On a Conversation about Opera Held in Terminal C

17Oct07

I sat down in Terminal C next to an older woman, who in a long black dress and ostrich-feather hat appeared oddly elegant among all the business suits.

“I hope it’s not too crowded,” I remarked in a somewhat stilted attempt to engage this mysterious woman in conversation, as if we were both waiting to be seated at an exclusive French restaurant.

“I wouldn’t know,” she responded archly, but with an exquisite diction that seemed to resonate with years of stage training.

For the first time I dared to look directly into her pale, distant eyes, the gray color of which recalled the high peaks of the Bavarian Alps. “Were you by any chance a singer?”

“I was.” She folded her gloved hands onto her lap before she responded. “In fact, 100 years ago this very evening, something interesting happened to me — would you like me to tell you about it?” She paused as if to gauge my interest and apparently satisfied by a vigorous nodding on my part continued, her voice soft but expectant. “It was at the Palais Garnier in Paris, where I had been spent perhaps fifteen years as a cover. I don’t say this with pride, but I had probably learned fifty roles and never once performed any of them — or at least not at the Garnier, which had always been my only dream in life. On this night, I arrived at the theater expecting more of the same; or even more than usual, given that the opera was Tristan und Isolde — do you know it?”

“Intimately,” I confirmed.

“One never knows these days,” she sighed and waved her hand in front of her face, as if to clear an unpleasant odor. “So it happened that the lead Isolde — Greta Glockner, if that means anything to you — had fallen ill with a sore throat — there had been a snowstorm — and so the role was given to me.” She lowered her voice even further. “Do you know what happened next?”

I shook my head, not wanting to interject my markedly untrained voice into this unexpected aria.

“It was a triumph! Each of the three acts was more miraculous than the next! I had never dreamed such perfection could be possible, and I could hardly believe it even as it happened! Rockets and bombs could have fallen around me and I would have brushed them away without a second thought! And the Liebestod? Even more sublime than the rest — I swear to you that some small number of souls in the audience were extinguished that night as a result of my devastating beauty, not that it really belonged to me. With the last note of the last chord hanging in the air, I fainted, and felt sure that I would also die. Not that I cared — I craved it! — for I had sung Isolde at the Palais Garnier. What else was there to live for?”

“I’m sorry I missed it,” I offered indirectly, and when she didn’t reply, impulsively added: “But you didn’t die.” 

“No, but it was the death of my career,” she confessed. “And I knew it even as it happened. It was too impossibly grand and terrifying, but what choice did I have? You only get one or two such moments in a lifetime, you know, and sometimes not even that.”

“I wouldn’t doubt it,” I admitted. “Not that I’m a performer.”  

She responded in a tone I found both cold and thrilling: “Are we not all performers on the stage of life?”

I exhaled, as if to cede the point, even as I countered: “I resist the impulse whenever possible.”

This seemed to both appease and confuse her somewhat. “And then what do you live for?”

“I’m afraid I can’t offer you anything that won’t sound very trite.”

She shook her head slowly and ambiguously. “As with anything profound, it’s the tone in which you offer it.”

A few seconds passed and before I could respond, the air crackled with the announcement of my boarding call. The spell had been broken, and I stood up to arrange my luggage. “You never told me where you were going,” I noted, wanting to exit the conversation, but with some grace.

She threw her head back and laughed, and I was amazed to see that all of her teeth — except for the ones in front — were made of gold. “I’m not going to ____, if that’s what you mean,” she stated, and then narrowed her eyes. “But like you, my final destination is in the past.”

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