practice for our duel?”
Pete rocks back on his heels and he is grinning. “Get your ego down from the stratosphere where your voice lives. If I practiced, I would bore myself in defeating you.”
Amanda tries to look haughty, but she is clearly having too much fun to try very hard. “You do know that ‘defeating someone’ is when you win, right?”
“You’ll know in an hour,” Pete promises. “And then you pay the ice-cream.”
“Not a chance.” Amanda shakes her head. “And I want pizza. I haven’t had dinner yet.”
“Sounds like a romantic evening is in store for you.” Myka slaps Pete’s shoulder with her travel guide. “Enjoy!”
It is only when she is walking with Sam, talking some more about repertory and career choices, that she realizes the flaw in her plan: most sights are closed up already and the readily falling darkness makes it difficult to take in the details she has marked in her guide.
Sam, who has a light pullover carefully draped around his shoulders, does not seem to mind. He listens to her quotes on architecture and remembers his promise to buy them ice cream in the end. Since they cannot find a parlor that is open at this hour, they end up with frozen yogurt from a fast-food chain as they amble back towards their quarters.
“Thank you for coming with me,” Myka says. They are standing in the backyard of the guesthouse, in front of the small set of stairs that would take them inside. The granite stands out in the moonlight.
“Thank you for the tour,” Sam replies. “Now I know what I would have seen, if there had been enough light.”
“Yes, about that…” Myka chuckles, a tad embarrassed.
“Don’t worry about it.”
When Myka looks up, Sam’s face is very close to hers, and she realizes that he is going to kiss her a second before he is leaning in. She does not move away. Their lips are sticky with frozen yogurt and its heavily sweet taste still clings to their mouths as the kiss goes on. Myka is aware of the gravel crunching beneath their feet and of the cicadas chirping across the yard. A trace of cigarette smoke carries in the air for a moment. When Sam tries to slip a hand around her neck, she flinches at the touch.
“Sunburn,” she explains quickly.
“Oh. Sorry.”Sam takes a small step back, and he does not seem to know what to do with his hands now. “It is getting late, anyway. – But I had fun tonight. Good night, Myka.”
“Good night,” Myka echoes, and she watches him walk up the stairs and disappear into the house. Only then does she take a deep breath, lets it fill her lungs, and exhales audibly. She tips up her head to look at the moon, but a small glint of orange catches her eye instead.
Leaning against the side of the house, covered by the shadows, stands Helena, taking a deep draw of a cigarette. In the darkness, Myka cannot make out where Helena is looking. When the nighttime breeze carries over another tendril of smoke, Myka shakes her head and hurries inside.
Operatic Cliff Notes:
- Chapter Quote:
“Bit by bit, I’m giving in.”
“Oh Lord, why do I even stop walking away? Why is my foot trembling?”
- The duet sung in the chapel is the “(Canzonetta) sull’aria.” from Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro”, 3rd act (YT has plenty of versions, try Dame Kiri & Cotrubas 1973 (young Kiri. Reason enough.), Popp & Janowith 1980 in Paris (we will always have Paris) or Bartoli and Fleming 1998 (the only combination with a mezzo Susanna here). Ignore wigs and staging at will (though not the Paris one – it’s Strehler and Janowith is a fox), it is an amazingly sensual piece for two female voices.
- Roles Sam and Myka talk about at the beach:
Octavian from “Der Rosenkavalier” (Strauss) – one of the biggest trouser role classics, core repertory for lyric mezzos with enough heft. Heavy lesbian subtext (clock in at 8’00 here and be amazed at stage lesbians in the 1950s).
Dorabella from “Così fan tutte” (Mozart) – core lyric mezzo repertory (no trousers, though – ignore the baritone and focus on the heartbeat instead)
Tancredi from “Tancredi” (Rossini) – a little heavier, belcanto mezzo stuff: swaggering warrior hero who gets the girl (oh my)
Carmen & Don José from Bizet’s “Carmen” – very straight, but usually there’s cleavage.