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.