Saturday, November 10, 2007

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

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