Friday, November 9, 2007

Midnight Draws Near

At 11:48 p.m., as the principals were taking their curtain calls, the Howletts got a good taste of what grand opera is all about. Earlier that evening, the tenor, Mauricio Biancomono, had received prolonged applause for his stunning rendition of Enzo Grimaldi’s Act II aria, “Cielo e mar.” Biancomono was clearly an audience favorite and, as Drew Gelfand had explained to them during one of the intermissions, the Met had great things in store for him.

What the company’s General Director did not explain to the Howletts, however, were the peculiar circumstances which kept tonight’s principals appearing onstage together so frequently. As most people in the professional music world knew, Mauricio Biancomono had been a house tenor with a provincial Italian opera company until he was discovered by the legendary Elvira Colombo. Since then, Colombo had insisted on having Biancomono as her leading man because, with her shrewd survival instincts, she knew that he was good -- but not good enough to steal her thunder.

In the five years during which the two artists had been singing together, familiarity had bred contempt. The Italian tenor hated Elvira’s guts but understood that during this crucial stage of his career he would have to continue singing with her in order to get reviewed in the musical press. Confident that his voice was reaching the point where he could break free from Colombo’s grasp and make it on his own, Biancomono had recently switched management as the first step toward distancing himself from Elvira.

Unbeknownst to the aging diva who had discovered him, the tenor was also being groomed by the Met’s artistic staff to become the next Pavarotti; a fact which made it easier for him to tolerate the old windbag’s shamelessly egocentric shenanigans. With the applause still ringing in his ears, Biancomono blew a kiss to the audience and disappeared behind the Met’s great gold curtain.

Moments later, he was replaced by Maryjane Montgomery, the mezzo-soprano who had sung the role of Laura in that evening’s performance and who always seemed to sing opposite Mauricio Biancomono.

A professional do-gooder, Maryjane Montgomery was known among her colleagues as a bland but reliable artist. It was certainly no secret that whenever the tenor’s wife remained at home in Italy to raise his four children, Maryjane (a woman whose tepid presence onstage was a far cry from her passionate lovemaking) took her place beside Biancomono in bed.

By now, Maryjane was sick and tired of belonging to the great Colombo’s traveling road show. She knew all too well that if Mauricio could clear the next big hurdle in his career, his fees would skyrocket so quickly that he could divorce his wife, marry Maryjane, and free the two singers from their slave-like devotion to the despicable Elvira Colombo.

As she bowed before the footlights, acknowledging the audience’s polite applause, her view was suddenly blocked by a mass of shiny fabric as the evening’s star swooped out in front of her. With clinical precision, Colombo had brought the mezzo-soprano’s curtain call to an untimely halt.

Furious at Elvira’s selfishness, Maryjane walked off into the wings, leaving the megalomaniacal diva to indulge herself in front of the footlights. Left to her wicked wiles, Elvira didn’t hesitate for one second to milk every possible bit of applause from the Met’s audience.

Stooping to pick up the train of her costume, she paraded across the footlights, gaily waving to her fans at the top of the Family Circle and blowing a kiss to Wayne DiStefano in the prompter's box. Returning to downstage left, the soprano sank to the floor in a mock regal curtsey and held her bow for as long as the audience would keep clapping. As soon as the applause began to ebb, she rose to her feet, slowly bowed her head and then crossed her hands over her heart in a meticulously calculated (but utterly false) gesture of humility.

At 62, Elvira was the last of the opera world’s great divas -- an artist who insisted on bringing a certain air of “dramatic verisimilitude” to each of her roles – and yet a pathetically egocentric woman. At this late stage of her career she still employed such outrageously overdone acting techniques that she had become a professional anachronism. Having made life miserable for anyone and everyone who ever crossed her path, La Strega (as she was known to one and all) had carved out a highly controversial career by singing opera’s most venomously difficult roles -- characters like Lady Macbeth, Salome, Elektra, and Medea -- while incorporating the worst parts of their personalities into her private life.

Although Elvira’s heyday had long since come and gone, like her rivals Leyla Gencer, Magda Olivero, and Leonie_Rysanek, she still had a loyal following which would cheer her wildly if she did so much as read from the telephone book. Their blind devotion and Elvira’s oversized ego had, for many years, conspired to prevent the old woman from retiring and making a graceful exit from her profession.

In an era when audiences looked forward to live telecasts featuring younger and more photogenic singers, the sight of Elvira’s wrinkled face and outrageous histrionics transformed her into an operatic dinosaur. As the soprano’s vocal condition continued to deteriorate, her diva antics became more and more outrageous.

Even though key moments in Elvira’s performances could still generate a genuine sense of excitement, in recent years La Strega had begun to suspect that audiences were actually laughing at her. Her ego, mixed with every artist’s acute sense of paranoia, forced Elvira to keep trying to prove to everyone that she still had the goods. Even on a night like tonight, when Colombo’s voice was somewhat under control, the results were not always pretty.

Waving to the audience as she reluctantly made her way offstage, Elvira finally disappeared from sight as the house lights came up. The soprano’s extended curtain call had been a totally shameless display of ego. Nan McFarlane knew that, as did many others in the audience.

But to the Howletts, Colombo’s self-indulgent tricks were total theatrical magic. They couldn’t wait to meet her backstage.

Next: Bitch Fight

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