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The first opera I ever saw was Puccini's Turandot. In fact, the circumstances in which I found myself before this staged musical spectacle were entirely unusual, and this is the story of how it all occurred.
I remember well that it happened in wintertime – more precisely, during that unfortunate winter following that unfortunate autumn following that unfortunate summer when Juliska departed this world. One morning in that unfortunate winter I received an unexpected call from Marika Földes of the local Employment Office. She informed me that a rather interesting job offer had come up and that I should present myself in exactly two hours and forty minutes at the main entrance of the Hungarian State Opera House, where a certain Mr Kis would be waiting for me. She did not wish to impart any further details regarding the nature of the proposition over the phone since, as she explained, she was in a rush to get to a meeting and also felt that Mr Kis was far more competent to discuss the issue.
I had waited a long time to receive any news from the Employment Office, so not following up on the invitation was hardly an option. I arrived at the bus station, and by the time I took notice of the bus to Budapest parked at Platform 12, the driver had already started the engine, so I had no choice but to break into a sprint. The bus started to move as soon as I got on, and I barely managed to scramble to an empty seat. I remember finding a place in the second-to-last row, next to a scowling adolescent. Not having the slightest idea what to expect upon reaching my destination, I sought comfort in what seemed to be the only certainty at the time – the monotonous route of the intercity bus line, nestled in the softness of my well-worn foam seat and the familiar, stale smell of old metal. This must have been how I dozed off – to the soporific rumble of the engine – and when I woke up and glanced out the window I was greeted by a view of lazy winter clouds descending towards the village roofs, set against the backdrop of the snowy hills of Buda.
Mr Kis was most certainly kis, the Hungarian for 'small'. He sported a brown trench coat with a raised collar and a black hat, and he kept his hands firmly in his pockets. His hat, being about two sizes too big, had fallen over his eyes, causing him to tilt his head back in order to see. When I spotted him as I was waiting for the light to turn green on the opposite side of the street, he was nervously shifting his weight from foot to foot and scrutinizing his surroundings in a seemingly clandestine manner, probably trying to single me out in the crowd of passers-by. His conspiratorial behaviour and appearance suddenly revealed before my eyes an entire range of possibilities as to the upcoming job offer – black-market dealer, drug smuggler, pimp, hit man – for the real nature of the offer could end up differing entirely from the information available to the Employment Office. Not knowing quite how to act, I continued to stand there as the light turned green twice and all the other pedestrians energetically passed by me. This is when Kis noticed me, and just as I felt my cheeks burning with shame and was about to finally start walking away the little green man in the traffic light once again invited me to cross the street.
To my relief, the introduction was direct and painless. Kis made only one comment through his crooked smirk – a comment I was very much accustomed to and had even expected – that this was not at all how he had imagined me. He then suggested that we continue our conversation at the café adjacent to the Opera House.
As it happened, we hardly spoke a word during the first ten minutes of our acquaintance. Just as we were about to sit down, Kis's mobile phone started ringing, and he hurried to the doorway, excusing himself with gesticulations referring to the bad signal inside. This gave me more than enough time to think of a few plausible excuses for declining his generous offer. 'I live in a small town, you see ... what would the neighbours say if they found out ... last year was particularly difficult for me, and I hardly managed to keep myself on an even keel ...' However, the explanation he provided when he returned to the table proved the offer to be surprisingly benign and socially acceptable. As coordinator of the Turandot project, scheduled to première a few days later in the main concert hall of the Opera House, it was his duty to find someone who would 'feed' the main tenor his lines while positioned in the left wing between the stage and the orchestra pit – in other words, to act as a prompter. A flood of relief came over me. He explained that they did not generally use prompters but that the tenor in the role of Calaf had fallen ill with jaundice and his replacement appeared to be afflicted with certain 'cognitive difficulties' – as Kis had gently put it. During the same evening I had the opportunity to observe that the man was, in fact, such a dunce that he couldn't memorize half of his lines. Rumour had it – as I happened to overhear a couple of days later at dress rehearsal in a conversation between the second violinists and a talkative harpist during rests between musical phrases – that the director Lajos Gorzowski, a pompous eccentric, was particularly impressed with the singer's audition since 'his oral presentation managed to bring him to the highest degree of bliss' and that it was this particular skill that ultimately got him hired.
When I asked him why they didn't opt for a professional prompter, Kis explained that the Hungarian Union of Prompters had begun an active boycott a few months earlier against the management of a number of theatres in town and that they refused to work under conditions that did not meet their unrealistically high standards. What Kis meant by 'conditions' became clear to me when I arrived for the rehearsal at five forty-five on the same day and became acquainted with my planned workspace.
The prompter was supposed to sit in a small, rudimentary wooden box which the director – ignoring a perfectly capable team of set designers – had built with his own hands only a day before. Gorzowski, incidentally, was a very enterprising man who, like many who consider themselves artists, took pleasure in meddling in the jobs of others, convinced that it placed him in total control of the project. The reason for such unconventional positioning of the prompter, as was explained to me, was the equally unconventional and ultra-sophisticated method of lighting that would later prove to be responsible for the show's immense popularity – because of the way the light was designed to be reflected, a prompter standing behind the curtain or sitting in a conventional prompt-box would cast the shadow of a human figure on stage. The only possible solution was to include the prompter in the set itself, and given that the opera takes place on the grounds of the exotic Imperial Palace in Beijing, the set designers had come up with the idea of covering the box with a piece of ivory-coloured wallpaper and placing a prominent oriental statue on top, thus disguising it as a kind of pedestal.
The claustrophobic tightness of the box was alleviated only by a tiny opening through which I was supposed to whisper the lines to the good-for-nothing Calaf. Seeing the box for the first time, after I was informed that I, Moritz Tóth, was expected to squat inside it twice a week for 2,140 forints an hour, I cursed the day I handed over the form to Marika Földes in the Employment Office in Etyeki Street. The thought that my financial standing did not allow me to refuse the offer, whatever it may be, only amplified my frustration. To make matters worse, when I received the text I discovered that it was in Italian, which should have been obvious had I not overlooked the fact amid all the confusion. That I couldn't speak a word of Italian was of little concern to my employers. They told me to read it as it was written – exactly as I would were the text in Hungarian. 'The main purpose of the prompter is to stimulate the memory of the performer, and the precision with which the lines are pronounced is of secondary importance,' were the exact words of the assistant director. I remember feeling as if I had wandered off into some distorted version of reality where the boundaries between possible and impossible either don't exist or surpass my understanding. I also remember having spent that entire night repeating Calaf's lines under my dim kitchen light, peering at the text until my eyes became bloodshot, conscious of the fact that the dress rehearsal was only two days away.
As the dress rehearsal approached I became more and more anxious. I was expected at the Opera by six forty-five, but I arrived as early as at ten to six, when there was no one but a security guard to greet me. The man checked my ID and attached a laminated pass to my lapel, after which I was set free to roam the corridors of the Opera House and admire the impressively decorated interior, the remarkable marble columns, the colourful frescos of Greek gods by painter Károly Lotz. Curiosity compelled me to penetrate deeper into the building and explore the back corridors. At one point I peeped into a room from which I could hear cheerful chattering and caught sight of a costume assistant measuring the chest circumference of a scantily clad girl – most likely an extra – beside a massive mirror. I continued to walk down the corridors and penetrate deeper into the building until I finally stopped at the sight of the room capable of evoking in me a deep feeling of nostalgia – the orchestra room.
There was nobody inside. The instruments were neatly resting in their places, and the music scores stood on the stands, open to the middle of the dynamic third act. In a world so unfamiliar to me, the image was pure comfort to my soul. I quietly entered, picked up a violin bow and realized that some fifteen years had passed since I had last held a bow in my hands. My fingertips glided over the strings, and my thoughts drifted to my childhood ... it seemed for a few seconds that I was sitting on a suitcase back in Moscow's Pushkin Square, watching my grandfather, the master of improvisation, courageously dive into trills and fly through arpeggios, leaving bystanders breathless ... But my recollection was cut short by voices from the hallway. Without delay, I placed the bow back to its original position, scurried out of the room, barely managing to avoid an onslaught of self-confident and talkative musicians advancing towards the orchestra room as I veered around the corner.
I wandered the corridors a while longer, watching the excitement around me grow as voices and sounds gradually filled every nook of the impressive interior. About a half-hour later, in the midst of preparations, the assistant manager – a likable young man with a gigantic collection of keys at his belt – dashed by and acknowledged me with a hearty slap on the shoulder. This small gesture of attention later proved to be his universal sign of encouragement, but at the time I took it to mean only one thing – that the moment had come for the dress rehearsal.
In this performance, the ice princess Turandot was to be portrayed by the magnificent Erzsébet Szántó, now in the prime of her career. Decorated with an embroidered oriental motif, her long black gown must have been supported by a hefty wire frame around her body, since her movements could not be detected in the slightest as she gracefully descended the wide stairway of the palace and headed towards the stage like a floating apparition. Her face was covered with a fine silk veil, yet something behind that veil seemed to radiate and allude to her unusual beauty. As I watched her in utter admiration during the first act of the dress rehearsal, I had no way of knowing that in the final act that same veil would be torn to shreds right before my eyes, revealing her flawless and luminous complexion and soft Botticellian facial features in contrast to her expressive eyes and a soft gaze that seemed as if it could melt the thickest of ice floes.
Indeed, it was Erzsébet Szántó who captivated me during the final act and achieved the impossible – to awaken in me an unrelenting inclination towards opera as an artistic form. The final act of Turandot was my first glimpse at what would later become my greatest passion, perpetuated in everything I did thereafter. To put it simply, I was hooked. I ached for more, and this new yearning seemed instantly to take precedence over all other concerns, including my benumbed knees, the inappropriately restricted work space, Mr Kis and Gorzowski's sexual inclinations.
From that moment on the infamous wooden box assumed particular importance, as it became my most sacred hiding place and at the same time a bitter reminder of a life I would never get to taste and a kind of love I would never again experience. Calaf knew most of the popular librettos by heart, allowing me time to wander off into a world far more exciting than the one I knew. Crouching in the confined space, hidden from all eyes and judgement, I would quietly sing 'Nessun Dorma' to the ice princess with a Hungarian phonetic undertone, imagining that I was the one whose kiss – as the plot instructs – would reveal to her a secret so powerful it brought all the people of Beijing to their feet.
Chamber C of the Second Wing was much plainer in appearance than Tobias had previously imagined, and the fact that it was vacant upon his arrival allowed him to observe it in its most genuine of states, divorced from the presence of people and their multitude of dispositions and inclinations.
How strange it is – thought Tobias as he took a few cautious steps around – that time has turned this room into something of a myth. Demagogues persistently ranted about it, officials exchanged dark jokes about it during breaks in the hallways, children chewed it up in tongue-twisters and it even entered into curses: May your mother have to spend days sweeping up pieces of you in Chamber C of the Second Wing! Yet, hardly anyone had any notion of what it actually looked like – there were only a handful of such people – and when Tobias stepped across its threshold that morning, to his misfortune he became one of them. However, this did not turn out to be Tobias's greatest misfortune at the time. His greatest misfortune at that precise moment was that under the agreeable impression as to the surprisingly plain appearance of Chamber C, he somehow managed to suppress all other feelings and apprehensions.
Ever since he had been informed that disciplinary proceedings were initiated against him and that he would be put on the stand in Chamber C of the Second Wing, not for a single moment did Tobias deny that he had committed the act for which he was charged – moreover, he was proud of it and spoke about it openly, and under no circumstances would he have considered it a wrong-doing. He believed that the act he had committed was a virtuous deed at the very least. At the moment of perpetration he was more than aware of the consequences he may face as a result, but he saw it as an endeavour worth the risk and felt great pride in mustering the courage to perform a deed that placed the interests of another before his own.
Hence, when he set foot in the notorious room, the sight before his eyes invoked in him a flicker of hope, a new wave of optimism that perhaps the situation was not as black and unequivocal as would be expected and that the Disciplinary Committee would realize the true nature of his deed. At the same time he disregarded any thoughts about what his existence would amount to should they decide to impose the penalty; a thing he had feared only a moment before.
At my new place of employment I became known as 'the Red Priest', but soon enough the nickname was shortened simply to 'Priest'. At first I didn't dare ask what this nickname alluded to but had decided to accept it unconditionally, presuming it to be some sort of a humorous reference in the world of classical music that I'd better not question openly, particularly considering that I was new at the Opera. Then, on one lazy Saturday afternoon at the book fair, I stumbled upon a book in English called Vivaldi: The Red Priest of Venice. Not in my wildest dreams could I afford such a luxury (the book cost a staggering 7,320 forints!), but I managed to convince the shop assistant to translate the entire preface by leading her to believe that I had serious intentions of purchasing it.
Excerpted from "The Tragic Fate of Moritz Tóth"
Copyright © 2008 Dana Todorovic.
Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
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