The rehearsal was packed into the small college dance studio, like overflow Amish in a bus station. Most of us knew each other, from our regular gig with the Erie Chamber Orchestra. But, this was a benefit event, many of our roster were on vacation, and a notable smattering of stranger faces mixed up our passenger list for this honkytonk. No big deal, though – familiar, or first timers, it was the voice provided by their instruments that mattered most; this was an opera gala concert, and we were about to put the whole show together in just two and a half hours.
Our soloists were creme. Brent, the tenor in charge, was at the helm for this one, ebullient and full of all the positivity that befitted somebody who just plain loved to sing. His wife Lisa, the versatile soprano, capable of both rich lyricism and full on drama; their mutual friend, James, the striking and powerful baritone from New York; and, as guest, a bright, lyric tenor named Joe Dan from nearby SUNY Fredonia to round out their power quartet.
We’d covered the two staple overtures, Barber of Seville and La Forza del Destino, and lay down several Verdi duets. The program almost complete, only the Faust finale, and one more Verdi aria, remained: “Pace, pace,mio dio” , Melodia Eleonora, from La Forza.
Our soprano was intently focused. She’d applied her essential Frankincense oil to the nape of her skull. She’d moved north after several years in Fort Lauderdale. She’d hailed from Yale. Both her body, and her voice, were peaking. She was Leonora, primed.
The strings headed into the opening motif, soundly setting the stage for her grande, penultimate entrance.
Now, orchestral musicians of this caliber are a surprisingly diverse lot. Most gig regularly, teaching as professors on their instruments in regional colleges and universities; still others hold down professional roles in completely unrelated disciplines, some of them attorneys or doctors. A few push through the day as public educators; among the females are mothers, home schooling multiple children. And, one or two are there because they love jazz more, and need the bread.
Harry, the bassist, was a jazzer. As such, he approached the rehearsal scenario with the laid back ease of one who knew the music skeletally, saw its structure, heard all its harmonies inside his cranium, and could take any tune from the head and walk something out.
But, opera singers. These people were serious. They carried their instruments at the base of their throats, 24/7, through suffocating summer humidity, pollens, grasses, post nasal drip…..and, wrapped themselves in exotic fiber to survive the sub-zero tundra. Every sound they made, from chuckle to guffaw, was a servant to proper phonation and the horizontal musculature of the abdomen. They breathed their music, lived their art, and arrived ready.
The first sixteen introductory measures of the La Forza aria had reached their destination. Lisa set her breath, shaped her pharynx for the vowel, heard her opening pitch, and let it soar:
Leonora’s plea for peace. Verdi, ever mindful of the text, had set this utterance apart, framing it with silent fermata for full, contemplative effect.
Leonora, haplessly in love with a man she cannot have, begging God for death.
Now, some say the whole universe is alive, breathing in some heaving magnificence. Still others are sure that spirits visit our every move. I can’t know. I only say this: weird things happen that are so far removed from the realm of coincidence the most logical mind must admit astonishment. What happened next was just one of those quintessential moments.
Because, just as our soprano had released that opening “Pace”, something happened to Harry. None of us knew quite how he’d been chosen to represent the mysteries of the cosmos in what was about to unfold. He reached for his pencil, to mark the music as a reminder to wait on the fermata, and unwittingly activated his cell phone.
In less than a full four seconds of the silence of that lone fermata, from the deepest part of the most remote black hole in that galaxy a far cry, indeed, from the voice of Jehovah in the wilderness – or the wrath of God admonishing the Children of Disobedience – came a response. This was the voice of Harry’s phone, and it was female:
“I didn’t get that…?”
Now, there’s a certain protocol in orchestras. One doesn’t speak while the music is playing. Waiting for a pause in the rehearsal is considered polite and appropriate.
Our faces exploded.
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo
8/19/15 All rights those of the author. Sharing permissible upon request of the author.