FORGOTTEN OBJECTS —
No one was surprised when Anna d’Amio agreed to marry Harold Wilson, a man many years her senior and not particularly good looking. Sole heir to a fortune whose origins could be traced to the steel mills around Pittsburgh, his wealth and social connections still made him, in the eyes of many, a great catch.
The unexpected announcement was received with dismay among his friends and acquaintances. He was, after all, a wealthy and influential industrialist who moved in the highest circles of society; she was a stranger whose fortune or rather, her late husband’s fortune was nothing but a remote memory from a distant Caribbean island. Her only assets were her physical beauty, now clearly beginning to decline, and an innate charm that men found irresistible due in part to her indefinable accent whenever she spoke English. Ann d’Amio, they all agreed, was a social climber. Deep down, however, she knew that Harold’s fortune had not played a role in her decision to marry him. How his friends felt about her was completely irrelevant. In many ways, Harold was no different from Giacomo or Ramón, her previous husbands. She had given each his due as she was fully prepared to do with Harold socially, emotionally and sexually but without ever crossing that indelible line that had been traced so early in her life, a line that clearly separated her from the rest of the world. Whether this attitude had been learned or inherited made no difference; Anna could not remember a time in her life when this demarcation had not been present.
Having been born just after World War I and growing up under Mussolini’s rule, she had developed a sharp awareness of her place in the world and the inescapable fact that ultimately she was responsible for herself.
She lived then, with her mother Francesca and older brother Guido, in a small house in a run down section of Naples. Somehow, it seemed that there was never enough food; their next meal was always an uncertain proposition underscored by growing rumors of an impending war. At that time in her life, Anna was too young to comprehend or even care about the political situation, since it was all beyond the scope of her immediate reality.
Francesca, a slender woman now showing signs of premature aging, did the best she could to care for her children. She made sure that their clothes, although well worn and mended, were always clean. Early every morning, after a meager breakfast, she would walk her children to school and then go into the city to work in a seamstress shop. Sometimes she took in laundry in order to earn a little extra money. Even though life was hard, Anna remembered her mother singing arias from the most popular operas as she tirelessly scrubbed the piles of laundry in a cement sink inside a small courtyard or cooked dinner for the family. This was one of the few occasions that Anna remembered her mother smiling; inexplicably, the music rescued her, if only momentarily, from the life of drudgery and hardships that she was living. Through it all, however, she never complained.
“One day all this will be a memory,” Francesca would often tell her children during their simple meals. “You can go as far as you like, be anything you like. Just don’t allow life to distract you from your goals.” Perhaps this was a subtle allusion to the disappointments she had endured in her own life. As a young woman she had dreamed of a bright operatic career, of a triumphant debut in La Scala. In her case, because of her gifted voice and willingness to work, such a dream had been not only justified, but well within her reach.
It did not take long for her parents opera lovers themselves to recognize the potential in young Francesca. Encouraged by friends and relatives, they enrolled their daughter in the oldest bel canto school in the city. Many of the singers that appeared with regularity in the San Carlo Theater had had their humble start there, under the watchful and stern tutelage of signore Frondizi, a confirmed bachelor who had devoted his life, with the aid of a widowed sister, to the vocal development of aspiring singers. Every year he sent his most promising pupils to auditions that resembled, because of their convoluted rules and baroque procedures, clandestine enclaves whose ultimate purpose was the election of a new pontiff.
The judges, usually a coterie of middle aged men whose infallible ears never failed to detect incipient stars, sat impassively in an ample chamber whose windows were partially occluded by thick and musty drapes. After a few rounds of espresso abundantly laced with anisette, they got down to business. The de facto leader of the group would ring a small silver bell, signaling that they were ready for the first audition.
Led by an austere looking woman dressed in black, the candidate was escorted into the chamber. The semicircle of chairs faced the door, so the faces of the men were always enveloped in shadows. The young singer, on the other hand, as he faced the men, was bathed by the unavoidable light that came in through the windows. The committee was interested not just in a disembodied voice, but in the facial expressions and body language as well. Every detail was important, every nuance worthy of scrutiny.
After a period of brief questions, they allowed the aspirant to intone the operatic section of his or her choice usually an aria while they listened attentively and studied every gesture. Throughout the performance the group never gave any signs of either approval or dislike, but maintained Sphinx like expressions on their faces. Once concluded, they simply thanked the singer and excused him from the chamber. It was then that, invoking the esoteric rules of the ancient canons, they would comment on the merits and weaknesses of what they had just heard. Usually they were in agreement if the candidate deserved a recommendation to one of the operatic companies. Such a recommendation, obviously, was an assurance that a position on stage would be secured. Those students whose performance had not made the necessary impact, would receive through their teachers an envelope containing the succinct message: “Find another career.” There were no appeals; a subsequent attempt the following year was not permitted.
The parade of aspirants, underscored by the bell and expertly ruled by the austere looking woman, continued uninterruptedly for most of the morning. Everyone was kept in the dark; the news, either good or bad, would be delivered through his bel canto instructor.
Eventually, young Francesca found herself alone in the waiting room, surrounded by a sundry collection of antiques, old paintings and busts of famous musicians who stared at her with their blind eyes. Through the closed door she had heard every performance and mentally had given each a grade. She could tell, with a fair degree of certainty, who would be recommended and who would not; she had recognized all the signs. Signore Frondizi had taught her well.
The muffled sound of the silver bell reached her through the door. A few moments later the same waxen looking woman appeared; her eyes, Francesca noticed, were as lifeless as the expression on her face. If she ever had any dreams, they had surely died long ago.
“It is your turn,” she said to Francesca with a voice completely devoid of emotion.
The chamber where the men sat, because of the high position of the sun at this hour, was inundated with light, but the shadows below the windows seemed denser.
“And what do you have for us today?” asked one of the men.
“With your permission,” she said in a clear and decisive tone, “I would like to do an aria from Carmen.”
At once a faint whispering emerged from the members of the committee. Although not a written rule, it was customary for the applicants to perform selections from Italian operas.
“Proceed,” said the same voice after a few moments.
Francesca closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She began to sing Le tringles des sistres tintaiment. Her mezzo soprano voice filled the chamber, almost dispersing the semidarkness in which the group of men resided. There was purpose, clarity and complete assurance in her delivery, denoting a musical maturity usually not found at such early age. When she concluded the presentation, the men remained silent for a few moments, then one of them rang the silver bell. The same middle aged attendant appeared, ready to escort Francesca out of the chamber.
“Wait outside, please,” asked one of the men. This was unusual; the students were always dismissed after their auditions.
After fifteen minutes of waiting in the next room, wondering why she had been asked to stay, the sound of the bell was heard again. The sour assistant materialized and for the second time led her into the performing chamber.
The assembled men had not moved from their chairs; the same voice as before addressed her again.
“We were most intrigued by your choice,” he said, “Could you do something else from the same opera for us?”
Apparently, during their period of discussion, there had been dissenting voices; they now wanted to make sure that what they had heard was not a one off performance before recommending the student to one of the opera companies.
Although puzzled, young Francesca was no longer nervous. Carmen had always been one of her favorite operas and she was fully prepared to comply with the committee’s request. Mentally she decided on Habanera, a lively and popular aria with a light melody.
Just as she had done the first time, she began her delivery with conviction and control and, most important, with a gusto that was contagious. Her love for the music showed with every note. Although she could not see the anonymous faces of the men in the chamber, she sensed that her performance was indeed hitting the mark. After the last note vanished in the musty air, there was sudden silence and then subdued whispering.
“Thank you,” said the same voice, while ringing the silver bell, “You may go now.” That was all; there had been no outward signs of how her encore performance had been received. The door to the waiting room opened, and she was escorted out by the attendant. All she could do now was wait.
The following afternoon, just as she had done for several years, she knocked on the door of signore Frondizi’s academy. She did not intend to miss her lesson just because she had had a promising audition the day before.
Signore Frondizi himself answered the door. This, in itself, was unusual, since it was his sister who took care of the student traffic in the academy. Often a student had to sit in a waiting room for a few minutes while another pupil finished the lesson for the day or went over a difficult section of a libretto.
The ample smile on his face did not allow room for doubts as to the results of the audition. The students were never contacted directly, but through their teachers. This communication, however, sometimes took as long as a week. Stepping aside, he asked his pupil to come in.
“Tell me about the audition,” he asked, just wanting to hear the account from Francesca herself.
She recounted her visit, the long wait in the anteroom and how she had been asked to stay and then sing for a second time. All the while signore Frondizi shook his head affirmatively and smiled.
“So our plan worked,” he said. “I knew that we were taking a chance, but I also knew that they could not help but be impressed by your performance. Besides, that bunch was in need of some fresh air anyway,” he commented with a smile.
“I am glad it is over,” said Francesca. “I tried to control my nerves, but it was most difficult. I heard all the other singers and some were quite good.”
“That will never change,” offered signore Frondizi. “In fact, the competition is going to get a lot tougher. Until now you have been surrounded by students who aspire to be singers. In a matter of weeks, you will be asked to join a production, probably at the San Carlo. Once that happens, everyone around you will be a professional. You will be expected to acknowledge that fact and also to conduct yourself as one. What I am trying to say is that you will be challenged like never before.”
“I understand,” said Francesca in a voice that was almost a whisper.
“But now,” said Signore Frondizi suddenly changing his tone of voice, ”let’s start with you lesson for today.”