This is a fabulous beginning, richly colourful, beautifully phrased, describing a hidden world, backstage at the opera, which the author writes about with an obvious depth of experience. Yes, there are flaws. Are they significant enough to earn a rejection from an agent?
Title: Avid diva
Language: US English
Synopsis: Grace O’Hara is an aspiring opera singer, employed with the Paris Opera chorus. Understudy for a small part in Boris Goudonov, she discovers the Amber Room, a smuggled lost art treasure disguised as scenery, and is menaced by Russian gangsters. A comic look at the mad world of Opera.
There is no beginning; the violins arise out of the silence.
In the darkened theater 1800 people sit rapt, as the conductor teases from the orchestra – pianissimo! -the first magical glimmer of the overture of La Traviata. He holds his baton with the utmost delicacy, his hands barely moving, eyes half-closed as if in a dream. He makes a tiny shushing motion- don’t let the music swell up yet. The beat of the slow 4/4 rhythm is revealed with the gentlest of plucking of cords – not so loud! The Maestro reopens one eye to shoot a glance of displeasure at the double basses. They immediately exaggerate with their arms to show how very gently they are caressing their strings. The conductor leans in to the violins and, with a fluid gesture of his baton, causes the dreamy, melancholic melody to appear. Around the Opéra it floats, wafting into the loges on the first balcony, and the second, third and fourth balcony, all the way up to the Chagall. The chandelier’s suspended crystals hum in sympathetic vibration. The melody caresses the great curtain in the front of the theater, gently penetrates it.
On the other side of the curtain, on the stage facing back out to the hall, we stand waiting, listening. Eighty sopranos, altos, tenors and basses of the chorus. Six soloists. A handful of supernumeraries, actors who are generally charged with carrying spears, herding elephants, or in this case, serving champagne.
We fidget silently, pulling a dress’s long train out from under a heel, digging in a wig to find the hairpin that is piercing the scalp. We gesture to each other in sign language or read lips. I, Grace O’Hara, soprano in the Paris Opéra chorus, stand near the middle of the stage on the right, pulling at the corseted bodice of my ball gown, releasing a faint aroma of sweat from previous performances. It’s very tight, giving me a trim waist which I love, and a generous uplift to my bosom. But I’m regretting it now that I’m on stage. My ribs are aching from the corset’s stays, and I can hardly breathe.
I watch her, in her sumptuous scarlet gown, with her diamonds and her elaborately dressed hair and tiara. I drink her in and, in my imagination, I take her place.
She pulls at her long satin gloves, fiddles with her fan covered in spangles. She pulls up her hem to inspect her shoes – even these are decorated, with some sort of flower, a camellia? I guess that’s what is bothering her, it’s catching on the ruffles of her petticoat. She drops the skirt in irritation and taps her hand with her fan, sighing in a way indicating, not relaxation, but some kind of manipulation to reach the deepest muscles of her lungs. The tapping quickens, and suddenly she pitches the fan down; it skitters away on the floor. Grabbing at her shoes, she rips off the flowers. Her dresser scuttles in from the wings and takes them, offering water in a plastic bottle.
Without looking at the dresser, she takes a drink of water, hands the bottle back. Little mewing sounds come from her nose and throat as she pulls her jaw down and back and forth.
We prepare to show amusement, approaching champagne glasses to lips, bending over hands ready to kiss them. A man reaches towards his stage wife, waiting to help her to remove her furs as they stand just inside the set’s ballroom door. A waiter holds a tray of glasses, a white napkin over his arm. A tenor nuzzles a mezzo in the neck, she giggles silently. My prima donna reverie fades and I am again a soprano in the chorus, snapping open my fan.
The overture has finished. The Act 1 music surges as the curtain lifts, and we burst into activity – high-pitched cascades of laughing, turning about spilling champagne, swishing of long trains. More of the chorus enter into the ballroom and embrace with enthusiasm.
“Si, si, un brindisi!” “A drinking song!” Singing my chorus phrases, I flutter my fan and playfully tap a baritone on the cheek. As the tragic lovers take center stage to sing their brilliant duet, I elbow through the crowd to the front of the stage so I can watch up close. I study her posture, her breathing, how she uses her lips and jaw as she sings her high B-flat. The colors of the voice, how she changes the timbre to show illness, excitement, or love.
Twenty minutes later, singing their farewells, the chorus take leave of the ball and exit the stage. In the darkness of the wings I find my way around to a side where I can watch, as Traviata, alone on the stage, ponders the madness of love and the fragility of life in her aria. I listen and enter her skin again.
Gracie blew into the café of the Bibliotheque Nationale in a bustle of high heels, swinging tote bags, and long snaking hair. Readers looked up from their books and café crèmes, her burst of energy hitting them with an electric shock.
Watching from a corner table, Nell sighed. Whenever Gracie opened a door, she seemed to be stepping into the starring lights of the Opera. Nell was used to it- she herself preferred to stay quietly unnoticed in her corner, peacefully reading her books and writing her notes. But being with her friend meant being swept into Gracie’s whirlwind, front stage and center. Gracie’s face radiated excitement as she saw Nell and made her way towards the table, thumping a studious looking young man in the back of the head with her dance bag and nudging his pile of books onto the floor.
Editorial critique: This has had some professional help, and it shows. To start with, the setting: backstage, behind the scenes with an opera company, the orchestra is playing the overture out beyond the curtain. There’s a weird half-life going on backstage as the players, with itchy scalps and sore feet, make ready to assume their roles, to leave behind all those human frailties and soar and inspire and make the audience dream. It’s fascinating to anyone who hasn’t been part of even just amateur dramatics, and intensely resonant to anyone who has. The fabulous tension between reality and art as you, perhaps teenager in the school play, or diva in some prestigious production in La Scala, stand hidden in the wings waiting for your cue, or perhaps posed beneath some plaster-of-paris doric arch with a glass of “champagne” (actually tap water every night except, maybe, the last night of the run).
Whether you manage to maintain the earthy detail of the writing (I love the smell of sweat permeating from Grace’s ball gown) into the normal prosaic day-to-day off-stage, is beyond the scope of this short critique, but I’d definitely want to read more of this book, and that’s all you’re asking of an agent; “Read the book, and tell me what you think.”
There’s little to fault with the writing. I’d caution that it does need editing to be at it’s best. I wrote a blog post for ALLi, the Alliance of Independent Authors, on the subject of dashes recently. Check it out here. Your dashes, to put it bluntly, are roving all over the shop. Some are hyphens; some are en-dashes; some are centred; some are left justified, some are right justified. Some I swear move around or change size as I look at them (but that might be the whisky). You couldn’t send a book out in to the world like that. It would be like sending Violetta out on to the stage in a bathrobe, fluffy purple slippers, and her hair in curlers.
I hummed and haahed, but eventually felt that it would be churlish to award anything other than a gold star. Do please get it at least proofread (it’s Boris Godunov, as far as I am aware). I’m not entirely sure about the palindromic title, either—I suspect a publisher might have something to say about that. But congratulations on being the first “Gold Star”.
Thanks for posting.
Thank you so much for your positive reaction to my writing! It means so much to me, as I’m writing away by myself mainly, and wonder if it’s good enough. I do try to go to the occasional writing critique group, but my schedule makes it hard.
This was a wonderful read. Well done!
Beautifully written – it really makes you feel like you are right there.