Saturday, November 10, 2007

Sunday, March 8th

On Sunday morning Vanessa was lazily sipping a cup of coffee as she waited for the weatherman to come on the screen when John Axenbourg’s death was reported on CNN News. Without wasting any time, she picked up the phone and dialed her friend Sherelle.

“Girlfriend, are you up yet? she asked. “Well, then rise and shine, woman. I’ve got hot news!”

If the response at the other end of the line wasn’t quite as cheerful as Vanessa had hoped for, that was because Sherelle was still hung over from Saturday night’s charity ball. All those tangos, cha chas, waltzes and merengues -- not to mention the amount of cocaine she and her husband had snorted between sets -- had taken their toll. As a result, the excitement in Vanessa’s voice was much more than Sherelle Davis was prepared to handle.

“Hunh,” she grunted. “What’s happening?”

“Wake up, damn it. I have news,” hissed Vanessa. “While you and Andy were kicking your heels up at that SWYSH benefit, I saw a real live murder take place at the Metropolitan Opera House!”

“Are you putting me on?”

“No, it’s on CNN News. The guy who was starring in last night’s performance is the same man we saw on Broadway last summer in Man of La Mancha. Or at least he was the same man. He’s dead now. My brother was with me last night and went backstage to investigate. I’ll call you as soon as I hear anything.”

Vanessa hung up the phone with triumph pounding in her chest. Sherelle would have to go a long way to top that!


Come Here Often?

Moments later, as he walked north along Broadway, Kevin stuck his hands into his coat pockets for warmth and discovered the $20 bill Lally had so coyly planted there as a tip. Shaking his head in amusement, he tried to decide where he might go for a nightcap. He was dressed much too formally to go out dancing, that was for sure. And a tux would definitely seem out of place in that Country & Western bar just around the corner from his apartment.

Shortly after crossing West 86th Street, he entered a piano bar called Ruby Slippers. As he made his way through the crowd of gay men (most of whom were middle-aged, beginning to get paunches, and liked to introduce themselves to strangers as “Friends of Dorothy's”), he made eye contact with a ruggedly handsome fellow whose furry eyebrows and dark, swarthy complexion had that distinctly mysterious Mediterranean look which never failed to get Kevin’s attention.

The contrast between his stark black ensemble and the more casual outfits being worn in the bar (most of the clientele that evening were dressed in jeans and sweaters) did a superb job of emphasizing Kevin’s immaculately trimmed blond hair and his look of Iowa farm boy innocence.

For a moment, he turned to face the elevated platform in the back of the room where an old woman -- someone who looked like a cross between his grandmother and a fossilized drag queen -- was seated at the piano. At least a dozen men, some of them quite drunk, were clustered around her, singing in unison.

“The night gets bitter.
The stars have lost their glitter.
With hope you burn up.
Tomorrow he may turn up.
There’s just no let up.
The live long night and day....”

The men gathered around the piano continued to sing as Kevin’s mind drifted back to John Axenbourg. He didn’t know how long he had been standing there, lost in reverie, when his thoughts were interrupted by a gentle nudge. The man with whom he had previously made eye contact had appeared at his side.

“What are you drinking tonight?”

Looking at the man’s face, Kevin could see a few streaks of gray in his otherwise raven-black hair. There were some wrinkles on the brow of the craggy, time-worn face -- wrinkles which caused the young blond to estimate the stranger’s age at just a little bit under fifty.

He tried to imagine that the man was a construction worker (an occupation which seemed highly unlikely for anyone living on Manhattan’s upper West Side). Whether or not the man would turn out to be real Daddy material, Kevin could feel himself being drawn into the stranger’s dark, brown eyes.

“How about a Heineken?” he asked, as he flashed the man a smile.

“Sounds good to me, son. My name’s Duke. What’s yours?”


Duke lifted a hairy hand to Kevin’s neck and gave the blond’s right ear a playful tug.

“Be right, back.”

“Thank you, Sir,” whispered Kevin. “Thank you very much.”

Next: Sunday, March 8th

Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

Dropping Lally Fitzwater off at her apartment after the performance had taken much longer than usual. Although Kevin had graciously accepted the old woman’s invitation to come upstairs and have a cup of coffee with her (an established ritual with many of his regular clients), for some reason Mrs. Fitzwater -- who was usually so prim and proper -- was talking a blue streak tonight.

“What’s more, I’ll never understand why they closed that restaurant that used to be located at the top of the Met. You’re too young to have eaten there, of course, but it used to be so romantic. Having your own private elevator made it feel wonderfully exclusive and the service was absolutely superb. The maitre d' always recognized my husband. We were treated like royalty every time we ate there. Of course, those were the days when our family foundation used to underwrite a new production once every three years. But all that has changed. Today, whenever I call people at the Met, it’s almost as if they had never even heard of Matt and Lally Fitzwater!”

Kevin shifted his position in the chair. The old woman’s monologue was beginning to bore him and he was anxious to leave.

“These days,” Lally continued with a semi-regal snort of derision, “it seems as if almost anyone can go to the Met. Why, just look at the people who were at tonight’s performance! All those Japanese tourists -- not to mention those colored people in our box. Now mind you, Lance, if I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times that I am not prejudiced against Negroes. Not at all. I just adored Leontyne Price back in the days when she was a new artist at the Met. But you must remember that she, at least, was a major talent. That pushy black woman seated in back of us tonight is nothing but a shameless social climber.”

Not wanting to appear rude to his client, Kevin continued listening to Lally’s diatribe. Soon the old woman was reliving the memories of days long gone, when she and her husband were at the center of New York’s society circles. The world she described was as alien to Kevin as life on the moon. But, to Lally, each charity event remained as fresh in her mind as on the day it had occurred.

Kevin looked down at his watch and cleared his throat. “Mrs. Fitzwater, it’s getting kind of late and if I don’t leave your apartment soon, you’re going to see one very handsome young man transformed into a big orange pumpkin wrapped in a black satin cummerbund. I hate to do this, but I really have to go.”

Lally stammered for words as she fought her way back to reality. “Yes, yes. Of course. How foolish of me. I was enjoying having someone to talk to so much that I completely forgot about the time. Now don’t you worry about the dishes, young man, I’ll take care of those myself. Here, let me show you to the door.”

While Kevin put on his coat, Lally reached into her purse and took out a twenty dollar bill from her wallet. Discreetly folding it in half, she made sure that it found its way into Kevin’s coat pocket as she reached up to give him a long and slightly sloppy kiss on the cheek.

“Thank you so much, Lance,” she cooed. “For the pleasure of your company.”

Knowing that freedom was just moments away, Kevin gave the old woman his most endearing smile. His straight blond hair and healthy complexion -- not to mention the near perfect dimples in his cheeks -- made him look totally irresistible.

“The pleasure, Mrs. Fitzwater, was all mine,” he whispered as he closed the door to Lally’s apartment behind him and headed down the hall to the elevator.

Next: Come Here Often?

Big Bertha To The Rescue

Placing a toasted bagel, several slices of Swiss cheese, a half a cantaloupe and a glass of milk on a small tray, Frank O’Connor carried his standard late night snack out of the tiny kitchen in his apartment and placed it on his bed. Picking up the remote control from his night table, he switched on the television set and watched in silence as CNN’s late night headline news program came on the air.

As the Met’s marketing director continued to eat, it became fairly obvious that, with the exception of a minor skirmish in the Middle East and a fire in the Paris subway, nothing of major importance was happening on the international front. The Pope was about to leave Rome on a tour of Africa and, in Great Britain, tabloids had once again leaked rumors of a possible rift between Prince Charles and Lady Diana.

The news was equally tame in America, where the President was vacationing at Camp David, a Continental Airlines jet had made an emergency landing in Cleveland and, down at the San Diego Zoo, one of the few panda bears in captivity had given birth to twins.

The anchorman reached for a piece of paper, glanced at it and looked up in surprise. “And now, this item just in from our news desk,” he said.

“Authorities are baffled by a mysterious death at the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center where, less than an hour ago, baritone John Axenbourg collapsed and died onstage. The popular American opera singer was known to millions for his work on both sides of the Atlantic and had starred on Broadway last summer in a revival of Man of La Mancha. Axenbourg, who had just been seen in tonight’s live telecast of Das Rheingold, left no survivors. Police are requesting an autopsy.”

A split-second later, the anchorman’s bland, but reassuring smile returned to his face. “And now, here’s Dan Duttlinger with the latest in sports.”

“Thank you, Ron.”

As if by instinct, Frank reached for his bedside telephone, picking up the receiver just as the phone began to ring. Pressing a button on the remote control which would lower the sound coming from his television set, he brought the receiver to his ear in time to hear Drew Gelfand’s tense voice.

“Frank? It’s Drew. We’ve got a big problem on our hands. I don’t know if you saw what happened at the end of the telecast, but John Axenbourg is dead and the police think he’s been murdered.”

“I know,” replied O’Connor. “I just heard all about it on CNN.”

“It’s already on the goddamned news? Christ! Why can’t they react that fast when something good happens?” barked Gelfand.

“Who killed him?” asked O’Connor.

“How the fuck should I know?” answered his boss. “All I know is that he’s dead, his manager is escorting the body to the coroner’s office, and I’ve got a police detective sitting in my office who happened to be present at tonight’s performance. I need you to get some messages to Axenbourg’s manager, Glenn Rosenzweig, and whoever the hell is his publicist. Make sure they’re both in my office at 11:00 a.m. tomorrow morning. And Frank, you’d better be there, too. We’re going to need your help in planning a funeral for the poor bastard. Once we’re done with all of that, you and I have to develop some kind of strategy for dealing with the media. See you in the morning.”

There was a click on the line, followed by a dial tone.

O’Connor paused for a second, stunned by the anger in Gelfand’s voice and then placed the receiver back in its cradle. Reaching under the bed for his personal Rolodex, he quickly found the home phone numbers for Glenn Rosenzweig and Pat Gilford. As he waited for each of their answering machines to respond, the Met’s public relations director tried to grasp the impact of what he had just witnessed on TV.

“Murder at the Met” had been the last item on Saturday night’s prime time news broadcast. Even if Axenbourg’s death was a tragedy, this was one crisis which had some potential for getting the company free publicity.

After leaving messages for the dead baritone’s manager and publicist, O’Connor carried the empty snack tray back into the kitchen and laid it on the counter. Any hopes he might have had of resting at home on Sunday had been thoroughly shot to hell.

Returning to the bedroom, he took one of the videotapes he had rented from the bright yellow and red plastic bag from Tower Video and placed the cartridge into his VCR. There was a soft, whirring sound as the tape moved into position and then a grotesquely obese woman’s naked body came into view.

The camera panned in close, focusing on a set of massive thighs which were riddled with stretch marks and patches of cellulitis. Exhausted, but still horny, Frank O’Connor slowly undressed as the opening credits for Thunder Thighs: Big Bertha Balls the Boston Bombers flashed before him.

Moments later, as he sat on the edge of the bed, his fingers stroked his swollen cock until O’Connor silently -- and with almost clinical efficiency -- reached a sexual climax.

His tensions released, Frank shut off the VCR and went into the bathroom to wipe the splotches of sperm from his hairy abdomen. After brushing his teeth, he shut off the light in the bathroom, turned on the switch to his electric blanket and, with a sigh of exhaustion, crawled into bed.

By midnight, his arms were tightly wrapped around a pillow and O’Connor was sleeping like a baby.

Next:Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

Twinkle, Twinkle, Dying Star

As she stood by the stage door, Edith Susnick waited patiently for the Met’s orchestra to leave the opera house before she could go backstage to greet the soloists. Most of the instrumentalists, having worked both the matinee and evening performances that Saturday, seemed anxious to go home and, as usual, left the opera house in a hurry.

Suddenly two police cars, their red lights flashing, came down the driveway leading to the Met’s stage door and screeched to a halt. Four cops jumped out and raced through the artist’s entrance.

Immediately, Edith’s suspicions were aroused. There had been no curtain calls after tonight’s performance -- a strange break from tradition -- and now the police were running backstage?

Several minutes later, Burt, the elderly black security guard who usually admitted visitors to the dressing room area, appeared at the stage door and addressed the crowd of people who were waiting to go backstage.

“Folks, can I have your attention for a second? No one’s going to be allowed backstage tonight and the artists will all be leaving from a different entrance. Sorry, but those are Mr. Gelfand’s orders.”

After Burt disappeared inside, most of the fans who had been waiting to go backstage remained in place (occasionally, when there were big crowds of visitors, the Met used such diversionary tactics to help its backstage staff leave work immediately after a performance). But as the minutes continued to pass and it became obvious that Burt’s instructions would hold, most of the people who had been waiting around the stage door began to disappear down the tunnel leading to the Seventh Avenue subway.

Her curiosity aroused, Edith -- who was in no rush to go home -- remained by the artists’ entrance, waiting for some clue as to what might have happened. Ten minutes later, a handful of musicians emerged from the stage door. Unlike the first group of instrumentalists (who had been cheerfully teasing each other about looking forward to the weekend) these men left the opera house in stony silence.

One of them, a man Edith recognized from previous conversations, was carrying his French horn in a dark black leather-bound case. She fell into step beside him and tugged at his sleeve to get his attention.

“What’s going on, Max? Why were all those cops backstage?”

The horn player looked at the woman beside him and, as they kept walking, struggled to find the right words with which to break the news.

“I hate to tell you this, kid, but John Axenbourg is dead. They think he might have been murdered. I don’t know any of the details about what happened but Mr. Gelfand has instructed all of the soloists to leave the building through another entrance. You won’t get any autographs tonight. Better go home and get some sleep. See ya next week, okay?”

“Sure. Thanks,” mumbled Edith, as she stopped walking and leaned against one of the cars parked in the driveway. For a moment, she was too stunned to react. Then her eyes welled up with tears and she started to cry.

Why would anyone want to kill an opera singer, especially someone who was as nice as John Axenbourg? The tall, dark baritone was so handsome and talented; the closest thing the Met had had to a matinee idol in years. Not only had he established himself on Broadway as well as in opera, he was one of the few male singers at the Met whom Edith genuinely admired -- an artist who was not only respected throughout the international music world but a man who had always been extremely kind to her.

Her brain was racing to keep pace with the questions which started springing to mind.

Why would anyone want to kill Axenbourg?

Why would anyone want to kill a man that so many people adored?

It all seemed so unreal.

As tears continued to stream down her cheeks, Edith thought of all the nights she had come to the Met to seek refuge from reality at the opera.

Refuge from the pressures of her job.

Refuge from her occasional bouts with loneliness and depression.

Refuge from a city that was filled with hatred, greed and violence.

It had always seemed as if the Met were the one place in New York where Edith could bury herself in a world of make believe; a world where -- even if violent acts had to occur -- at least they could be accompanied by some of the greatest music ever written.

She tried to remind herself she had been watching people die tragic deaths on the operatic stage for several decades. But those deaths only involved play-acting. John Axenbourg’s death had been real.

As she leaned against the parked car, Edith thought back to that historic performance at the old Met when Leonard Warren had died onstage. The great bass-baritone had been starring opposite Renata Tebaldi and Richard Tucker in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino when, suddenly, the audience saw him clutch his chest and collapse onstage. Within minutes, he had died of a heart attack.

That was on March 4, 1960, nearly thirty years ago. Since that night, the only other person to die at the Met was a female cellist who had been raped and murdered backstage sometime around 1980 while performing with a touring dance company.

Reaching into her purse, Edith found a handkerchief with which to wipe away the moisture from her tear-stained cheeks. Then, with her handkerchief clasped tightly in her hand, she began to walk home to her apartment on West End Avenue. As she passed one of the late night pizza parlors on Amsterdam Avenue, she tried to imagine a possible motive for Axenbourg’s murder.

Was another artist jealous of his career?

Was the Met about to become the newest arena for terrorist actions?

Was nothing sacred?

Edith Susnick shuddered with dread as she continued on her lonely journey home.

Next: Big Bertha To The Rescue

Who's On First?

Brad followed Drew off the main stage and down a hallway where dozens of costumes hung suspended from a series of clothes racks. A man in uniform stood near the set of blue metal doors leading to the artist’s reception area and, as the two men approached the entrance, Gelfand whispered some instructions to the security guard. He then turned and spoke to Brad.

"Wait right here until I can get everyone assembled for you."

Barry Russell had just finished removing Nancy Westheimer’s wig from the soprano’s head when Drew Gelfand suddenly appeared in the singer’s dressing room. "Nancy, darling, I need all of the principals in the reception area immediately. You’re going to have to talk to the police for a few minutes, my dear, but there’s absolutely no need to worry about your hair. Come along, sweetheart. Barry, you can go home early tonight."

Gelfand vanished from sight just as quickly as he had appeared. A moment later, as if his movements had been choreographed in advance, the makeup man swept Freia’s wig up in his arms and made a regal exit from Nancy Westheimer’s dressing room. Walking past Brad and the security guard, he placed the blond wig in its proper storage place before proceeding down to his locker. No one knew for sure what the Met’s chief wig man kept stashed in the back of his locker but Barry’s breath usually carried strong hints of either bourbon or rum.

Several minutes later, the principal singers (still clad in their dressing gowns) all stood in the artists’ reception area listening quietly as Drew introduced them to a tall black man wearing a dark brown sports jacket. As he stood with his hands on his hips, the man seemed to tower over the Met’s General Director.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is Sergeant Carson from the Police Department. He was present at tonight’s performance and would like to ask you some questions," announced Drew. "I’m sure you’ll all give him your complete cooperation. Sergeant?"

Brad looked at the group of men and women who were gathered before him. Minus their costumes and wigs, they looked a little bit tired and certainly much older than they had appeared onstage. The singers all seemed badly shaken and, unless Brad was mistaken, more than a little bit suspicious of him.

"First, I should tell you that, since I’m not a big opera fan, I don’t know any of your names. Nor can I identify the faces before me with the characters I saw onstage during tonight’s performance," he confessed. "So I’d like to start by having someone here tell me which characters you all played and which of you were nearest to the victim when he died."

"That’s easy," stated Drew as he indicated each of the soloists in turn. "Minna Gustavson here was Fricka and Nancy Westheimer was Freia. Peter Atwood was Froh, James Bookman was Donner, and Stephen McLellan sang Loge. Although Madelyn Forston was Erda, Malcolm Esterhazy, Alberich, and Paul Rivendell, Mime, none of the last three artists were onstage at the end of the opera."

As they watched the detective’s face, it became obvious to the singers that the man standing in front of them hadn’t understood a word Drew said.

"Let me see if I can help," volunteered Minna Gustavson. "Nancy and I were standing on either side of John. He had just placed his arms over our shoulders as we all faced upstage toward Valhalla."

"What’s Valhalla?" asked Brad.

"Talk about a lucky break," chuckled Madelyn Fortson. "It looks like we’ve got a major Wagnerian scholar on our hands!"

"Please, Madelyn," hissed Drew. "No wisecracks tonight. One of our artists is dead and, although Sergeant Carson is a very capable detective, his work does not require him to have a complete knowledge of the operatic literature. He obviously knows very little about Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen and needs our help so that he can understand what happened tonight."

Minna Gustavson straightened her shoulders and stepped forward with an air of authority.

"As I started to say -- before I was so rudely interrupted by that contralto over there -- Nancy and I were standing on either side of John, who was singing the role of Wotan. John had just placed his arms around our shoulders when we all started to walk upstage. All I can recall is that, at some point, his body started to sag and, as I continued to move forward, I felt his arm fall from my shoulders. The next thing I knew, he had fallen to the floor."

"What did you do when he fell?" asked Brad.

"I kept walking forward, of course," replied the soprano. "This was a live telecast and we’d rehearsed the timing of this scene very carefully."

Brad nodded toward Nancy Westheimer.

"What about you?"

The blond woman kept shifting her weight from one foot to another.

"Well, um, I pretty much did the same thing as Minna. I mean, like, whatever happened, you know, like, we had just so many bars in which to, like, make it to the top of the platform so we could salute the rainbow bridge. Officer, can I ask you something? Like, is that a real gun you’re wearing under your arm?"

"I’m afraid it is, Ma’am. Just think of it as part of my costume," Brad reassured the soprano.

"Mr. Gelfand, if this performance was telecast, would there be a videotape of it somewhere that I could watch?"

"I’m quite sure we have one," answered Drew. "In fact, with most of our VCRs you could probably stop the tape on a single frame if you saw anything that looked suspicious."

"I think that would probably be the best evidence for me to examine," said Brad. "Thank you all very much for your time. I might need to contact you later for further questioning, but at the moment I think I’ve got all the information I’ll need from you tonight. Can I speak to you in private, Mr. Gelfand?"

"Of course. Why don’t you come up to my office," suggested Drew as he ushered the detective out of the reception area. "The rest of you can all go home. I’ve left orders at the stage door that there be no visitors tonight. I’d appreciate it very much if you would all exit through the front of the house. The security guards will escort you there when you’re ready. Come with me, Officer."
Next: Twinkle, Twinkle, Dying Star

A Corpse Of Many Colors

It didn’t take long for Brad to find an usher who could escort him backstage but, considering the shriveled old man’s unpleasantly haughty attitude, Vanessa’s suggestion of any possible romantic involvement seemed absolutely ridiculous. After showing his police badge at the security checkpoint, Brad followed the elderly usher down a maze of corridors until they passed through the two large doors leading to the main stage.

From here, the Met’s great gold curtain didn’t look very impressive at all. The stage was brightly lit as workmen scurried about and, as Brad stepped over a cluster of thick cables, none of the glamour the audience had savored earlier that evening was present. He continued toward center stage, where he could see John Axenbourg’s body lying in a heap on a steeply slanted wooden platform. To his surprise, large portions of the scenery had already been broken off from the set and were being wheeled into the wings by the Met’s stagehands.

"Who’s in charge here?" asked Brad.

A dark, swarthy stagehand wearing a carpenter’s apron over his jeans pointed toward three men standing near the control booth at the far side of the stage. Two of them were dressed in business suits. The third wore jeans and a brightly-colored Met T-shirt. All three were huddled in an intense conversation.

"That blond guy in the dark suit is the one you want," yelled the stagehand as he headed toward the rear wall of the building.

Brad approached the three men and, flashing his police badge in his left hand, introduced himself. "Excuse me. I’m Sergeant Carson, a detective from the 61st Precinct. I was in the auditorium for tonight’s performance and was told that one of your singers died onstage rather mysteriously. I thought I’d better come back here to see if there’s been any foul play. Which one of you is in charge?"

The blond leaned forward to shake hands. "I’m Drew Gelfand, General Director of the Metropolitan Opera. This is Rick Freitag, one of our stage managers, and Glenn Rosenzweig, Mr. Axenbourg’s personal manager. How can we help you?"

"Well, first of all, we’ll need to rope off the area around the body."

The stage manager looked at Brad in disbelief. "Not unless you’ve got an extra $10,000 to cover the cost of overtime," he grumbled. "Listen, buddy, this is the Metropolitan Opera House, not Miami Vice. I’ve got to have this set all broken down and put away by midnight."

"Just cool it, Rick," urged Gelfand as he took Brad by the elbow and escorted him away from the stage manager’s booth. "Look, I don’t know who sent you backstage but I’m mighty glad to see you. I’ve already called an ambulance and the police are due here any minute. As you can imagine, we’re all pretty shaken up."

"I understand," said Brad. "If you don’t mind, I’d like to look at the victim’s corpse before it gets sent to the coroner for an autopsy. Then I’ll need to speak to the people who were onstage with this man when he died. Are they all still around?"

"Oh, sure. They’re changing out of their costumes right now," replied the Met’s General Director.

When Drew, Brad, and Glenn Rosenzweig knelt down beside John Axenbourg’s corpse, the baritone’s body was almost completely obscured by the shiny gold cape he had worn for the final scene of Das Rheingold. At first, Axenbourg’s skin color seemed surprisingly ruddy to the detective. Then Brad realized that the dead man’s face was still covered with pancake make-up and that the victim’s hair remained hidden beneath a wig. There were no traces of blood to be seen. Nor were there were any signs of foul play.

"When the paramedics get here, Mr. Rosenzweig, can you accompany the victim’s corpse to the coroner's office?" asked Brad. "We’ll need to have both his body and this costume inspected for any clues."

"Sure," answered Rosenzweig as he wiped tears from his eyes.

"You must understand one thing," interrupted Drew Gelfand. "We need to have that costume and wig back here within 48 hours. Glenn, you take care of everything when the ambulance arrives and I’ll see you in my office in the morning. Okay?"

"Yeah, Drew," sighed Axenbourg’s manager.

"Officer, why don’t you and I go to the dressing room area. Come with me."

Next: Who's On First?

Enquiring Minds Want To Know

As they left the Metropolitan Opera House and slowly walked across the plaza toward Lincoln Luxury Towers, Lally Fitzwater furiously berated her escort. "I’m just shocked that you would converse with those people so freely," she scolded Kevin. "Really, young man. There are limits, you know!"

But Kevin ignored the old lady’s grumbling. He had heard plenty of similar rants from Mrs. Fitzwater about the disheartening changes in the makeup of the Met's audience. As they approached her apartment building, he was too busy trying to figure out what could have happened to John Axenbourg.

For the Met not to allow its singers to take any curtain calls -- especially during a telecast -- was absolutely bizarre. The more he thought about it, the final moments of tonight’s performance seemed like the strangest thing he had ever experienced since he first began going to the opera.

Something was very wrong.

Next: A Corpse Of Many Colors

Duty Calls

The audience’s applause combined with the glare of the house lights helped to rouse Brad from his nap. In front of him, he could see Kevin helping Mrs. Fitzwater into her mink coat. To his left, Vanessa, who was applauding furiously, had a strangely confused look on her face.

"Why aren’t they coming out for their curtain calls?" she asked.

"Beats me," muttered Brad as he stood and stretched.

As Lally Fitzwater haughtily walked past Brad on her way out of the box, Kevin beckoned to the cop.

"I think you’d better go backstage. One of the singers collapsed during the final moments of the opera. Something’s very wrong," he whispered. "There might have been some foul play."

Mrs. Fitzwater re-appeared in the doorway; a mink-clad arm extended toward Kevin. "Are you coming with me, young man, or am I supposed to negotiate all these stairs by myself?" she asked.

As soon as the old woman and Kevin had disappeared from sight, Brad turned to his sister.

"I have to go backstage, Sis. The man who was sitting in front of us just told me there might have been a murder," he said. "Can you grab a taxi and get home by yourself?"

"Sure, I can find a cab," replied Vanessa. "I work on Wall Street, remember? We have cabs sitting by the curb in front of our building all day long."

As she adjusted her coat, Vanessa turned and gave Brad a withering look. "I really wish that just once in his life, my big brother could get as excited about escorting me to the opera as he does over the prospect of finding a dead body. Tell me something, Brad. Since when did you become so interested in going backstage at the opera? You, who falls asleep after hearing ten bars of classical music!"

"Don’t give me any grief tonight, Vanessa. Just tell me how to get backstage," insisted her brother.

"Oh, all right," sighed Vanessa. "After all these years on the police force you shouldn’t have too much trouble spotting a uniform. Grab the first usher you see and flash your badge at him. But whatever you do, Brad, do not let him see your gun. Most of the ushers at the Met are queer and whoever ends up taking you backstage will probably want to marry you."

"Thanks loads, Sis," groaned Brad. "I really needed to hear that tonight."

Next: Enquiring Minds Want To Know

Don't Just Lie There!

As soon as she could see stagehands emerging from the wings, Minna Gustavson (the mezzo soprano singing the role of Fricka) spun around and dashed downstage toward the inert body of her stricken colleague. Having sung frequently in European opera houses with John Axenbourg, she found it difficult to believe that -- even under the weight of such a heavy costume -- the athletic baritone who always exercised so religiously in order to stay in shape could have fainted from the heat.

"Wake up, John," she shouted as she slapped Axenbourg’s face in an attempt to stimulate his circulatory system. "Can you hear me?"

When the baritone failed to respond to her touch, Gustavson put her hand to the singer’s jugular vein to check for a pulse. Suddenly she recoiled from Axenbourg’s body. After emitting the kind of piercing scream that could only erupt from the chest cavity of a trained Wagnerian singer, Gustavson yelled "Oh my God, he’s dead!"

The production’s stage manager, Paul Frisch, was the first to react to the situation by cancelling all curtain calls and ordering the house lights up. The other singers onstage froze in horror as the audience’s applause continued in the background. From the control booth at the rear of the auditorium's orchestra level, Mark Hoffheimer, who had been providing the narration for the Met’s telecast, covered beautifully.

"The house lights have come up as the audience continues to applaud this historic performance which has been broadcast to you live tonight over the PBS network from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Conducted by Maestro Erich von Blindt, tonight’s performance of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold -- the first opera in the composer's tetralogy based on the Norse sagas comprising Der Ring des Nibelungen -- featured baritone John Axenbourg as Wotan, mezzo-soprano Minna Gustavson as Fricka, soprano Nancy Westheimer as Freia and contralto Madelyn Fortson as Erda. Also in tonight’s cast, we heard baritone Malcolm Esterhazy as Alberich, tenor Paul Rivendell as Mime and tenor Stephen McLellan as Loge. This evening’s telecast has been brought to you by Texaco, where you can trust your car to the man who wears the star. We thank you for your support. And now, we return you to your local PBS affiliate for station identification."

As he disconnected the microphone from his headset, Hoffheimer waved to the lighting designer on the opposite side of the booth. "What the fuck’s going on back there?"

"Damned if I know," shouted the man.

Next: Duty Calls

Friday, November 9, 2007

Valhalla Beckons

By 10:30 that night, John Axenbourg was in seventh heaven. Clad in Wotan’s costume, with a shiny cape flowing behind him, he looked like the very personification of Wagner’s mythical God. The baritone had carefully paced himself throughout the evening’s performance of Das Rheingold, knew that he had sung with great authority and suspected that, with just a few more minutes to go, he had scored a major career triumph during his first Met telecast.

Gesturing toward the castle which could be seen in the distance, he invited his fellow Gods to join him in their newly-built home. Having carefully rehearsed this moment, the singers portraying Fricka, Freia, Loge, and Froh all began to make their way toward the footlights. Only the baritone who was singing Donner remained upstage, anxiously awaiting the cue to raise his hammer in a move which would trigger some stunning scenic effects.

Suddenly, there was a roar of thunder.

A series of strobe lights shocked the audience out of its somnolence and, after delivering his final cue to the singers, Wayne DiStefano flicked off the light in the prompter’s box and raced down the hallway to the men’s room. Because Wagner’s one-act opera droned on relentlessly for two hours and forty minutes, Das Rheingold was one of the most difficult works in the repertoire for Wayne to prompt. He had tried to avoid being assigned to the production this season but, when the Met scheduled Das Rheingold as one of the telecasts in its “Live From Lincoln Center” series, Maestro von Blindt had insisted that Wayne be on duty in the prompter’s box.

By now, the first glimpse of Wagner’s rainbow bridge -- the span that Wotan would cross to enter his castle in the sky -- could be seen by the audience. The orchestra, under von Blindt’s baton, solemnly began to play Wagner’s familiar “Entrance Of The Gods Into Valhalla.”

Turning to face upstage, John Axenbourg kicked the train of his cape toward the audience and, as if by magic, the two women performing the roles of Freia and Fricka seemed to fit right beneath his outstretched arms. As the colors of the rainbow bridge intensified and the despairing cries of the Rhinemaidens could be heard offstage mourning the loss of their gold, the orchestra began to build toward the opera’s powerful climax.

Awed by the panoramic spectacle before them, no one in the audience saw the tiny glass dart which flew from the prompter’s box and embedded itself in the skin of John Axenbourg’s right hand. Since the television cameras had already zoomed back to show the entire stage picture, the millions of TV viewers who were watching the telecast were likewise unable to see Axenbourg’s fingers stiffen.

But, moments later, as the curtain began its slow descent and the Gods started walking upstage with their arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders, people were horrified to see the man portraying Wotan -- with his arms outstretched like Jesus Christ on the cross -- suddenly fall forward and crumple to the floor in a heap.

Although Axenbourg’s body hit the floor with a sickening thud, his colleagues -- all seasoned operatic professionals -- never once turned around or lost a beat. Instead, they kept moving slowly up the steeply-raked platform until their arms were raised in unison, exactly on cue, pointing toward Valhalla.

With his attention focused on the orchestra’s last few measures, Maestro von Blindt remained totally unaware that anything had gone wrong onstage.

Next: Don't Just Lie There!

We Meet In The Shadows

During the orchestral interlude between the third and fourth scenes of Das Rheingold, Kevin turned around to sneak a peek at the black couple seated slightly above and to the right behind him. Vanessa’s head was nodding as she struggled to stay awake. But it was fairly obvious that Brad had given up long ago.

With his head tilted backward and his legs spread apart, the detective was out like a light. Kevin gazed fondly at the man’s long legs, reminiscing about the many moments he had spent with his face nuzzled in the heat of Brad’s crotch.

Their first meeting had been a strange one (at least for someone who was a glorified hustler).

Several months ago, dressed in full leather, Kevin had gone to a man’s apartment on West 111th Street around midnight. After finishing with his client, he was walking back toward West End Avenue when a group of Puerto Rican punks started to taunt and threaten him.

"Look at the pretty blond faggot all dressed up to look like a fuckin’ Hell’s Angel," yelled one of the teenagers.

"Maybe we should teach the little queer boy a lesson," snarled one of his friends.

As the group advanced toward Kevin, he wheeled around and started to cross the street. Suddenly, the sound of a police siren came from an unmarked car which was double parked twenty feet ahead of him.

Thinking quickly, Kevin ran toward the automobile as the gang of teenagers split up and disappeared in the opposite direction. The driver’s door opened and a tall black man stepped from the car. "I’m Sergeant Carson from the Midtown North Precinct. Why don’t you hop in the front seat and I’ll give you a ride home."

Although, under normal circumstances, Kevin avoided the police like the plague, this was one time he wasn’t about to offer any resistance. Quickly jumping into the front seat of the car, he slammed the door and told Sergeant Carson his address.

"You look pretty shaken up, son. You gonna be all right?" asked the cop.

"I’ll be fine just as soon we get off this block," answered Kevin. "Jesus, that was a close shave!"

As they drove through Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Brad tried to calm his passenger’s nerves. The kid was kind of cute, he thought. Nice rosy cheeks and straight blond hair. The leather jacket and shiny black chaps didn’t make his passenger look like a sack of shit, either.

"Why would a group of punks be chasing after a nice little leather boy like you?" he asked.

"Oh, it’s a traditional Saturday night ritual with local teenagers," sighed Kevin. "Go out, get drunk with your friends and try to roll a fag so you can tell some poor, dumb 15-year-old girl you just knocked up what a big man you are."

"Hmmm. Well, if I were you, I’d try to carry a whistle on that keychain of yours," advised Brad. Know what I mean?"

"Yes, sir," mumbled Kevin.

"What was that?"

"I said ‘Yes, sir,’" replied the blonde.

"Good. Is this where you live, son?"

Kevin looked up at the entrance to his apartment building and nodded. He may never have thought of the dark brick building as home but, tonight, the light in its lobby shone with an unusually inviting warmth.

"Yeah, that’s it," he sighed. "Listen, officer, I’m really grateful for the ride. You probably saved my life. God, I wish there was some way I could thank you for coming to my rescue."

There was a moment of awkward silence before the man behind the steering wheel spoke.

"Well, for starters," Brad chuckled as he placed his right arm in back of the passenger’s headrest, "you might try wrapping those sexy lips of yours around my big black dick."

Kevin’s eyes opened wide in astonishment. He was so used to acting out this scene in fantasy sessions with his clients that he had never imagined getting it on with a genuine law enforcement officer.

"YES, SIR!" he said, as he reached over to undo the policeman’s belt.

Ever since that night, Sergeant Carson had made a point of pulling up to the curb in front of Kevin’s apartment, Kevin’s gym and, once or twice, the Columbia University library, to ask the young blond if he’d like to go for a ride. Their routine had become a fairly simple ritual which was repeated every three or four weeks.

Although Kevin had never had a chance to see the cop undressed during any of their trysts, he knew from the way his fingers had probed Carson’s heavily muscled legs, arms and torso that the man was built like the proverbial brick shithouse. And now the cop he had serviced so often was sitting right behind him in a box at the Metropolitan Opera House.

As he thought about what a thrill it had always been to deep throat Brad’s cock, Kevin could only shake his head in wonder and let out a sigh of disbelief.

His own Sergeant Carson. So near and yet so far.

Next: Valhalla Beckons

Relief Is At Hand

Once Wotan and Loge had descended to the depths of Nibelheim, Frank O’Connor (whose professional duties for the evening were now over) locked the door to the press room and headed home. After passing through the revolving door in the Met’s north lobby, he strode across Lincoln Center Plaza, turned left and walked north along Broadway.

Passing the Juilliard School of Music, O’Connor crossed West 66th Street as soon as the light changed and anxiously made his way through the familiar entrance to Tower Video. Frank stopped here often.

So often, in fact, that most of the sales clerks knew him by name.

Initially, Frank browsed through the section of the store which featured old movie musicals and romantic classics from the 1940s. After selecting copies of two of his favorite films (Now, Voyager and Flying Down to Rio) he headed for the adult films, where the selection process would be infinitely more difficult.

From September to May – the months during which the Metropolitan Opera was in season – O’Connor led a lifestyle which was mercilessly celibate. Like many workaholics, making love to himself in front of his VCR was the 38-year-old marketing director’s only sexual outlet. His work left precious little time for dinner dates or bar crawls. Even if someone had shown the slightest bit of interest in hopping into bed with him, Frank probably would have been too tired to get it up.

After several minutes of scanning the racks for something new, he grabbed three more boxes and headed for the check-out counter. Thank God for the bastard who invented VCR machines, he thought. Without that man’s help, I’d be crawling the goddamn walls.

With a vacant look on his face, Don, the clerk on duty, handed O’Connor a receipt on which the cash register had printed the exact time of his video rental: Saturday, March 7. 1987 -- 9:38 p.m.

Carrying his five videocasettes in a bright yellow plastic bag, O’Connor left Tower Video and headed toward his apartment, stopping at one of the late night Vietnamese fruit stands on Broadway to pick up some groceries. If the video worked its magic, Frank would be relieved of his sexual frustrations and sound asleep by midnight. Maybe, if God showed some mercy, he’d even be able to sleep late the following morning!

Next: We Meet In The Shadows

Lights Out, Everyone!

As the Met’s crystal chandeliers rose toward the ceiling, Maestro von Blindt, accompanied by the sound of mild applause, made his way to the podium. Instead of picking up his baton, he grasped the small pencil flashlight resting on his music stand.

Unlike most evenings at the Met, the musicians’ lamps in the orchestra pit had been extinguished so that, as the Met’s great gold curtain rose to reveal the scrim used for Das Rheingold, the auditorium would be in total darkness with the exception of the theatre’s red emergency exit signs.

Like a distant rumble from the deep, the orchestra’s double basses began to play the low E flat which signaled the start of Wagner’s opera. As a series of filmed projections evoked images of sunlight breaking through the waters of the Rhine, Brad’s eyelids began to feel heavy.

Why was Kevin at the opera, he wondered. And who was that ridiculous old bag sitting next to him?

The policeman’s thoughts began to blur as the light bleeding through the scrim revealed Wagner’s three Rhinemaidens scampering about the darkened stage. Whoever had designed this production had done a spectacular job of making the entire area look as if it were truly underwater. With so many tiny slivers of light darting back and forth, the effect was absolutely miraculous.

But for people like Sergeant Carson, it was also dangerously hypnotic. Within moments, the detective’s body had slumped in the chair. His head tilted backwards and, by the time the first Rhinemaiden opened her mouth to sing, Brad was sound asleep, dreaming of Kevin’s soft touch.

Next:Relief Is At Hand

Fancy Meeting You Here!

While Lally and Kevin were busy getting settled into their box seats, Sergeant Carson and his sister were entering the north lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House. As usual, Vanessa looked positively stunning (a foregone conclusion considering how much she had spent on her new ensemble).

Her brother, who was wearing a dark raincoat over his sport jacket, looked a trifle bulkier than usual. And, beneath a cosmetically perfect public face, Vanessa was absolutely livid.

"I can’t believe you wore your gun to the opera," she hissed. "Are you intentionally trying to embarrass me or is this your idea of a joke?"

Brad pushed through the crowd as he headed for the ticket takers. "It’s no joke, Vanessa. I had to put in a few extra hours at the police station this afternoon and figured I’d grab a quick bite before coming over to Lincoln Center," he explained.

"You said tonight’s performance was a one-act opera, so just relax. Nobody’s going to spot me wearing a concealed weapon and suddenly freak out while you’re parading your new gown up and down the Grand Staircase." A quick look at Vanessa’s face revealed that she was pouting again, just like she did when she was a little girl.

"C’mon, Sis. Cool those expensive six-inch heels," teased Brad. "Tell you what. Let’s just pretend we’re a couple of nice, social-climbing black yuppies, okay? Because I can guarantee you, there ain’t nobody in this crowd who would ever guess that I was armed."

After handing their tickets to one of the ushers at the main entrance to the auditorium, Brad took hold of his sister’s elbow and guided her up the stairs leading to the parterre level. As they entered their box, Sergeant Carson received his first big shock of the evening.

Seated by the railing were an old woman, her mink coat draped over the back of her chair, and a young man with blond hair who was dressed in a tuxedo. As they conversed, the two kept pointing to the television cameras on the main floor which were in position for the evening’s telecast. At first, the angle at which they sat made it difficult for Brad to see their faces.

However, after taking off her coat and hanging it in the tiny chamber behind their seats, Vanessa leaned forward to handle the social amenities. "Hello, Mrs. Fitzwater, it’s so nice to see you again. It’s too bad my husband, Peter, can’t be with us tonight. He’s away in Tokyo on business right now, but I’d love to have you meet my brother. Please let me introduce you. Mrs. Fitzwater, this is Brad Carson. Brad, this is our good friend, Mrs. Fitzwater."

The old woman stood up and nodded curtly toward Brad. Lally might share a box with this woman and her husband, but she had never in her life referred to a black person as her "good friend."

Mind you, now, it wasn’t that Lally Fitzwater was prejudiced. She knew lots of blacks had started coming to the opera in recent years. Lally just didn’t think such people belonged in the boxes on the Parterre level -- boxes which had been paid for by the cream of New York’s old-line society!

"Nice to meet you, Mr. Carson," she said. "I’d like for you and your sister to meet my nephew, Lance van Dyke. Pay attention, young man," Lally hissed as she snapped her fingers at her escort. "We have company."

Kevin struggled to maintain his composure as he turned around and recognized the tall black man facing him. The last place he ever expected to see Officer Carson was sharing a parterre box at the Metropolitan Opera House with old Lally Fitzwater!

As soon as Brad was sure that the old woman’s attention had been diverted by Vanessa’s jewelry, he winked at Kevin to let the young man know that his secret was safe. With a broad smile, he reached forward to shake hands and said, "Pleasure to meet you, Mr. van Dyke. Do you come here often?"

Next: Lights Out, Everyone!

Saturday, March 7th

When Lally Fitzwater opened the door to her apartment, the sight of Lance van Dyke looking so devilishly handsome in his black tuxedo filled the old woman’s heart with joy. Lance looked just like all the young men she admired in those Calvin Klein ads; his short blond hair and fair complexion absolutely radiated good health.

"How nice to see you again, Lance" she tittered. "If you can just help me with my coat, I’m all set and ready to go." Kevin reached for the black fur coat hanging from the door to Lally’s hallway closet and held it up as the old woman snuggled into her mink.

"Aren’t you looking lovely tonight, Mrs. Fitzwater! I’m so glad you asked me to accompany you to the Met," he said. "I just know you’ve got a full dance card these days."

Lally shuddered with delight at his flattery and closed the apartment door behind them. As they rode downstairs in the elevator, Kevin gave her a quick story synopsis of Wagner’s opera to help keep the conversation going.

"Do you love dragons as much as I do?" Lally asked, as they waited for the traffic light to change.

"They’re my favorite kind of beast," replied her escort (unless, Kevin thought, we include all those old dinosaurs who take young hustlers to the Met). As they walked past the fountain in Lincoln Center, Lally’s eye caught sight of a plane headed north over the Hudson River.

"Twinkle, twinkle, shine so bright, you’re the last plane I’ll see tonight," she muttered.

If Kevin failed to hear her it was because his attention had been distracted by a short and rather plainly-dressed woman who was standing in their path. "Oh, hi, Edith. Looking forward to tonight’s performance?" he asked.

Suddenly, he felt a tug on his arm as Lally pulled him toward the entrance to the Metropolitan Opera House. "Shame on you, Lance," she hissed. "You shouldn’t be talking to other women when you’re my date for the evening."

"But Mrs. Fitzwater, it was only Edith Susnick," Kevin sighed. "She’s the librarian at Columbia University who helped me when I was working on my term papers. Edith’s a very nice lady who knows an awful lot about opera."

"I don’t care what she does for a living or how much she knows, young man. Until tonight’s opera begins, I expect your undivided attention," barked Lally.

"You know, there’s something very strange about you, Lance," she added as they entered the Met’s lobby. "Whenever we go to the opera, you seem to know everyone in the audience. One would almost think you lived in Lincoln Center!"

Kevin didn’t pay too much attention to Lally’s accusations. He’d already been through this routine with enough clients to know that many old women were just not used to being out and around people. "It’s nothing to be upset about, Mrs. Fitzwater. I have lots of friends who come to the opera; it’s a musical passion we all share. And our passion helps us to meet other people who enjoy opera as well," he explained.

"Actually, you wouldn’t believe the stories behind some of the folks who stand through performances at the Met five or six times a week. Of course, those people can’t afford nice expensive box seats like yours, but there are some pretty interesting characters here. I’ll bet that if you were to meet some of them on the street somewhere, you’d never in a million years suspect that they went to the opera!"

Lally didn’t want to hear about those other people. As she stopped before one of the glass display cases housing historic costumes from the Met’s Golden Age of Opera, she turned to Kevin and said "That may well be true, son, but those folks will never get you anywhere in life. Now, then, why don’t you tell me more about yourself? I get the feeling that beneath those big beautiful blue eyes there lurks a real tiger of a man."

Next: Fancy Meeting You Here!

Great Ghosts From The Past

By the time Frank and Drew had finished their conversation, the Met’s General Director was running late for his appearance at a guild fundraiser in the Eleanor Belmont Room. After sharing the elevator ride down to the Grand Tier with his boss, O’Connor decided to spend some time browsing through the Met’s Portrait Gallery on the Concourse level. He came here whenever he needed to do some serious brainstorming. The portraits of such operatic legends as Enrico Caruso, Lotte Lehmann, Ezio Pinza, and Ernestine Schumann-Heink always provided a surefire source of inspiration. Whenever Frank needed to calm his emotions, the huge oil paintings of Bidu Sayao as Violetta and Lily Pons as the actress Philine in Mignon (petite women who, though they seemed so fragile and delicate, had made monumental contributions to opera) never failed to soothe his soul.

Since joining the Met, O’Connor had been forced to live in a constant state of crisis management. Why, he wondered, did he remain in this job when the stress was killing him? A stupid question if ever there was one.

He stayed because of his love for the art form.

He stayed because, as his friends always teased him, his heart was in the arts.

Back in the days when O’Connor was too young to resent working long hours (or being forced to report for duty on weekends) he never once objected to the outrageous demands his job made on his personal life. Even after receiving his marketing degree, Frank had never planned to lead a strict 9 to 5 existence. Perhaps that was why his nerves had never felt as raw as they did this morning.

As he stood in front of Franco Zeffirelli's set model for Act II of Puccini’s La Boheme, he thought about his private conversation with Drew Gelfand. The news from the Mayor’s office had been a real shocker; the kind of rabbit punch which could make anyone want to toss in the towel.

In reviewing how he had handled his department’s previous financial cutbacks, Frank had to admit that he had done fairly well. But there was no escaping the bottom line. The deadline for subscription renewals was only three weeks away and, if renewals didn’t match last year’s levels, he’d have no money left with which to sell single tickets for the fall season. He knew all too well that, without sufficient advertising money in his budget, a Marketing Director could only play a passive role in selling the Met to the public.

As he moved toward the large oil painting of Maria Callas as Gluck's Iphigenie (a portrait which had always been one of his favorites) Frank thought back to his first job in the music profession. Before returning to school for a marketing degree, he had been employed as the office manager for the Tiffany Agency. Although he had never really enjoyed the emotional tensions generated by the singers on Preston Alberghetti’s roster, he loved being in the opera business too much to quit.

Then Preston suddenly succumbed to an attack of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (one of the first AIDS victims in the world of classical music) and all of the plans they had discussed went up in smoke. Alberghetti’s singers moved on to other agencies and Frank decided to go back to school.

As soon as he had received his marketing degree, O’Connor had taken a job at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. His connections quickly led to a marketing position at the Met and, shortly after joining the staff of the world’s greatest opera company, Frank found himself being congratulated on his exceptional skill in dealing with the press and various vendors who serviced his department. However, after what Drew told him this morning, he wondered if any of that mattered anymore.

What was going on?

Frank knew he had had difficulty moving from the profit to the nonprofit sector and was still having trouble coping with his loss of financial freedom. But, as a marketing professional, he also understood that unless the Metropolitan Opera began to get more visibility in the press, it would not be able to raise enough money for the upcoming season.

His eyes focused on the portrait of an opera singer long dead and gone. Hell, all of the singers in this gallery were long dead and gone. Only a tiny fraction of the people in the Met’s audience had any idea who the people in these paintings were. And those few who did represented an infinitesimal portion of the public at large.

Could it be, Frank wondered, that despite everybody’s hard work, opera really was a dying art form?

Next: Saturday, March 7th

Whose Opera Is It, Anyway?

As he rode the elevator from the fifth floor down to sub-basement A, Erich von Blindt’s jaws were tightly clenched. This whole business about Supertitles made him sick to his stomach. The Maestro resented the way his musical authority was constantly being undermined by one financial crisis after another and was in hearty agreement with his predecessor that audiences should do their homework before coming to the opera.

In some ways, it seemed as if a conspiracy existed to divert people’s attention further and further away from the man who was at the helm of any operatic performance: the conductor. What was the point of those silly titles, anyway? When audiences tired of watching the ridiculously overblown spectacles the Met’s directors and designers put on the stage, were they supposed to read those stupid translations as if they were watching a foreign film?

Not if Erich von Blindt had anything to say about it! As far as he was concerned, the Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera was one of the few people in the world who could still insist that administrators show some respect for the composer. After all, the composer was supposed to be the most important force in an opera. And after that -- just in case anyone even cared anymore -- the conductor.

Without the conductor, reasoned von Blindt, there would be no control over the orchestra and singers. Even if the Met had been taken to task for its hard line on functioning as an operatic museum, wasn’t it a museum’s mission to preserve the past without succumbing to the pressures of present day fads?

As far as von Blindt was concerned, the Met’s Music Director was the equivalent of a great museum’s curator. All this talk of hiring singers for their marketability was absolute nonsense. What would happen to the Tate Gallery, the Prado, or the Louvre if their curators were instructed to start acquiring what Americans called "sofa-sized art" ? The public would bomb the museums!

As soon as the doors opened, von Blindt stormed out of the elevator, nearly knocking a coffee cup out of Wayne DiStefano’s hands.

Next: Great Ghosts From The Past

Thursday, March 5th

Shortly after 10:00 a.m., the Met’s Music Director, Director of Development, and Director of Marketing and Public Relations were ushered into Drew Gelfand’s inner office by his private secretary (a charming young Puerto Rican man whose soft, doe-like brown eyes glistened with vitality).

“Please sit down,” said Drew as he gestured to several large, comfortable chairs that were upholstered in black leather. “Manuel, tell anyone who calls that I’ll get back to them as soon as this meeting is over.”

Although these intimate conferences involving four or five of the Met’s top staff had become fairly routine events, today – with the company nearly three-quarters of the way through its season -- the people in Drew’s office were beginning to show signs of burnout.

Nan McFarlane’s jaw was thrust forward as she sat with her hands tensely folded in her lap.

Maestro Erich von Blindt looked as if he could use at least a week’s uninterrupted sleep.

Even Frank O’Connor, who was usually so cool and collected, seemed taut and on edge.

These three key staff members (who had been working overtime for the past six months) were each suffering from various degrees of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. By comparison, the only person in the room who seemed to be completely free from any symptoms of fatigue was their boss, Drew Gelfand. Glowing with good health, he was dressed in a dark blue business suit and a pale yellow tie which highlighted his carefully-trimmed moustache.

“Among the things I’d like to discuss with you this morning are the results of a report I commissioned from one of Opera America's professional consultants,” he began.

“As you know, our subscription sales have been steadily dropping and, with the critics constantly raking us over the coals, we’ve had a consistently negative image in the media. Part of the problem is that we seem to have outpriced ourselves from our audience. Lots of Met patrons lost their shirts in the stock market last year and those who still have substantial amounts of money are making some rather curious changes in their spending habits.”

“With the top price of our orchestra seats now resting at $125 per ticket, the only walk-up trade we’re getting at the box office seems to be coming from Japanese tourists. It looks to me as if the era of conspicuous consumption -- at least among New Yorkers -- is rapidly drawing to a close.”

Nan, who had developed a sixth sense for anticipating bad news, crossed her legs and started doodling on her steno pad as Drew continued his speech.

“Back when the company celebrated its Centennial, many of us were shocked to discover a growing resentment toward the Met on the part of opera fans in outlying areas. Many of these people informed us that they preferred to support their local opera companies instead of sending their money to the Met. According to my sources at Opera America,” Drew explained, “this trend will continue as regional companies prosper and keep servicing their local communities."

"To make matters worse, our conservative government -- which, as we all know, couldn’t care less about the arts -- is hiking the cost of bulk mailing rates for nonprofit organizations (a move which, since so much of our subscription campaign depends upon direct mail, is really going to hit us where it hurts).”

“To no one’s great surprise, it’s also very likely that ticket sales could be hurt by the steadily rising cost of living. According to this report, two orchestra seats to the Met, dinner near Lincoln Center, parking and a babysitter will cost a couple a whopping $400 per performance this year. Now, you don’t have to be Albert Einstein to figure out that that amount of money could keep the average Manhattan apartment dweller happily rolling in enough marijuana, pizza, Mrs. Fields’ cookies and Chinese takeout food to get him through a month’s supply of video rentals. If you add in the increased competition we face from personal computers and the home entertainment center, you’ll begin to see that we’re fighting an uphill battle.”

“As if all that weren’t enough to make you weep, we still have to deal with assholes like our friend David Delgado over at The New York Times. Just in case anyone in this room failed to read Mr. Delgado’s latest diatribe against the company, let me quote you from the article he wrote for last Sunday’s Arts and Leisure section:

“Next year’s Met season is so frightfully boring it could force a grizzly bear into early hibernation. It’s bad enough that the company continues to pursue an artistically bankrupt policy of mounting horridly overproduced productions which feature appallingly lackluster casts. However, since the departure of its former music director (the man who once vowed that Supertitles would only be used at the Metropolitan Opera House over his dead body), Drew Gelfand’s administration has steadfastly failed to take advantage of a superb opportunity to drag the Met -- albeit kicking and screaming -- into the latter half of the 20th century. Audiences at the New York City Opera and many other regional opera companies have been aided by the use of Supertitles for more than five years. Recent studies have shown that the popular appeal of these English-language translations (which are projected below a theatre’s proscenium) have enabled the vast majority of America’s opera companies to cultivate younger, broader-based and better-educated audiences while enhancing the fundraising efforts of what must certainly be more astute and aggressive boards of directors than the one currently governing the Met. Therefore, my advice to opera fans who want their money’s worth is to avoid the Metropolitan Opera like the plague. Paying outrageously inflated prices for such pathetically incoherent, poorly-produced artistic slop forces subscribers to buy into one of the highest-priced rip-offs on the nation’s cultural scene. Although New York’s society crowd and the perennial status-seekers who constitute a good part of the Met’s audience will insist on continuing to rub elbows with each other, the sensible subscriber should be capable of showing a great deal more respect for both his intelligence and his pocketbook.’

Does anyone have any questions?” asked Drew.

“Yeah. When was the last time that bastard got horse whipped?” queried Erich von Blindt.

“Knowing this critic’s personal preferences, I’d estimate the exact moment at sometime during the past 72 hours,” Drew replied with a knowing grin. “I think I can assure you that -- at least back in the days when Mr. Delgado and I used to cross paths on a nonprofessional basis -- David never lacked for sexual partners who could give him exactly what he wanted.”

The smile vanished from Gelfand’s face as he looked at the people seated in his room. “Now, let me ask the three of you a question. Did any of you walk across the plaza to attend a performance by the New York City Opera this season?”

Drew’s query was met with a stony silence.

“Did anyone catch any performances in Chicago, San Francisco, Houston or Washington?”

Again, there was no response.

“I thought as much,” sighed Gelfand.

“As you may know, I’ve recently asked several members of our board’s Executive Committee to accompany me whenever I’ve left town to discuss sharing the costs of a new production with my professional colleagues in other companies. While on the road, I’ve noticed something in cities where Supertitles are being used that has really been quite amazing. What impresses me the most is that I’ve seen the same phenomenon repeated with different markets performing wildly diverse repertory -- repertory as varied as Vivaldi's Orlando Furioso, Puccini's Tosca, Strauss’s Salome, and Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. For one thing, the audiences in these cities are much more involved in what’s happening onstage. They laugh at the jokes in the libretto and talk about the performance during intermission as if they had been watching a play on Broadway. For another thing, they stay in their seats until the end of the performance.”

“If any of you ever took the time to stand in the Met’s lobby during intermissions, you’d notice our audience fleeing the auditorium like rats leaving a sinking ship. Those of you who have worked here for several seasons may think these people are departing because they have to get up and go to work in the morning but that’s just not true,” sighed Gelfand. “I’m afraid the reason so many people are leaving our opera house before the performance ends is because they’re bored shitless.”

Maestro von Blindt shifted his weight and angrily glared at the man sitting behind the desk. How could Gelfand say such things about the greatest opera house in the world?

“At present, the financial condition of this company is so precarious that I’m considering reducing the length of next year’s season. Although we’re constantly struggling to raise money, for the past few years I’ve suspected that the enemy we face may well be within us,” continued Drew.

“We all know people who live and breathe opera 24 hours a day: the hardcore group which believes that, somehow or other, Maria Callas is going to rise from the grave and singlehandedly bring this art form back to what it was in the golden days before jet travel. Well, that’s not about to happen and, if we don’t start making some drastic changes in the way this company functions, each and every one of us could work himself out of a job sooner than we think.”

Even as he tried to digest what Drew was saying, Frank O’Connor’s intuition told him that the worst was yet to come. Drew continued to speak.

“Last week, I had lunch with the Marketing Director of the New York City Opera who told me that he’s getting substantial numbers of new subscribers who have canceled their Met subscriptions and moved their money across the plaza. I’ve given this matter a lot of thought, have discussed it at length with members of the board’s Executive Committee, and they’ve all agreed to let me make some crucial changes in the Met’s artistic policy before this organization self-destructs. I’m sorry, gang, but no matter how well-informed we’d like to think our audiences might be, we can no longer afford to operate this company as some kind of elitist museum. So, I’d suggest you brace yourselves for what you’re about to hear.”

Picking up a pen from his desk and rolling it around in his fingers, Drew addressed the three people sitting in his office. “Last week I commissioned a translation of Lucrezia Borgia from the man who writes the Supertitles for the Houston Grand Opera. I’ve ordered a computer and lighting setup identical to the one used in Houston’s new opera house and expect to have it installed and on-line within two weeks.”

Gelfand pointed his pen toward the Met’s Director of Marketing and Public Relations. “Frank, I want you to get the word out to the media that, beginning with our production of this rarely-performed Donizetti opera, the Met is going to experiment with English-language Supertitles. The official line is that our audience’s total lack of familiarity with Lucrezia Borgia -- coupled with the fact that the Met hasn’t performed this opera since 1904 -- affords us the perfect opportunity to make a trial run with Supertitles. The unofficial line -- and this news is not to leave my office -- is that without some kind of face-saving gesture, this company is dead in the water.”

Drew next aimed his pen at the Met’s Director of Development.

“Nan, I want you to start finding people who will underwrite the cost of commissioning translations for all of next season’s repertoire. Back in 1983, when City Opera started using titles, Beverly Sills struck paydirt with Manufacturer's Hanover Trust. Our translations are going to have to be better than those currently used in any of the regional houses and there’s no reason why the Met can’t find some corporation to underwrite this project. I’m sure that, with the April 15th tax deadline approaching, you’re going to have to kiss a lot more ass than usual, but I expect to see some big results within two or three weeks. I know you can do it, Nan.”

Drew then turned his attention to the Met’s Music Director.

“Erich, I’ve gone over the casting for next season and, with the dollar continuing to lose strength against the Japanese yen and other foreign currencies, I expect we’ll be seeing a string of cancellations as some of our better paid European singers become overwhelmed by their unbelievable sense of greed. Therefore, I want you to prepare a list of solid American artists who are either making a name for themselves in regional opera companies or have had a healthy amount of media visibility. You’re to be ready to get on the phone to their managers the minute any of our big names start grumbling about the possibility of an inner ear infection which might prevent them from flying across the Atlantic.”

“One more thing, Maestro. During August, when we’re rehearsing for our fall season, I want you to attend as many performances at City Opera as possible so that you can see the difference in audience reaction I’m talking about. And while you’re there, you’d better scout out any singers we might want to bring to the Met for a sudden, unscheduled debut.”

Von Blindt was horrified by Drew’s instructions. In all his years as a conductor at the Met, he had never been ordered to attend performances by a company he considered to be of less than international stature.

But Drew Gelfand wasn’t finished giving orders. Not by a long shot.

“Let’s get back to you, Frank. Since marketing is your jurisdiction, I want you to keep a close eye on subscription renewals. I’m anticipating some major financial cutbacks which are going to take a big chunk out of your advertising budget. You’d better start looking for new ways to get free publicity because I suspect that next season you’re going to be asked to deliver 10% more in both subscription and single ticket sales with a budget that’s at least 15% smaller than this year’s. Better start getting creative.”

Throwing his pen down on the desk, Drew pushed his chair back and smiled long enough for everyone to know that the meeting was officially over.

“That’s it, folks. Since this opera company is one of the largest nonprofit arts institutions in the world, I expect nothing less than a miracle from each and every one of you. And now, if you’ll excuse me, Manuel and I have some work to do.”

As Drew had predicted, von Blindt was the first to react. Rising from his chair like a wounded bull, the Maestro stormed out of Gelfand’s office in a rage. “This is scandalous,” shouted von Blindt. “What kind of an opera house do you think this is?”

By contrast, the Met’s Director of Development was surprisingly soft spoken. As she rose to leave the room, Nan McFarlane addressed her boss in an unusually flat voice.

“Listen, Drew, I don’t know what kind of an ego trip that speech offered you, but the way you treated the three of us just now was totally uncalled for. I can’t speak for Frank and Erich, but ever since Labor Day I’ve been working 12- to 16-hour days, six days a week. In case you can’t tell -- or are just too fucking insensitive to notice -- I’m pretty damn tired these days. During the first week of April, I’m supposed to deliver the keynote speech at the annual meeting of the National Association of Female Executives, be a guest speaker at the American Arts Alliance’s advocacy conference in Washington, and then go to Miami to attend an executive retreat for the nation’s leading fundraisers. The following week, I’m visiting my parents in North Carolina and, on my way back to New York, plan to stop in Cincinnati to share some time with a very dear friend who I haven’t seen in six years.”

“I need some time to prepare for these speeches and conferences and am looking forward to the stroking I get from making those appearances,” she added. “I’ve given many years of blood, sweat and tears to this organization. But this is one time in my life that the Metropolitan Opera -- and the dashingly handsome Drew Gelfand -- can fucking well wait until I get back to town before I lift a finger to help pay for your Supertitles.”

Nan looked at her boss with a combination of fatigue, helplessness and loathing.

“If you think, for one lousy minute, that that assinine little pep talk you just delivered -- which ranks as the biggest heap of macho executive bullshit I’ve heard in years -- is going to cause me to change any part of my plans, then you’ve got your head screwed on backwards.”

Nan closed the door behind her and disappeared from sight, leaving Drew and Frank facing each other in silence. The Met’s Marketing Director spoke first.

“We have to talk,” he said. “I need to know what the bottom line is.”

Drew Gelfand looked up from his desk and stared into O’Connor’s weary face. He knew that, after several years of working in the corporate world, Frank was having trouble readjusting to the nonprofit environment. But at the same time, O’Connor’s knowledge of business as it was conducted outside the arts might be just the thing that could save the Met

“Okay, you asked for it,” he sighed.

“Yesterday, the heads of Lincoln Center’s cluster of arts organizations had lunch at Gracie Mansion with the Mayor. During the meal, Hizzoner dropped a bomb in our laps whose contents were not very pretty. Although what the Mayor said won’t become public knowledge for a few more days, as soon as it does your office is going to be bombarded with calls from the media. Here’s the inside dirt.”

Next: Whose Opera Is It, Anyway?

Bitch Fight

As soon as the old diva disappeared behind the Met’s curtain, Wayne DiStefano flicked off the light in the prompter’s box and dashed to the men’s room. The excitement of the way Elvira had just delivered Gioconda’s Act IV aria, “Suicidio!” -- combined with the diuretic effect of his blood pressure medications -- was wreaking havoc on his bladder. It had been a long evening of work and Wayne desperately needed relief. As he stood in front of the urinal, he could feel his body slumping with exhaustion.

Meanwhile, having returned to her dressing room, Elvira was seated in front of a large, brightly lit mirror as Barry Russell worked to remove her wig. The Met’s chief makeup artist for the past twenty years, Russell had served as a confidant to some of the world’s greatest singers. Unfortunately, his progressive alcoholism had taken a profound toll on the man’s once beautiful complexion and, at the relatively young age of 43, Barry’s face was covered with red splotches.

Russell’s fading beauty and increasing drunkenness had made it extremely difficult for him to get laid during the era of safe sex. To make matters worse, years of psychological abuse from narcissistic divas like Colombo had only added to his misery. In recent months, several singers had complained to the Met’s management about his constant nastinesss. One soprano had instructed Russell not to step foot in her dressing room unless he was sober. Rumor had it that another artist had complained to Drew Gelfand about Russell’s constant use of racial epithets.

The animosity which simmered between Barry Russell and Elvira Colombo had quite a long and colorful history. Many years ago, when La Strega was in her prime, she had asked the then-young makeup artist to scout out a straight stagehand who could fuck her during the 30-minute intermission of Cherubini's Medea. When Barry protested, Colombo threatened to have him fired and refused to go on with the performance until he delivered a male stud to her dressing room.

Russell had never forgiven the old witch for the humiliation he felt while pimping for her among his coworkers. Although he had spent many a night dreaming of revenge, the most he ever dared to do was take a few well-aimed jabs at Elvira’s fragile ego. Noticing that she seemed a bit more vulnerable tonight than usual, Barry was paying extra special attention to the old woman in the hope that she would leave herself open to attack.

The sound of someone knocking at the door, however, interrupted his vengeful thoughts and, a moment later, Wayne DiStefano entered the dressing room. Melodramatically kneeling at Elvira’s feet, the prompter grasped her left hand and sighed, “You were magnificent tonight, my love. You sang Gioconda’s last aria with more truth and artistry than anyone has shown here all season. I really can’t begin to tell you how thrilling it was for me to be in the prompter’s box tonight.”

“Stop acting so silly, Wayne,” giggled Elvira. “You say that to me after every performance!”

“But I mean it, my love. If you only knew what it’s like to work with these insipid young singers, you’d understand what a thrill it is to have someone on that stage who actually understands what opera’s all about. You are a true artist -- and there are very few women to whom I can say that anymore.”

Their conversation was interrupted as Drew Gelfand entered the dressing room with Mr. and Mrs. Howlett in tow. Although Elvira’s childhood years in the Bronx had given her a healthy set of street smarts, her public relations people had done such a thorough job of rewriting history that everyone believed the world-famous soprano came from a remote wine-growing province of Northern Italy.

Over the years, Drew and Elvira had practiced their post-performance fundraising routine until they had honed it to perfection. And although tonight the two were re-enacting their little charade by rote, as far as the Howletts could tell, every statement uttered in Elvira’s dressing room seemed totally spontaneous.

Darling, you were simply sensational tonight. Why, I haven’t seen a performance like that in years!” Drew gushed as he leaned over and gave Elvira a well-aimed kiss on the cheek.

“And now, my pet, I want you to meet the lovely couple from Demarest who have been my guests for tonight’s performance. John, Cheryl, let me introduce you to the one and only Elvira Colombo, the last of the Met’s great divas. Elvira, darling, I want you to meet Mr. and Mrs. Howlett from New Jersey.”

The old woman’s rubbery face broke into an aristocratic and strangely sadistic grin as she adapted her best Italian accent for tonight’s scam. “Ciao, Meester and Meesus Howl-eet. You are so wonnerful, sotch sweet peepul, to come-a backstage and vees-it wid me when I know you have-a to get up so early in da morning to go-a to work. Singers, hah! We stay up da whole night because our, er -- how you say, My-ess-troh? Our adrenaline, she’s a real killer. You sing a performance like I sing-a dis evening and you stay up all-a night long, pacin’ da room. Back and forth. Back and forth. All-a night long. But our art? Dat’s-a what we live for. Ain’t dat so, Drew?”

Gelfand nodded on cue.

When confronted with a genuine superstar, John Howlett was absolutely tongue-tied. His wife, however, seized the opportunity to make polite conversation.

“Oh, Mrs. Colombo, I’ve never seen anything so beautiful and so touching as when you dropped dead tonight,” she gushed. “It was really a very meaningful experience for me.”

“Grazie, grazie,” cooed Elvira, her eyes flashing with mischief. “But ees-a no Meesus Colombo, eh? My music, she’s-a very jealous and possessive, you know? She gets in the way of my love life.”

Elvira beckoned for Cheryl Howlett to come closer. “You very beautiful woman. Bellissima! You gotta nice husband? Maybe even got some kids, eh? Then God, he’s-a been kind to you. He no torture you with a great talent like he torture Elvira Colombo.”

Turning around in her chair, she grabbed Drew’s hand. “My-ess-troh! Ain’t you gonna take these people out on the big stage to show-a dem what it really looks like? Show-a dem where Elvira just sang. Ciao, darlings. Come-a back and see me again next time you’re at the Met. Hokay?”

Elvira waved gleefully as the Howletts, Drew Gelfand and Wayne DiStefano left her dressing room. Then she turned around in her chair and stared at the image in the mirror as her fake smile disappeared. “Jesus fucking Christ,” she muttered as Barry Russell combed out her hair. “Did you get a load of the diamond ring on that cunt’s finger?”

Once she had finished trying to figure out how much Mr. and Mrs. Howlett were worth in cold cash, Elvira began to speculate about who would be waiting outside her dressing room to greet her tonight. Probably some aging gay men from out of town and that toothless old crone whose brains were so fried that she had even starting asking the ushers and security guards for autographs.

The regulars would all be over at Carnegie Hall listening to that pretty young Cormorant girl from Salt Lake City who was performing in a concert version of Handel's Ariodante. Boring music which, as far as Elvira was concerned, could put anyone to sleep in five minutes. But she had heard that this new soprano was a real comer and, whether or not she could admit it to herself, La Strega’s instincts told her that Elvira Colombo was old news.

“Do your stuff, Barry,” she whispered. “Make me look beautiful. I’m feeling my age tonight.”

As he fluffed her curls, Barry Russell leaned forward and hissed, “I feel like an old woman, too, but I think it’s my responsibility to tell you the facts of life, Elvira. It took God seven days and seven nights to create the world. All I’m working on here is union time.”

“That’s the problem with you people in America. There’s no respect anymore for your elders; no respect for the grand traditions of this art form,” snarled Elvira.

“There’s plenty of respect for tradition, Madam. But this profession is filled to the rafters with oversized egos and too much vanity,” replied Barry.

“Now, I can do just so much to make you look presentable before I walk out of your dressing room but the rest of the job belongs to the folks at Lourdes. Believe me, it’s going to take much more than a miracle to keep you looking young. And if you’re thinking of getting a face-lift before next week’s performance of Gioconda, I’d advise you to change your mind. Every big construction crane in the city is booked solid for the next two months.”

Elvira rose from her chair and looked at Barry with the kind of melodramatic loathing she usually saved for characters like Scarpia or Klytemnestra. “Get out of my dressing room, you disgusting man. Sexual impotence is no excuse for bad manners and you, of all people, should know better than to treat me with so little respect.”

Grabbing Elvira’s wig in one hand and his hair brush in another, Barry crossed the room and reached for the doorknob. “Respect, my dear, is for ladies. And that’s only one of the reasons why you haven’t had any in years. The other reasons are fairly complex and I wouldn’t want to bother you with all of the ugly details. Ciao, darling. See you next week.”

As he slammed the door behind him, Barry knew that he had hurt Elvira. He savored the triumph of revenge and only wished that he could watch the mascara run down La Strega’s cheeks as she sat before her dressing room mirror, sobbing with self-pity.

“Coming through,” he announced as he pushed several of Elvira’s fans out of the way. “Watch out. Wigs coming through.”

When Elvira emerged from her dressing room ten minutes later she was dressed in a full-length black fur coat and wide-brimmed hat whose veil covered her bloodshot eyes.

“No autographs tonight,” she whispered to her fans. “I’m very sorry.”

Waving aside the handful of people who had patiently waited for her outside the dressing room door, she slowly, silently, and melodramatically stalked down the long hallway which led to the stage entrance. Only the short, bespectacled woman with grey hair suspected that something could be wrong.

Even though she had no way of knowing what might have transpired in the star’s dressing room after the final curtain, in nearly three decades of going backstage to collect autographs Edith had never seen La Strega acting so subdued after a performance.

Next:Thursday, March 5th