Monday, January 25, 2016

A Preview of Manhattan Blues

Readers may have noticed I have not commented on current events in a while. I am immersed in writing the 14th Cyrus Skeen detective novel, Manhattan Blues, set in New York City in March 1929.  I shall return to my commentaries once I have finished the novel. My novels are my life work, and they always come first.

From the Foreword:

It is March, 1929. Cyrus Skeen is called to New York by his father, Garnett Skeen, to attend to some trust fund affairs. Skeen’s detective agency is subsidized by a trust fund his father set up years before, but his mother, Eleanor “Nellie” Skeen, wishes to set up her own trust fund for her son. A daughter of an Oklahoma oil magnate, she is “very well situated” in terms of wealth. Skeen’s parents, however, are driving to Nags Head in the Outer Banks of North Carolina to spend the rest of the winter. The elder Skeen tells his son that he must prove his existence to a new bank officer who will be administrating the new trust fund; therefore, Skeen must travel to New York City.
In New York, he meets an alluring and tempestuous opera singer, Brianna “Ginger” O’Quill. During one of her performances at the Metropolitan Opera, he goes backstage and kisses the diva’s hand. She interprets the gesture as an invitation to pursue him, which she does even though she knows he is married and in love with his wife, Dilys. But a rival for her attentions is jealous and attempts to murder Skeen – or O'Quill…or anyone. 

Chapter 9: Queen of the Night
The conductor, Lawrence Hauck, who was a dead ringer, Skeen thought, for Leopold Schacht but sans the spade beard, abruptly appeared over the intricately carved black mahogany partition that separated the orchestra from the audience and that put both out of sight of each other. The audience applauded and he took a bow. Then he turned, dipped out of sight, and disappeared. There must have been steps from the podium Skeen had not noticed earlier.
The lights dimmed a little more, and then the orchestra began the Overture. The opening brass notes were intended to get one’s attention. They got Skeen’s. Then the strings weighed in, and, working with the winds, with soft, somnambulant notes, gently prepared one for the lively, joyous, almost dizzying dance-worthy main section in which the whole orchestra participated.
Skeen found the whole piece delightful. In fact, he was enchanted by it. He felt himself smiling. This was not the Mozart he had heard in Maud Skipton’s music parlor on Nob Hill in San Francisco. He wished it to go on. But in a swift reprise of the opening dancing notes it ended with a crescendo.
The two massive red velvet curtains parted majestically behind the impossibly complex gilded proscenium. Their parting revealed yet another red curtain; this one rose to reveal a stylized forest. Beyond it were flats depicting faraway mountains and a blue, cloud-dotted sky. But above it all was a kind of dome of the black night sky, the stars formed in a whirlpool whose vortex was not yet visible.
A young fellow in a blue period costume – vaguely medieval – appeared, running full tilt, armed with a swordless scabbard, and a bow with no arrow in it and no quiver of arrows. Some growling was heard and what looked like a puce-painted Chinese New Year dragon appeared from behind the “forest,” and chased the fellow around the stage. He guessed the fellow was supposed to be Tamino, the story’s love interest, the prince with no political antecedents. The dragon had about two dozen legs (the legs of cast extras), also in puce but with fur. The thing more resembled a giant centipede with a dragon’s head tacked on. The fellow in the head also blew some kind of smoke from the dragon’s open mouth, which was loaded with scimitar sized teeth.
Skeen told himself: It’s a fairy tale. There’s no rhyme or reason for anything in it. Don’t shake your head. People might notice.
Then the fellow faints. Sir Galahad, he isn’t, thought Skeen. He consulted his libretto for the scene.
The story began to pick up speed when The Three Ladies emerged from the forest. They slayed the dragon with waves of their magical wands, then ooh-and-awed in dialogue and in song over the prone body of the prince, almost as though they wanted to molest him. He could see the greed in their eyes. They wore feathery headpieces and gowns the colors of Germany’s flag: black, red, and gold. They kept nudging each other aside with unladylike elbows to ribs as they bent over the unconscious Tamino.
Skeen heard Morton Lawry groan in exasperation.
Abruptly, The Three Ladies rose and departed, singing. According to the libretto and Britannica, they couldn’t decide what to do about Tamino.
A fellow in a costume of colorful parrot feathers came onstage. Skeen consulted his libretto. This was Papageno, the birdwatcher. No, he corrected himself: the bird catcher. He carried a bird cage and panpipes. He sings his song and plays his pipes (or someone in the orchestra did). Tamino awakes, and thinks Papageno slayed the dragon. The bird catcher doesn’t deny it. The Three Ladies reappear and punish him for lying by putting a lock on his mouth. Then they crowd around Tamino and manage to show him a picture of Pamina, his future love interest. He sings his love for her; The Three Ladies collectively practically smother him with their attentions.
Again, Skeen heard Lawry groan.
And then Brianna O'Quill appeared as Queen of the Night. Her entrance was heralded by winds in the orchestra. This development took Skeen by surprise. She simply appeared out of nowhere, probably by an elevator built into the stage, sitting on a throne. He should have expected something extraordinary because the forest was suddenly enveloped in a mist. The lights dimmed a little over the stage. The whirlpool of stars above began to slowly rotate, the vortex appearing directly over the head of the Queen of the Night.
O'Quill as Queen of the Night was indeed in a modified flamenco costume, all blue satin, it seemed to Skeen, judging from the sheen of the material, with winking sequins. Generous flounces over her wrists and at the bottom of the gown gave her costume that Spanish look. Ruby earrings the size and shape of fishing anchors flailed out when she moved her head, but Skeen doubted they were lead.
She was crowned with a sparkling mantilla from which flowed a gossamer veil or train, almost invisible but for the twinkling sequins on it. Her hair was gathered behind in a kind of translucent basket the fabric of which he could not identify from where he sat. She began to sing her first aria, “O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn.” Skeen consulted the libretto. It was “Oh, tremble not, my dear son!”
Tamino approached her throne and was kneeling before it when she rose and descended the steps in mid-aria to address him. Skeen could not see Tamino’s face, but O'Quill’s was observable. He was transfixed by the multitude of convincing expressions and emotions O'Quill was able to convey. It was a lovely, moving, and pleading aria – save my daughter from the evil designs of the wizard Sarastro, and her hand is yours in marriage – but Skeen could see by her eyes and her posture and by the tone of her words, even though they were in German, that she was setting up Tamino for something other than rescuing her daughter, Pamina, from the evil wizard Sarastro. She descended the throne, bid Tamino to rise, and held him by the shoulders to complete her aria.
She telegraphed her ulterior motives so strongly that Skeen half expected Tamino to depart from the script and tell her he knew she was lying and to reject her heart-rending plea. Skeen sat mesmerized by O'Quill’s performance, sitting forward with his elbows on his knees, his hands folded beneath his chin.
But Tamino agrees to rescue Pamina. Then The Queen of the Night, with an imperious sweep of her trailing veil, disappears with her throne into the mists. The faraway mountains reappear and the forest is visible again.
The Three Ladies returned and again surrounded Tamino. They give him a long, silvery object. This is the magic flute. They so crowd around Tamino they nearly knock him over. Skeen did not think that was in the playbook.
He heard Lawry groan again.
In a comic scene they release Papageno from the mouth-padlock and give him a contraption with bells on it. He will accompany Tamino on his search for Pamina. The flute will protect Tamino from all sorts of mishaps, while the bells, if rung, will also perform magic for Papageno.
And that was the end of Scene One of Act One.
Skeen had read the whole Britannica article and so he knew that Sarastro was not the evil wizard, but some sort of benevolent wizard whose kidnapping of Pamina remained inexplicable, unexplained.
One question he wanted badly to ask Lawry was who was Pamina’s father? Was she the result of a union between the Queen of the Night and Sarastro? Were the Queen of the Night and Sarastro once “married,” but had a horrific fight and separated? Was Pamina born out of wedlock? Was there such a condition in the world of The Magic Flute?
But Skeen checked himself: this was a fairy tale, and anything odd and unanswered was to be taken literally. Too many questions would spoil the fantasy and explode the illusion.
As he watched the goings-on up on the stage, Skeen recalled that, as a child, he had never taken seriously the tooth fairy, or the Easter bunny, or even Santa Claus. He distinctly remembered now his assertion over dinner one Christmas season evening, when he was five, that not only was it physically impossible for Santa Claus to deliver overnight presents to all the children in the world so that they would have them by Christmas morning, but it was physically impossible for him to carry them. Further, he declaimed that evening over his half-eaten dinner the impracticality of “eight tiny reindeer” to pull such a load, and of a sleigh that could land on anyone’s roof.
He remembered his mother tsk-tsking and giving him a sad shake of her head. And he also remembered his father chuckling and remarking to her: “Well, at least we're not raising a Socialist, or a Progressive.” He understood the meaning of that remark years later.
Then the black slave, Monostato, appeared and figured prominently in the action. Mentally, Skeen kept renaming him “Monsanto” after the agricultural company. The singer was not only in black face but in black torso. It was disconcerting to see him and his fellow slaves cavorting around the stage wearing baggy pantaloons and vests and slippers with curled toes. A few of them wore turbans and sported organ-grinder moustaches. It was also jarring to hear them speak and sing in German.
It was while Monostato was singing that Skeen recognized the face of the hand-wringing roll-poly man he saw outside of Brianna O'Quill’s apartment the night before.
Skeen sat back and endured with a critical set to his face the rest of Act One, frequently consulting his libretto to understand the actions and dialogue on stage.
He did acknowledge that putting on even an incredible fairy tale required an enormous amount of work. The singers had to work with the orchestra and its soloists, as well, everything had to be timed and paced perfectly, everyone from the cast to the stagehands who worked the scenery had to know what he was doing, when to do it, and where he had to be every second.
He refrained from sighing with relief when the curtains closed on Sarastro’s temple and Tamino and Pamina see each other and embrace for the first time on the stage. The audience broke into applause and the principal singers came out from behind the two curtains to take their bows.     Twice, because the continuing applause called them out again.
Then the lights came back on and the hubbub behind Skeen rose. The program said there would be a half hour intermission. Skeen could hear the stage behind the curtain being prepared for Act Two, with scenery being removed and replaced and many footsteps thumping on the stage. He rose and faced Morton Lawry. “I’m going out for a smoke.”
Lawry rose. Skeen noticed that he had gray-green eyes, and they were set in anger. Something about the performance of The Three Ladies had upset him. “I would join you, Mr. Skeen, as you are probably brimming with questions I would be only too happy to answer. But I need to go backstage to knock some heads together. Please, follow me. You can smoke outside on the loading platform. Smoking is not allowed backstage, only in the dressing rooms. But you needn’t trek all the way to the lobby.” He nodded to the stream of patrons snaking up the aisles to the front of the theater.
Without further word, Lawry turned and strode along the first row of orchestra seats to the far end. Skeen followed him. There they encountered an usher who let them pass through an emergency door. He said to the man, nodding to Skeen, “This gentleman is a guest of mine. Please let him back in when the time comes.”
Inside, Lawry pointed to the door to the loading dock, then disappeared into a maze of narrow halls and corridors.
Skeen stood on the dock with a few dozen of the cast. He lit an Old Gold. It was chilly and the skimpy costumes of some of the actors and singers must not have been much protection against the cold. The dock faced the blank wall of an adjacent building. Some scenery flats were propped up against the wall behind him. More cast and stagehands emerged from a separate door further down the long stretch of cement.
He did not try to get into a conversation with any of the people standing with him.
All in all, Skeen thought, it was a saccharine story. Perhaps it was innovative in Mozart’s time. But the story has been repeated and retold in countless forms countless times since then.
He was also thinking of Brianna O'Quill.

©2016 by Edward Cline

1 comment:

Doug Mayfield said...

As always, I'm looking forward to it.