I am three rows from the proscenium, melting. On the edge of my seat with anticipation, eyes riveted, stage right. It is the third time I’ve seen Sergio sing Nemorino.
The stage lights warm and shafts of dusky blue haze to coral and crimson. I know precisely where and when he’ll appear in this scene. He licks his lips and sighs. No one has seen that lovelorn sigh but me.
Sergio is but a few measures into the most famous romanza in the show when he glances past the conductor and into the audience. His eyes penetrate into mine, holding them like watery, glistening hostages. First, his hand touches his heart; I press my hand to my breast. (We can interpret each other’s body language since we share no spoken language between us—only the universal language of love.) Then he sways, and his abundant brown curls crowd his forehead as he clutches his free hand into a fist. My need for him, for his touch, overtakes me. I want to bolt from my seat and claw over the patrons in front of me, to be engulfed in his strong, sculpted arms once more.
He sings “Una furtiva lagrima” for me and only me. Sergio. My Serg. Wellspring of my every waking thought and dream, every hour of every day.
He must be remembering our last tryst, for I can think of nothing else. Not because he raises his eyebrows and smiles coyly. That’s what the role requires. I see the corners of his mouth turn upward and his right eye narrows—the precise expression on his face before I surrender my body to his. A revelation. He needs to see me after the show, alone in his dressing room, if I can spare a few minutes—and I must—for another liaison.
After the bows, while people race toward the exits and their blessed Autobahn, I approach one of the ushers, easily distinguished from the operagoers because she dons a military pants suit. What will she think of me when she sees my note, this ticket-taker in that navy atrocity completely void of femininity? Will she be jealous because I possess a handwritten testament of love from the finest, most charismatic tenor to grace the greatest houses in Europe in twenty years? Perhaps she’ll try to confiscate it, to press her own advantage or worse—to hurt me out of spite for what I have, for what she’ll never have.
“Bitte?” I ask, retrieving the note from the sweetheart bust of my strapless gown. She stiffens. I hold it out for her to inspect. “A message from Sergio. He wants—needs to see me.” I fear her English might be as limited as my German.
She shoves the note into my chest. “Du? PAH!” she says. “Geh weg!”
Geh weg? That I understand. She won’t permit me backstage. Fiercely envious, that crone. What woman at the Staatsoper, including this one, wouldn’t die to be me? A handwritten invitation to the dressing room of the Italian dreamboat Sergio FiorenzaI
There’s no need for her to flick her talons at me, to signal the head usher, to retract her cell phone from her pocket. Rude, sullen woman! Totally limited in imagination. She can’t possibly conceive that while she slept in a colorless, smelly flat, Sergio and I spent the previous night together at the Hotel Sacher. While she was heating old milk in a banged-up pot, huddling against a radiator clanking out warmth, he fed me strawberries dipped in white chocolate from his fingertips, licking my lips in between sensuous nibbles.
I sigh as she punches in some numbers with one eye, practically undressing me the entire time. Her uniform squashes her breasts, giving her the appearance of a slump-shouldered man. My breasts are generous, sparkling with body oil, barely contained by the cut of my gown. Have I mentioned a sweetheart bustline absolutely makes the dress?
Most likely, the usher is being paid off by Fabrizia, Sergio’s whoring wife, to keep beautiful American ex-pats from stealing her handsome husband. That’s why this miserable excuse for a woman is shooing me out of the theatre.
It can’t be because Fabrizia knows about us.
Whenever Serg and I are in public together, we have been the definition of discretion. But behind closed doors, another matter entirely. We devour each other, our desire so consuming, sharing love again and again, until we collapse in each other’s arms. Entirely sated and exhausted, we do nothing but sleep coiled together. Sergio doesn’t love Fabrizia. Theirs is a marriage of convenience. She had the money to launch his career. Now that he has the career he deserves, he no longer wants her.
He wants passion. He wants perfection. He went searching for the woman of his dreams and found me at the opening night gala, earnest and shimmering. “Perfecto.” That’s what he said when he spotted me in my strapless gown, seated under a voile canopy strewn with white lights. My gown had the most fetching bustline in the sweetheart style. That’s what makes the dress as alluring as it is, if you didn’t know.
I lean against the stage door under the colonnade. Soon Serg will have removed his makeup, throw on his frock coat, and burst from the backstage hive and into my waiting arms. The warm glow of the street lamps along Kärntnerstrasse illuminates the entrance while casting me in an enticing light. My gown is color of buttercups, the same one I wore when I came out in Vienna society, to the opera gala. My skin is creamy and inviting—there’s lots to admire with the cut of this gown, the freckles dotting my shoulders barely visible, muted by the incandescent light of the orange globes.
When Sergio descends into the crowd, we’ll each play our parts, me the wide-eyed admirer, he the obliging star. “O signor,” I’ll say, holding out my program and a Montblanc pen, smiling coyly as though we’ve never met. He’ll graze my chin with the back of his hand and say, “Sì, sì, signorina. Bella,” signing my playbill.
Sometimes I wait for an hour or more at the stage door for Sergio. If he were to exit when the rest of the cast departs, he’d be mobbed by adoring fans, and I might be trampled. I have such a delicate constitution.
An hour and a half later, the crowd has thinned to a vagrant, a filthy hag who has settled in for the night, now nodding off along the stone façade of the colonnade. When she changes position, a foul scent drifts toward me, and I can scarcely breathe. Why do I endure all these slights and discomforts—the rude ushers, the crush of fans, these sightings of Vienna’s underbelly? Because I must, for but a shard of ecstasy with Sergio.
“Gwendolyn!” a man’s voice calls gruffly, cutting through the traffic along Kärntnerstrasse, always fraught with speeding coups, cabs, and transit buses—a dangerous artery for pedestrians, day or night. “Gwendolyn!” he cries, disconsolate.
“Sergio?” I call and turn to face him. “My Sergio?”
“My God, Gwendolyn! Not this Sergio business again.”
A complete stranger is utterly cross with me.
“Where’s your stole? It’s freezing tonight, and you snuck out of the flat without a wrap? You must be—”
Some over-the-hill, bald-headed man with a wrinkled brow looms over me, calling me Gwendolyn. “Step away, sir. You must have me confused with someone else. I am waiting to take supper with Sergio Fiorenza.”
“Gwendolyn!” He removes his overcoat and tries to wrap it around my shoulders, but I fight him off.
“Take your hands off me, or I’ll cry ‘rape’!”
The frumpy stranger scowls. “The usher called me—again.”
A policeman approaches us. “Entschuldigen Sie, bitte!” I beg the officer. “Tell this stranger to geh weg. He’s hurting me,” I say, trying to uncurl the bald man’s fingers and push him away. If he continued grabbing at me, I’d be black-and-blue, hideously disfigured and not the perfection Sergio wants and expects. “And get rid of the riff-raff, too.” I point to the homeless woman huddled in the portico, snoring with gusto.
“Ist die ihr?” the policeman ignores me and addresses the bald man with a quizzical look on his face.
“Ja,” the bald man says. “Meine frau.” He turns to me. “Please, cover yourself, Gwendolyn. You’ll catch your death.” He holds out the overcoat to me. “She thinks she’s in love with an opera singer,” he tells the policeman.
The officer shakes his head, not comprehending the bald man’s English.
The man circles the side of his head with his index finger. “Verrückt im Kopf.”
I gasp. “I’m sick in the head? You’re sick in the head, you cur. He doesn’t even know my name, officer. It’s—Deirdre.”
The stranger shakes his head. “Gwendolyn.” Then he taps one of his temples a few times and points to me. “Verrückt. Ganz.”
Good god, his German is a disgrace. Almost as disgusting as his head, lined with bulging blue veins and beaded with perspiration. “Fine! Fine! I’ll be your Gwendolyn, whoever-you-are!” I say, slipping my arms into the coat. “But officer, make him get his filthy hands off me.”
The officer gestures toward the ugly bald man, who loosens his grip and takes me by the hand instead. “We’re getting too old for this,” the man says.
“I don’t appreciate your undue familiarity with me, mister.” Against my will, I walk with him until we reach Kärntnerstrasse, still bustling with cars, limousines, and tall touring buses at this late hour. “Ciao, Sergio, my beloved!” I bellow into the night air, to cut through the din of the traffic. The fat, bald man tugs at my hand and begins dragging me behind him, cringing with each word out of my mouth. “I’ll be back, Sergio, on Sunday to hear you sing the matinee,” I add, just to annoy him.
A sharp pain fills my head followed by a shudder overtaking my body. “Stop a moment,” I say. “I must stop.” The man releases me. My hands fly to my head to hold it together because in the next second, it will explode.
“Breathe in and out slowly,” the man says, as if he’s been through this with me before.
As the pain subsides, I see nothing in front of me clearly. Only blurs of color and outlines of shapes. My head and my feet sting from the freezing air. I wrap my arms around myself, briskly rubbing my sleeves for warmth. As my vision clears, I see Jay standing beside me, shivering.
“My God,” I scold him. “What are you doing without your overcoat? You, of all people? You’ll catch your death.” I remove my arm from the sleeve and extend the coat. “Share this with me, Jay. And let’s go home.”
# # #
Author’s note: The aria referred to in this piece is from Donizetti’s Elixir of Love. The photo attached to this story features a photo of world-renowned baritone Nathan Gunn, whom I reviewed as Lancelot in Glimmerglass Festival’s 2013 production of Camelot. You can read my review here.