Claire Rudy Foster
I am bad at love because of Carmen. I blame La Boheme for each sweetly broken relationship before and since, snapped as simply as a bone in your finger. Something about the four-act structure of opera sank into my brain while it developed, and passion and disappointment are as much a part of my DNA as my knack for storytelling. It’s true.
My mother’s father was the kind of grandfather who sits on a hay bale or a barrel in the first act, dispensing advice and plucking a chicken. He had a beard and wore wool vests made from his own sheep. He sheared, carded, spun, and knitted the vests in a pattern of his own design. He taught me to catch a fish and build a water wheel of ferns and birch leaves.
Don’t tell me I didn’t have a magical childhood. It was my Act One. I was untouched, in white, with gossamer wings. I drew mermaids and listened to my grandfather rustle his newspaper in the mornings. After 10 a.m., it was time for opera.
The voices pierced my skull. They sang in registers beyond human speech, in languages like Italian and German. Grandfather preferred Verdi, so we listened to hours of requiem singers, overpowered by the passion of Aida. I heard Maria Callas, Jussi Bjorling, and all the contemporary blowhards, up through Pavarotti. When the music crested, my grandfather lowered his knitting needles. “He’s stabbed her,” he would say in a calm voice. “She’s singing the song of betrayal.”
The bottom shelf of the bookcase was for me. The opera books were next to the Origin of Man with its fleshy renderings of cave people, ape faces, and naked breasts on every page. When I was tired of taking thrilling looks at ancient Macedonian goddesses, I pulled out Lohengrin or Giselle and read about doomed lovers, broken promises, and tragic death scenes. Draped in transparent robes, these heroines raised their arms to the unfeeling fates. They grieved their losses dramatically. They were the only ones who didn’t see it coming.
In Act Two, I learned to keep my feelings to myself. My mother, as powerfully self possessed as one of Wagner’s Valkyries, taught me to wear a bronze shield over my heart. Instead of howling, my emotions became a low, dangerous hum. I listened to other women caterwauling and I felt envy and disdain. My lovers accused me of being heartless, which hurt more than I would ever have admitted. I went to plays and ballets alone and cried during the sad scenes. I felt like Tsaritsa in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Swan Princess, sealed into a barrel and tossed from wave to wave. The arias in my head got louder.
If you don’t like opera, that’s fine. I don’t like it all the time, either. But try this: close your eyes and put your hands like mitts over your ears. Now, scream as loudly as you can. Try to imagine that a witch with long steel fingers is extracting your voicebox from between the tendons that hold your pharynx in place. Scream again. Now, imagine what you sound like to your neighbors. Imagine that, hearing your inhuman shriek, they’ve lifted their gaze from their cell phones or hesitated while stirring a boiling pot. For a moment, you commanded them. That is the feeling that opera gives me.
A few years ago, Portland was covered in ice. Three inches of freeze covered the streets and sidewalks. Even cars with studded tires slithered along the road, and the winter salt got into everything. I had a ticket to Lucia Di Lammermoor, my first real in-person opera, and a little black dress, and a friend with a jeep who was brave enough to take me.
The ice storm had frozen the musicians out, so instead of a full orchestra, there was only a pianist and a violinist in the pit. There was no conductor. Up in the balcony, I could look down on the rows and rows of empty seats. They were playing to an audience of maybe a dozen people, wearing opera clothes under their duffle coats and scarves. The overture started, and then the cast started their long walks across the empty stage.
In the great cavern of the opera hall, I could hear every footfall. The voices, without the padding of an orchestra, were raw and bare. I closed my eyes while Lucia, falsely accused of infidelity, succumbed to the torment of her critics. I felt the presence of my grandfather, lifting a finger at the high notes as though conducting the recording we heard on the radio. It was undoubtedly the finest performance I had ever seen, and the best I will ever see. The intimacy of the story pierced me, and for hours afterward, mulling over the lamentations of the doomed girl, I was unable to speak. I felt the injustice of love, the generous guest which gives so much and is so quick to leave.
My fear is that I will become so hardened that only a Renata Tibaldi aria can prise up my breastplate. That in growing up, I will have to choose the weapon of my own undoing. My fear is that, like a cursed princess, I will live far back in the woods of my heart, with only a golden thread to lead travelers to the door of my cave. My fear is that, even then, confronted with the vision of someone who is willing to love me, I will transform into a ferocious monster, turned hairy with disappointment, and drive my prince away. That he won’t see the enchantment that holds me, and in the end, only time will claim me. I fear that I am not the heroine in my story, but the witch who grants wishes and knows that love comes at a terrible price.
If I’m right, then my fourth act turns me into a murder of crows, scattered by the wind. If I’m wrong, then maybe there is something that I missed about opera. Maybe it isn’t the loss, the death, the sopranos. Maybe it’s the scent of sheep on my grandfather’s clothes, and the nubby wool under my cheek when I snuck into his lap in the mornings, with a little Mozart on the record player, and the fog outside turning the windows silver, and under the music, a heartbeat that only we could hear, all those decades ago, when I was new and sweet and so willing to believe that the world was going to bring me anything I wished for.
Claire Rudy Foster’s critically recognized short fiction appears in various respected journals, including McSweeney’s, Vestal Review,> and SmokeLong Quarterly. She has been honored by several small presses, including a nomination for the Pushcart Prize. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. She is afraid of sharks, zombies, and other imaginary monsters. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Establishment, XOJane, and The Rumpus. My short story collection will be published by Since Right Now this fall.