And What, Pray, of Opera, You Ask

Mike Silverton

[November 2012.]

The MAESTRO: a man of a certain age in crumpled formal wear, preferably tails, preferably soiled. Professor Irwin Corey, “The World’s Foremost Authority,” serves in large measure as the model after which the Maestro has been fashioned.

BRUNHILDE and SIEGLINDE: voluptuous, preferably gorgeous young women in skimpy tees and cut-offs, toy Viking helmets. BRUNHILDE holds a toy sword, SIEGLINDE, a toy battleaxe.

SETTING: downstage, kitchenette chair, plastic-upholstered seat and back revealing dirty stuffing. The stage is otherwise bare.

OPTIONAL: The MAESTRO, BRUNHILDE and SIEGLINDE read from scripts.

The play opens to the Overture to Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (L’Oiseau-Lyre CD 436 992-2), running time 2:04. During the overture, The MAESTRO enters and sits in a manner befitting his hugely inflated sense of self. His gaze is fixed on a distant point, establishing loftiness. BRUNHILDE and SIEGLINDE enter sinuously. They seat themselves at the Maestro’s feet, striking appetizing poses. Exaggerated gestures are not to be discouraged. The Overture concludes. Inappropriate pause.

MAESTRO (rising to his feet, with oratorical force)

I have tasted triumph!

(Inappropriate pause)

It tastes like puppy dog.

(Inappropriate pause)

And I have tasted defeat!

(Inappropriate pause)

This too tastes like puppy dog.

(The MAESTRO sits)

(BRUNHILDE and SIEGLINDE’s expressions reveal incredulity.)

BRUNHILDE / SIEGLINDE

Puppy dog, Maestro?

MAESTRO (as if from a height)

Puppy dog, my dears.

BRUNHILDE / SIEGLINDE

Then puppy dog it is! Puppy dog once! Puppy dog twice! Holy Jumpin’ Jesus Christ! Rah! Rah! Cisco bam! Rah! Rah! Puppy dog!

(A stuffed puppy dog on a string drops abruptly from above, stopping just short of the Maestro’s wrecked topper)

MAESTRO

And what, pray, of opera, you ask.

(The stuffed puppy dog slowly ascends)

(Leaping to his feet)

What of opera! What of opera! Bless my soul!

(Sitting slowly, as if under water)

What of opera…. What of youth…. What of love…. What of the ways, the mind-benumbing, brutish ways in which the uninformed misapply the apostrophe? What of the pluperfect ablative…?

(In a pedagogue’s firm voice)

Opera is emotion! Emotion’s heart and soul! Emotion comes first! Is paramount! In opera! Paramount! In opera! Otherwise inoperable!

BRUNHILDE / SIEGLINDE (supportively)

Is paramount, is paramount, para, para, paramount!

MAESTRO

But stylized! Stylized to a fare-thee-well! To a boxcar’s worth of flatulence!

BRUNHILDE / SIEGLINDE (supportively)

To a fare fare fare-thee-well, well, well, well, fare-thee-well! To a boxcar’s worth of flatulence!

MAESTRO (conversationally)

We, the opera lover, are interested not so much in what our hero, heroine or villain may do as in how he or she feels before, during and after the action. In Il Trovatore, when Manrico learns that Madama Vavoom has been catapulted — remember, he supposes her to be his maternal diva — his thoughts turn to rescue, to fetching a hook, to loading a gun to the brim and beyond, but rather than dashing off as one would in what we like to call real life, he steps forward and sings of his mad desire for vengeance.

BRUNHILDE / SIEGLINDE (leaping to their feet, brandishing weapons ritualistically)

Vengeance once! Vengeance twice! Holy jumpin’ fright-night spice! Ram ram cisco bam! Rah rah shucks and flux!

(The MAESTRO rises ceremoniously, steps forward and recites with appropriate flourishes the lines of Manrico’s aria “Away to Autumn’s Bunting”)

MAESTRO

Away to autumn’s bunting, mulchy, sodden Fate!

The diva employer, Madama Vavoom, a landslide endures of incoming louts

As scene ’pon scene from view fleets away and seven stoical clams remain.

(Inappropriate pause, theatrical sobs)

Seven static, stoical clams!

The bulge th’audience strives to dodge is the outline of a trio I plan, later, to sabotage. Starting at the fuselage. Working without mucilage.

I am enraptured for now by Madama Vavoom’s entourage in apple peelings drap’t.

(The Maestro sits)

BRUNHILDE / SIEGLINDE

Departs, departs, for the distance departs!

(Conversationally)

But what, pray, of Violetta? What of Violetta? What?!

MAESTRO

Ah, Violetta! Violetta’s velvet viola! Violetta’s dewy pudenda!

(Conversationally)

Ladies, when do we know a viola’s out of tune?

(BRUNHILDE and SIEGLINDE shrug)

MAESTRO

When the bow is moving is when!

(Intemperate mirth, all)

Okay, try this one. What’s the difference between a viola and an onion?

(B and S shrug)

Nobody cries when you cut up a viola!

(Intemperate mirth, all)

Violetta also rhymes with panatela and omeletta. We scorn the tarantella withal.

(Inappropriate pause)

(Fiercely)

Because we are arthritic!

(Inappropriate pause)

But are not yet dead! A love duet follows, “Tell me of Madama Vavoom.” It shows as plain as music may that Floristan’s love is real and that she in turn, the mysterious Mons Veneris, has given him her heart, exclusive of aorta, etcetera, plus slivers of liver and spleen, and fluoridation’s a communist plot. Gypsies enter from the mountains, dancing their wild Gypsy dances, feasting on acorns and rabbit poop, drinking muddy wine, bursting into waggish song, “I shake your hand. Now count your fingers.”

(B and S giggle)

(Inappropriate pause, the Maestro seats himself)

BRUNHILDE / SIEGLINDE (gesturing)

Footsteps, Maestro!

(Inappropriate pause, loud clomping offstage left)

MAESTRO (rising)

Footsteps! And whilst I wonder, be it she, my visage encounters an amusing cream pie. The Gypsies are thunderstruck. Flat out astonished down to the ground. What a funny indignity! Interest shifts to four Gypsy arrivals dragging female acquisitions. Then follows the first of that pair of beautiful quartets for which this act is especially famous, “This is your dwelling now” and “Seriously?”

BRUNHILDE / SIEGLINDE

(Rising, pointing to the rear of the house)

(Inappropriate pause, loud clomping offstage right)

MAESTRO

Footsteps indeed! Where budget’s a constraint. And competent voices in short supply.

(Inappropriate pause, the Maestro draws himself up to full height)

Constraints begone! Imagination’s the high colonic!

(Inappropriate pause)

Priceless! Imagination is priceless! Imagine: Whilst milling in the bazaar, Norbert the Needful and his man Helpful remark a wizened friar. ’Twas actually an oven roaster they’d set out to acquire. They polish the haunted oven. Polish the thing till it shines like a dime. The lights dim, the oven moans. It curses its fate. This is opera. You’re obliged to believe, to tag along….

(Inappropriate pause)

Suppose, in opera, a vermin loses incentive. Just suppose. It costs you nothing.

(Inappropriate pause)

There is, as we snort, a beautiful queen — princess, really, possibly bogus — off at a distance. Behind a scrim. Backlit. In silhouette. Weeping. Her ladies in waiting cajole and plead, sing nautical ditties, tell naughty jokes, hop about with bright eyes flashing, breasts a-flouncing, getting nowhere. Exactly nowhere. Fast. The queen — princess, really, possibly bogus — keeps on blubbering.

(Inappropriate pause)

As an operatic event — as a packaged entertainment, as tunes you hum as you leave the house — a weeping queen is a simultaneity, a stylized occupation of time, much like a painting hanging in mid air. Its fascination includes the possibility — nay, probability! — of its falling to the ground. Damaging the frame as likely as not. Conversely, in opera, when we cannot see something much less hear it, we fail to grasp its purport. This failure to grasp an unseen and unheard event’s purport might well be interpreted as a longing to embrace a nostalgic nothingness.

(Gestures upward delicately)

BRUNHILDE / SIEGLINDE (Seated once again on either side of the chair)

And what of the audience? What of expectations?

MAESTRO

The audience is adrift. I speak of course of an ideal state. One is nose to nose with the diva. Our breaths mingle, the climate improves. The diva and I are rocking and rolling, creating foothills, cordilleras! I have major-league wood.

(Inappropriate pause, reaches out to a receding presence)

The diva is adrift. She recedes with the tide. To where the audience has already gone.

(Inappropriate pause. Dejection. Revives, gesturing welcome)

She returns on a wave of expectation, of wild carbonation! The Spirits of Seltzer and of Club Soda too and possibly champagne.

(Miming the tenor’s frustration)

The tenor, he cannot reach that high.

(Resuming his pedagogical stance)

And so ’tis fixed, a bug in musical amber.

(Broad, theatrical gestures)

Darkness all about. Incense rolls and rises in a thick lilac haze in the dim, reflected light of an opera lover’s starched dickey.

(Pointing)

There in the audience. Dressed to the nines. An elegant fellow. But homesick. Nostalgic. Drenched in sentimentality. Waterlogged.

BRUNHILDE / SIEGLINDE (still seated)

Why homesick, Maestro? Is he not enjoying the opera?

MAESTRO

Yes, but remotely. He is adrift among his memories. Adrift amidst nostalgia. The opera has cast him adrift. He recalls sensations, odors, vibrations, the tsarina’s high teas, boys-room assignations, the focus knob he fusses with, waiting for the diva. Waiting, waiting—. His boon companions dry up and die. The cash in his billfold is no longer valid. Waiting, waiting—. The heart he carved in the old oak tree a cardio-vascular system became. He hears the opera, finally, from his sarcophagus. There in the crypt. I cannot go on—.

(Inappropriate pause, lights dim by half. The MAESTRO sits)

(In attitudes of rapt attention, the MAESTRO, BRUNHILDE and SIEGLINDE fix on Dido’s aria “When I am laid in earth,” same CD, track 33, running time 4:06.)

CURTAIN