Denée’s Greatest Performance by Melissa Manuel

I’m told going to an opera camp would label me as a nerd forever, but it is a risk I’m willing to take. Nothing is more alluring than the opera to me. First of all, operas are only ever performed in ancient theaters where the architecture is so grand they all are labeled “Grand Operas.” I’ve been to a few opera houses, each of them were draped in delicate crystals and jewels that sparkled in a spectacular fashion that seemed they were pulled straight out of a fairy tale.

Every piece of fabric is lush in an opera house from the dramatic scarlet curtains to the cushions covering the house seats. Not to mention the embroidery detail in the carpets, only possible each stitch seemed to carry a secret as the designs swirl and collide. It made me wonder if you paid close enough attention to each thread one could possibly decode some old forgotten mystery.

But nothing beats the paintings. The life frozen in place all over the walls, the ceiling. Even in the bowels below faded, hidden paintings are as breathtaking as the ones maintained above. The paintings resemble those in churches, giving the opera house a religious atmosphere, hushing one into reverence. Once I went to an opera and couldn’t pay attention to the performance below because it was the story the paintings told that captivated me. By the end of the opera I was in tears, and the stranger seated beside me had placed their palm on my shoulder and asked, “Are you alright child?” But all I could do was shake my head.

That was also the moment I had decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life in an opera. Hence my going to an opera camp, which mind you, are not a common thing. Nor are they inexpensive, but I saved up all my allowances for this, not to mention begged my parents. So the funds were scraped together and now I sit in this unimpressive plane watching the earth pass below me with anxious eyes.

Los Angeles is my destination, an elusive city. I’ve heard of it as much as I have Asgard or Mount Olympus. A place that can only be compared with fantasy. Especially if you lived in a suburb in the middle of nowhere. Where there are so many suburbs connected you’d assume there was a city somewhere, but it must have disappeared or assimilated into the suburbs.

When the plane finally landed I felt a chill inside me that made my whole body tremble violently as if I had shocked my finger. Closing my eyes I took a shaky breath in and hoped I wouldn’t get lost.

 

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The theater where LA Opera Camp took place was breathtaking. I could not believe it existed at all. It was more modern than some I had been in before, but impressive nonetheless. Everything looked to be either red or gold, like a glorious gown. Never before had I been so entranced at the mere size of an opera house.

The hotel I was staying in for the duration of the summer camp was a short walk from the opera house and the first day of camp was vastly unsatisfying. They all wanted to play ice breaking games, and get to know one another, but I wanted a tour. I wanted to explore the giant opera house, run through its vastness, and hope past songstresses’ wails would slip in between the air rushing past my ears as I ran. This was what I was thinking about when I noticed a sudden awkward silence envelop the room I was in with my fellow campers and counselors. All eyes were on me, they were waiting for me to speak. Blinking at them all I cleared my throat and said, “Oh, um, my name is Denée.” Considering the way everyone continued to stare they wanted me to say something else.

One of the counselors, a twenty-something man with too-red hair and crooked teeth tried to help me, “Denée tell us something about yourself and of course why you love opera.”

I fidgeted in my seat, I have never liked being asked about myself, what do I know about myself? “Um… I… I know every Giuseppe Verdi song by heart?” The last thing I said sounded like a question, as if I was asking for acceptance. Which maybe I was. The red-haired counselor raised his eyebrows amused which only made me more anxious. “And, um… I love opera because…” In this moment I found it is impossibly difficult to describe why you love something. “Because it is all I think about, all I am. All I will ever be. From the floorboards that make up an opera house to the notes sung in each song.”

My answer was far too poetic for my peers liking. I was by far the oldest camper at eighteen. The majority of them were twelve. But the ginger counselor regarded me differently, in a way I wasn’t sure how to interpret.

Before he could move on to the next person I asked quickly, “Will we get a tour of the opera house?” The ginger cracked a small smile at me and shook his head to my great disappointment.

“Sorry Denée, we can’t have all these kids running around this place.”

But I had already made up my mind, if the camp my parents and I paid so much money to get me into wouldn’t give me a tour, I’d give myself one.

 

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In my hotel room I dressed for the opera. Not that I owned anything truly worthy of the opera, but my black dress would have to do. Using the money that should have bought me the next four days food, I bought a ticket for this evening’s performance of La Traviata written by my beloved Giuseppe Verdi. It wouldn’t be the first time I saw this opera, but nonetheless I was excited and felt adrenaline coursed through me at the thought of what I was planning to do.

The walk to the opera house was blurred between LA’s lights and in my sad black garb I felt invisible in the rush of this bustling city. Approaching the opera house it was lit up so brilliantly, that to me it resembled the North Star, beckoning me closer.

Crowds of high society and opera loving people crowded the tall doors that led one into the theater. They stepped out of shiny cars and handed their keys to bow-tied valets. Everyone wore beautiful clothes and women’s necks’ glimmered with their finest jewels. If I had felt invisible before I truly was now amongst all this wealth.

Slipping between the warm bodies of those above me in class and stature I found my way towards the house seats. An usher scanned my ticket for me without giving me a second glance, and I darted inside. My ticket bought me a pretty good seat, not too close, not too far. I floated above the orchestra seats and as the world buzzed around me I felt completely alone with the opera house. The lights, the seats, the curtain. It was all so familiar and foreign at once. It was a cold pale hand landed on my shoulder that I was broken out of my reverie. With a quick gasp and a turn of my head I stared up like a puppy caught doing something wrong at the red-haired counselor. He smiled at me with his crooked teeth. “Denée. Lovely seeing you here again. It’s me, Ronaldo, one of your camp counselors?”

I gave a small smile and nodded, “Yes, hi.” He kept smiling and nodded towards my ticket which I still held in my hand. “What seat do you have?” I held it up to him meekly and he smiled even wider.

“Hey! You’re right next to me! Pleasant coincidence don’t you think? You can tell me what’s going on. I’ve never seen this one, and you’re the Giuseppe Verdi expert after all.” He started leading us to our seats and something about him made me more anxious than I was before. Or usually am.

Shortly after we took our seats the lights dimmed and a familiar skip of the heart beat rattled me as it did every time an opera was about to begin. The actress playing Violetta was excellent, it was as if she was really in love with Alfredo, her voice was as pure as Violetta’s love itself. Whoever played Alfredo was a bit too stiff for my taste but whenever he sang with Violetta even from where I sat I could practically feel the tenderness and care in his caresses and kisses.

Ronaldo kept trying to whisper in my ear throughout the opera, leaning closer and closer each time, but I was far too engrossed in the world below. By the last heartbreaking scene, I felt as if I was Violetta herself. Dying slowly from an unforgiving illness and broken from the sadness of having to leave behind Alfredo. When she finally collapsed into death’s embrace while being held by Alfredo I was shattered. Tears fell freely, trickling slowly down my cheeks, and then I was Alfredo wracked by grief and guilt.

When the curtain fell once more the entire audience rose to its feet, applauding heartily, and I was with them, tears still falling, my heart tight with emotion. I was still too caught up in the story and the music to realize Ronaldo had slid an arm around my shoulders and was leading me away from the seats towards the exit. Remembering my plan I halted suddenly jerking away from him. “Wh-What are you doing?”

Ronaldo chuckled and kept urging me forward. “You said you wanted a tour of the opera house.” My jaw fell slightly and I gawked at him in gratitude.

“Really? You’ll take me on a tour?” Ronaldo winked at me and led me away from the lavish crowds towards a hidden door titled “Employees Only.”

Ronaldo opened the door for me and I stepped in eagerly, ready to explore the hidden halls of this vast opera house. It was dim in the hallway Ronaldo led us through and echoes of laughter and footsteps of above surrounded us. I realized he was quietly humming “Phantom of the Opera” under his breath.

I ran my fingertips over the walls, saddened to find them devoid of paintings. As we kept walking the air grew more frigid and polluted with dust. “Where are you taking us?”

Ronaldo looked over his shoulder at me, red hair gleaming maliciously in the dim light. “To the basement. They have old props and costumes down there.”

I nodded and smiled nervously at him.

Finally Ronaldo stopped at an old wooden door with a scratched up gold knob. “Ready to see some artifacts?”

He pushed open the door with some effort and I followed him into the room. It was pitch black inside and I tripped over something and jumped back afraid to break something.

“Ronaldo?” My voice rang out the room as I waited for a response or for him to turn on the lights. Except the only response I got was the door closing with a solid thud and a lock clicking into place.

“Ronaldo?” Now my voice was filled with more anxiety and fear, I stepped back towards the direction of the door and fumbled in the dark until I felt the door knob only to, of course, find it locked. Anxiety peaked to whole new levels and my whole body shook uncontrollably. My throat began to tighten and breathing became an impossible task, dizziness caused me to sway and I couldn’t stop myself from slowly tilting over and falling to the floor.

 

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I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open because it was eternal darkness either way. My head throbbed miserably and it took me a few minutes to sit up without feeling like throwing up. Once I was able to get back to my feet, I began groping the walls around the locked door, searching for a light switch, but found none.

Stepping away from the door, I tried to think, tried to form a plan of escape. “Light. You need light.” My own quiet voice steadied me. Turning around slowly I walked forward arms stretched. I groped at the air above me with one hand hoping to find a chain that would connect to a light source above. Anything to save me from this inability to see.

Finally my hand collided with a cool metal chain and I froze in place. I tightened my fingers around it and tugged it down, there was the sound of a click and I heard a low buzz. “Please please please.”

Begging the light to work, a few more seconds passed and then the world flickered into view with warm yellow light. I cried out in relief and clasped my hands to my chest, taking a few moments to calm myself down.

Once I was more together I took in my surroundings. This room was littered with broken set pieces, props, and yellowed-with age costumes. Carefully extending my hand towards an old ball gown it felt like fragile paper to my fingertips.

The room was rich with discarded history that in other circumstances I would’ve loved to explore in further detail, except I was more eager to leave.

Walking back to the door I tried the doorknob again to no avail. I pushed against the door with all my might, but considering my small stature it was truly ineffective. Now looking around the room I looked for anything that could help me bust down the door or break the doorknob. Anything.

I tried using old set pieces, fake swords and other weaponry, but nothing worked. The door was set in place and undisturbed by my attacks against it. I banged against it and cried out hoping any custodian or performer had wandered this far down, but it was hopeless.

Sitting dejectedly against the door, I couldn’t even bring myself to weep bitterly into my hands. All I could think of now was last night’s performance and Violetta’s Aria at the beginning of the third act. When she knew death was near. I began to sing the song aloud with such perfection and potency that it would no doubt forever be my greatest performance.


Hey there,

My sincere apologies I missed last week. So I put extra effort into this one. The idea of it being opera-centric came from me listening to Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 while I wrote this. Took me the entire length of the cast recording to write it. Highly recommend.

Well.

I hope you enjoyed it and stuff.

Memento mori,

Melissa

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