THE ANGELíS ARIA
It is a little known fact of opera history, but in the same year that Verdiís first staging of La Traviata was an utter disaster, Salvatore R., a composer who was less known for his music than for his disgraceful lifestyle, which was suspected but not definitively proven, lost his mind. Today Salvatore R. is not known at all, so that the little bit of notoriety he enjoyed in his own age was, perhaps, something he should have been grateful for, even though, were he to live in our own times, he would not be notorious at all. Call it progress, that the degeneracy of one era has become the normalcy of the next.
Certainly, it is a shame that Salvatore R. did not go to witness that atrocious premier, which embarrassed his great rival no end. Jealousy was Salvatoreís fiercest demon, and it would surely have been assuaged had he been a personal witness to Verdiís calamity. There, at the operaís debut in Venice, a leading tenor with a hoarse voice, and an obese leading lady improbably cast in the role of the romantic heroine wasting away from consumption, was too much for the audience to bear, which, at first, booed furiously, then later, roared with laughter, in the best Italian style, at the plight of the giantess who was supposedly fading into nothing from her disease. Salvatore R., who was, at that very moment, wasting away himself, not from consumption but from the neglect of the Italian public, which was distracted by superior talents from his sincere competence and oversized longing to be loved, would surely have felt great relief to behold the audience all around him marring Verdiís masterpiece with cat-calls, guffaws, jeers and whistles. He would surely have felt less superfluous, and less lonely in his rejection. The thought of killing himself would probably never even have entered his mind.
But as it was, at the very moment that Verdiís great act of genius was being brutalized, still one year away from the redemption it would finally receive thanks to a new cast, new costuming, and some judicious editing, Salvatore R. was sitting at his piano, staring out the window at the rain, which seemed to make the houses across the street weep. He lived in a handsome neighborhood, but knew he had done nothing to deserve it; he had, in fact, inherited the money of landholders who had accumulated their wealth through the unjust exploitation of others. By means of music, Salvatore hoped to purify himself of the sin of his good fortune. He wrote several unnoticed concertos, a symphony which was performed by one of the most mediocre orchestras in Europe for an uncultured audience, with the logical results, and an opera which he thought was great, Scipio Africanus, which received scathing reviews, however, from wine-filled critics who seemed to hate him, as if unconsciously possessed by the spirits of the peasants his forebears had worked to death. The opera had some wonderful arias, and some wonderful lines. At least Salvatore thought so. Scipio sang, to the ghost of his great enemy Hannibal, the Carthaginian: "I spent my life trying to defeat you, now I miss you. When I finally vanquished you on the plain of Zama, I lost my reason for living. I cannot enjoy life without being threatened. Now that I am safe, I am in peril." The great Roman commander, portrayed by a completely credible tenor, went on to sing: "You, great invincible genius, love of my life, who I never thought I could destroy. When I saw your army break and run, I knew that human beings had limitations. I proved that we are only men; and we are not enough for the things we dream. Now, with victory, the world is empty. Better to have an idol than a home. Better to have an enemy than to have nothing. I donít know what to do with my life, now that I have won. Only victory could show me how small I am." Critics, missing its profundity and the implicit exhortation to redefine the purpose of human life, called the opus "depressing" and chastised it for lacking the "vitality of a sympathetic female protagonist. Whoever heard of a great opera textured only with the voices of baritones and tenors, and the fleeting presence of a diminutive mezzo-soprano?" They went on to add: "Salvatore R. may not suffer from the absence of the gentler sex in his opera, but for the rest of us, the lack is unforgivable."
How ruthless they were, with their career-crushing innuendos! They did not know how madly he loved the soprano, Antonia Maria C., who did not take him seriously as a man, however. She had her own unattainable cravings, worshipping men she could never walk arm-in-arm with in the open, but only sneak away with into dark and unnoticed places that simultaneously satisfied and demeaned her. She needed the attention of the powerful, and could never feel aroused in the presence of the irrelevant. And yet, she was tender and you might say, fraternal - for the woman in her withdrew behind a moat whenever she was with the eccentric and the brilliantly marginal who did not correspond to her ideal of manhood. She was dear, kind, witty, and she laughed freely and honestly, favoring bohemians with her personality; she simply had no passion to offer to them, except through her vocal cords. Thanks to her, Salvatore had to turn to dark places, as well (almost as if he were her shadow), in order to find the momentarily exhilarating, but ultimately destructive semblances of what she would not share with him. Together, they would have glowed in the world like the sun. Without each other, they turned into animals, running like deserted dogs through filthy streets, obeying hunger instead of shame. Vanity killed the one; a fanatical dedication to beauty killed the other, who must preserve the emptiness of his universe for the sake of his imagination, which needed an enormous open canvas to paint her over and over again. Degradation was preferable to compromise. But what a cross to bear; he had not the strength to reach Golgotha.
As Salvatore R. watched the rain falling on the lovely houses outside his window, that morning, which seemed like temples from which the gods had been stolen, a sudden, amazing thought occurred to him, which was simultaneously brilliant and pathological. He would play a high-stakes game with the mediocrity which was afflicting him like a terrible disease from which he could not bear to perish, put his life on the line on the outcome of what happened between him and the empty sheets of paper which lay before him, propped up on the piano rack, waiting to be filled with notes. He would find the meaning of life, with his piano, and his pen, or else hurl himself from the world before the absence of God could. He had the gun to do it with, his fatherís old dueling pistol, which had killed a man once. How ferocious men are to avenge an insult; how indifferent to correcting the worldís ills!
Salvatore, like most raised in such a Christian country, knew the passage from the Bible in which Jesus refuses to leap off the roof of the temple in spite of the Devilís urging. "Why not?" the Devil asks him. "If you are dear to God, surely all the angels of Heaven shall come to catch you as you fall and set you down lightly upon the earth." And Jesus tells him: "Thou shalt not tempt the lord."
But Salvatore was a rebel, and Italyís attention to his nonconformity was making him even more so. The upright loved scandal, and needed profligates to prevent their source of outrage from drying up, like an old well. They therefore made it impossible for Salvatore to escape from his image, by barricading him from everything that was acceptable in life, and by manipulating his pride, so that he could only return to normalcy by crawling back to them on his knees. His spirit would not allow him to step down from the pedestal of the outcast. Thought Salvatore: "I shall tempt the lord. I shall leap off the roof of the temple, and demand that he proves He exists, and that human life is worthwhile, by catching me as I fall. I, who have always thought my music came from Him, and that my purpose in life was to bring divine insight and feeling into the world through music, have been abandoned. I am not respected; I am, in fact, despised as a man, and what is worse, ignored as an artist. God: I am tired of this abuse! I demand that You show Yourself to me! My fatherís pistol is in the other room!"
And then, Salvatore began to write. By this time, it is fair to say that the sound mind he had been blessed with at birth was gone; life is not always kind to the gifts we receive from God, and finds ways of sweeping them away, like a storm which incites the sea to carry off huge tracts of land, and changes the shape of the shore. Sometimes, there is little of the prodigious child left by the time the world has done its work on him.
Salvatore immediately recognized the alteration of his consciousness, but did not care; in fact, he relished it, for his good mind had got him nowhere in the world. He felt the need for something more, another level of awareness, another level of energy, something more powerful than the senses which had failed him till now: something which he could detect in madness. Laughing, as he began to experiment with his piano, he thought: "Till now, all the composers of opera have been hamstrung by the limitations of the human voice. They write only what the human vocal cords can deliver, and the range of our art is constrained by the power of the throat, which is so much less than the power of the mind. Thus, our music suffers and is small, and the sensibilities which music gives birth to remain withered and incomplete; as human beings, we can rise no higher than our music. We are a stunted, broken race, obeying not the mighty light of intangible thoughts but only the pitiful handful of notes which we can produce with our fragile voice. We are trapped by our physical vessel Ė or are we? No, that is only the curse of the sane!" he assured himself. "Madness Ė dear madness Ė welcome, I invite you between my ears! As the Sibyl did before Aeneas, I open the door that others fear to open, the door inside the mind through which the terrible winds blow, that lead to thoughts too powerful to bear! Today, I shall write another kind of opera: an opera which shall surpass the limitations which keep us small; an opera not meant for humans; an opera written for the voice of an angel!" And Salvatore began to compose. Feverish and sick, more alive than he had ever been except for those delusory nights when he had imagined Antonia might actually give herself to him, he wrote and wrote, attacking the virgin paper with an unsparing pen, which was the utter slave of his ear, which ruled the universe as surely as Rome had once ruled the earth, for a handful of majestic, unseen hours. "Diorio and Costa!" he raged, crying out the names of two of his unkindest critics; "you may kneel before me and bathe my feet! I will allow it!" And he laughed again, then once more, disappeared from the gutter where they lived into the cathedral of sound inside his mind, where the holy Eucharist was being given out.
What other composer would ever have thought of writing an aria that could not be sung, an aria whose notes climbed too high and fell too low for any living man or woman to reproduce? The piece, for one character only, who he appropriately named "Angela", began with several bars in baritone, next climbed the stairway of sound to a point far above soprano, then crashed recklessly down, again, below baritone; then, in a final act of rebellion and defiance against human limitations, leapt upwards, one last time, above soprano. Salvatore, inspired by his sudden discovery of the pointlessness of sanity, charged furiously at the universe, to smash out of it, with the hammer of his desperate soul and his underestimated talent, its most impossible notes: notes that were useless, but incomparable. "What I am writing," he thought, congratulating himself with tears, "it has never occurred to anybody before me to write!" He laughed, proud of himself, to be at the forefront of musical history. "All stuck in the trap of their little formulas, held back by the trifle of plausibility! Do we believe in God in this country, or not? Are all the churches for nothing?! Are we all hypocrites, living in a forest of crosses we have no faith in? It is time to resurrect God in our lives, or else to follow Him to His grave! My life is nothing; I have finally reached the point where I need Him. Fame has eluded me, love has avoided me, comfort has laughed behind my back. I am tired of this earth, unless it can be shown to me that it is more than it seems to be!"
Wildly, he pounded away at the keys of the piano; he wrote more. He had to add new lines to his music pad which did not have room to incorporate his vision, he had to imagine notes that neither his piano, nor the violin which he also knew how to play, could reproduce (he even burst the E string on his violin, attempting to tighten it beyond its intended degree of tension in order to expand its range). And he laughed, and continued to laugh, for there is something delightful in losing oneís mind. A prisoner no more! Today we would call it "thinking outside the box." But in those simpler times, insanity was the term most frequently used.
"Beautiful! Beautiful!" he told himself, substituting his own approval for that of the audiences which had never appreciated him as they should have. "Bravo! Bravo, Salvatore R., , Salvatore the Disgrace, Salvatore the Black Sheep of the World, take your rightful place beside Mozart the genius, and that competent workman Verdi!" He clapped his hands together. "Finally, someone recognizes your talent!"
And, at last, the masterpiece was finished; the mad piece of music which was utterly beyond the range of the human vocal cords.
"Done!" he said, at perfect liberty to talk to himself since he had decided to discard his mind; "now then, to find an angel to sing it!"
Of course, the one who must play the part of the angel was none other than Antonia Maria C.: who else? The splendid, treasured, distant one, who had glowed throughout his wretched life with kindness that refused to grow into love, the one whose beautiful portrait hung in his artistís mind, tormenting him and caressing him; she, the soprano of the darkness, who gave herself, in secret, to those who held her in contempt, yet would not redeem the one who worshipped her by loving him. How painful to him were the countless thoughtless kisses she gave him on the cheek, which were demanded by the warmth of Italian culture but had no more content in them than a handshake between businessmen! For years, he had wanted Antonia Maria to be his angel. Now, for one moment, she would have no choice but to be his angel. Either that, or the witness of his bloody demise.
Antonia did not know what was in store for her that stormy night, with the candles flickering in the room, and breezes such as those that accompany the walking of spirits passing through, but as soon as she entered Salvatoreís salon she could sense that something extraordinary or dreadful must occur before she would have the chance to leave. She was frightened by the wild light in his eyes. He was much stranger than she remembered, and she had never once thought of him as normal.
"Welcome, Antonia," he told her. "Welcome Toni, most graceful of the nobodies, you have always said that the best roles are dominated by the lovers of the producers, the owners, the composers, the business elites of the opera world; and that your failure to become one of the great performers of our times is the result of not being properly connected, or provided with a top-notch original libretto. You do try so hard to be connected, but what can mere bankers and shipbuilders do for you? Especially since they cannot be explicit regarding their affairs. Donít you see, how can they fund a lover who they do not have?" And he shook his head with pity. "Such a miscalculation." And he added: "The manna from Heaven fell not upon the starving Hebrews in the desert, but upon the troops of Pharaoh, in their golden chariots."
"Are you passing judgment on me?" she asked, ready for a terrible fight. That part of being a great diva, at least, she possessed.
"No," Salvatore assured her.
"Apologize to me!" she demanded. "You sent a messenger to drag me out of my house, on such an awful day. I thought you must be dying. When you did not greet me at the door, I was sure of it. But then your servant led me, not to your deathbed, but to your piano, and here you are sitting utterly oblivious to my arrival, and with that unpardonable tone of voice! I wonít be despised, no matter how far from the rigid ideal in which you seek to imprison me I choose to live! Who are you to look down at me? I wonít stoop so low as to say another word; but if you live in a glass house, donít throw stones!"
"I am sorry. I am truly sorry, dearest Antonia," Salvatore apologized.
"What Ė and still no hug?" she asked him, offended.
Salvatore smiled bitterly. "Each hug, a denial," he whispered.
"What?" she demanded, unable to hear exactly what he had said, but certain that it was intended as a barb.
"Look at where all the meaningless flirtation that is a part of our warm, eternally enthusiastic culture has brought us," he said, cynically. "You are a frustrated opera singer, and I am a frustrated composer; both of us trample over our pride to appease the flesh, and both of us are alone. Antonia, I would rather be whipped than kissed one more time on the cheek by you; I would rather be nailed to the cross than to be hugged, and feel the impossibility of you so close to me."
"Salvatore, are you ill? Should I call a doctor? Or are you merely being inconsiderate? I could catch a cold coming out in this weather: even bronchitis or pneumonia. You are my friend. We talked about this once before, and you swore you would never talk about it again. It was so painful! Are you a man of your word or not?"
"Who can merely be a friend of the sun?"
"Salvatore, you must be drunk. I am going to go."
"No, please!" cried Salvatore, leaping up from the piano, waving the aria he had just written in his hand. "You mustnít go, you must forgive me! I am an artist, I am meant to be awkward and unsociable! From my inability to live with others comes my light! You have always tolerated my kind!"
"Some mistake tolerance for more than it is," she reminded him. "You feed a hungry cat, because you feel sorry for it, and suddenly it is following you all around and wants you to take it into your house. You canít get rid of it, no matter what you do." She looked at the roll of paper in Salvatoreís hand, and finally took it from him. "Youíve written something. For me? If you truly cared for me, like you said you did, you would have put a soprano into Scipio Africanus. You would have given me my big break. It was such a promising opera, if only its main goal hadnít been to punish me for refusing to love you! You could have made me, then, Salvatore, and I could have made you. Instead, you left the woman out just to spite me. But you shot yourself in the foot, Salvatore, because all the critics hated Scipio. Whoever heard of a major opera without a girl? And you fanned the flames of the rumors. Theyíre true, Salvatore, arenít they?"
"I didnít leave out a female protagonist to spite you. You are so egocentric!" Salvatore exclaimed.
"Oh, why then?"
"Because I am a loyalist to history. What woman of note was there, back then? I wonít invent history just to satisfy the erotic callings of the masses. If that is what compels them, let them go to a whorehouse instead of the opera house."
"No women of note? At times, you are such a prehistoric man," Antonia protested.
"No. Not me. If I were, you would be my wife. Because I have not dragged you behind me by the hair, into a cave, you hold me in contempt."
Antonia would have responded, but by now she had unfurled the rolled-up sheets of music which he had placed into her hands, and begun to go over them, in utter amazement. She read: "THE ANGELíS ARIA, the culminating scene in a standard five-act opera, still to be completed. A despised composer who has lost his interest in life and faith in God decides to put an end to his miserable existence. But first, he will give God one final chance to save him. The disillusioned composer calls, into his chamber, the beautiful opera singer who, throughout his life, has been both his greatest source of torment and his greatest source of joy, and places in her hands the music for an aria, which is beyond the ability of the human voice to sing. Only an angel could sing it. The composer shows the singer, who is a friend of his, though he wished that she had been far more, the pistol in his hands, and informs her that with it, he intends to blow his brains out before her eyes unless she is able to sing the aria which she has before her. If God loves him and wants him to remain on the earth, God will give her the voice to sing the aria; He will send angels to her throat to sing what no human being could ever sing on her own, thereby providing the distraught composer with irrefutable proof that there is a divine realm beyond this mortal existence which means nothing to him; and that, though the world cares but little for him, God does care for him: enough to break the rules that have condemned mankind to doubt for hundreds of years, and to send to him an angel from Beyond. Will we hear, for the first time in human history, the beautiful impossible notes which we have waited centuries to hear, or only the silence of a throat that cannot answer our longing or redeem our vision, followed by the clear, familiar ringing of a gunshot, which is the music of reality, which we know so well? The music of human cruelty, of husband beating wife and battering child, of mobs persecuting free-thinkers and strangers, and of hoarders haunting the stomachs of the weak; of nation blowing out the brains of nation? How will the opera end Ė the life of the writer, and the world? Will the angel come? Or are there no angels to come?"
Antonia, by now, was highly agitated, her hands had even begun to shake. When she passed from the synopsis to the musical notes, themselves, she gasped in disbelief. No one could sing something like that! She lifted her eyes, in anger, to reprimand Salvatore, but instead, cried out: "No, Salvatore, donít do it!"
She saw him sitting there on the stool in front of the piano, the pistol in his hand, raised, now, to his head and pressed against his temple.
"No, Salvatore!" she exclaimed again. She took a bold, unconsciously compassionate step towards him.
"Donít take another step," he warned, "or Iíll pull the trigger!"
She stopped in her tracks, assessing him, desperately trying to gauge whether he was only bluffing, and she could barge past his warning to take the gun from his hand and slap him in the face for being such a fool, or whether he really meant it, and had decided to leave the world in the most dramatic and creative way of an opera personality. After a moment, she discovered that he was serious. That little trace of a smile at the corners of his lips which gave away his jokes, the quivering by the eyebrows attempting to deceive, were lacking; his face was shining and resolved, his eyes hiding nothing. This was not a prank. He was mad. As mad, and as pure in his madness, as Caligula, but too moral to destroy anyone but himself. Yet, even so, this was not moral. She told him so.
"Salvatore, this is monstrous, this is unfair!" she chided him. "To blow your brains out in front of someone who cares for you! To place the responsibility for your life and death on my shoulders! No one can sing this aria, it is impossible. Not ten Farinellis standing in a line, each oneís voice beginning where the otherís left off. How cruel, to bring me here to witness this irresponsible bloodbath!"
"Impossible?" he asked her. "Not if God exists, not if God is real. I need to find out. Today. Right now. I donít want to live another minute if God is nothing but an hoax, if the universe is empty."
"It is not empty," she pleaded. "We are in it. And of course God exists! Of course he does! He parted the Red Sea for Moses, he made manna fall from Heaven, he saved the life of Daniel in the lionís den; through Jesus He turned water into wine, He multiplied the loaves, He brought fish into the nets of the fishermen in the Sea of Galilee, He healed lepers."
"So the Bible says. But what is the Bible? Who says that what is in it is true? Only men who are fallible. My father, who betrayed it with every breath he took. My poor mother, who, were it not for my father, would have lost our fortune in a year. The time she bought a horse one day before it died! Maybe, The Magic Flute is more real."
"Blasphemy! The Pope says! The Pope says itís real!"
"The Pope! You, such a little rebel and convention-breaker, entrusting your soul to such an absurd caricature of faith! With that ridiculous hat on his head!"
"Blasphemy! Salvatore, watch what you say! God will punish you."
At that Salvatore only laughed. He moved the pistol slightly, to remind Antonia that it was loaded and still in his hand. "Perhaps He is about to punish me. Donít you think this pistol is far more practical than lightning?" Antonia wanted to say something, but her temperament was so volatile that words couldnít escape from her mouth before they seemed to be inadequate in the shadow of her burning passion. She tried so hard to speak, that nothing would come out.
Salvatore, taking advantage of her predicament, continued: "The testimony of past generations is as cold as the hand of a corpse. I need to see for myself. Or, since I am a musician, to hear. I need to hear that God exists. Your voice will let me know, Antonia. Your voice."
"No, Salvatore," she whispered. She waved the papers of impossible notes in her hands, in front of him. "No one can sing this. My voice is only human. You canít ask me to do what only an angel could do."
"Do you remember the part in The Aeneid?" he asked her, "when the Sibyl was possessed by the ancient God?"
"Of course," she replied. Antonia was proud, always proud, even in the midst of desperation.
Salvatore recited: "She seemed to grow in height, her breast heaved, she spoke in no mortal tones!"
"They were pagans," Antonia protested.
"If the gods of the pagans could speak through the voice of a human priestess, how could the voices of the angels of our own great God, the True God, the One God above all others, not do the same? There is no difference from the stories you have just reminded me of. This shall be merely one miracle more piled on top of the others. Only this time, the Manna that falls from Heaven shall be golden notes, falling from your throat, over the desert of my cynicism. My hungry spirit shall be kept alive in the wilderness. Or else I shall depart from it, with a last shred of honor intact, my uncompromised ideals, gone from a world that is not worthy of kissing my dreamsí feet."
"Thou shalt not tempt the lord!" Antonia exclaimed, amazed by her friendís audacity.
"I shall tempt the lord," he replied, unruffled by her indignation; astonishingly unruffled.
"And what makes you worthy to trouble God in such a way?" she demanded, unrelenting in the offense which she took at his revolt.
"As the least of your brethren, I am fit to be treated as a king," he retorted.
She stood back, mouth agape, once again at an utter loss. He knew the scriptures, he knew them well, inside out, in fact; he simply did not believe in them: life had beaten their meaning out of him. In his house there was a great treasure chest, but in it, there was nothing.
At last, Antonia told him: "Salvatore. Put the gun down. Please. I am a good singer, for sure, but not this good. You need to write to Marta Angela Rossi or Gabriela Gotti, they surpass me. They would have a better chance than me to sing this aria. I am good, but much as I hate to say it, they are better. At least for now. If Giovanni Campanella will take me on as a student, who knows, but for nowÖ"
Salvatore, of course, recognized that she was only trying to buy time, to defuse the situation, and to manipulate him. He smiled. "Dearest Toni, you mustnít try to outwit the mad. We see everything!" She trembled as he said that, from the intensity of his gaze. "I have chosen you," he continued, "because you are really quite fine, if you will allow yourself to accept the praises of an unheralded composer, whose motives might be more romantic than professional; you are close enough to the top of this game for me to attempt to extract the great miracle from you; more than that, you care for me, you want me to die a little less than all the others."
"Salvatore, I donít want you to die, no one does! What are you talking about?"
"For all these reasons, I have decided that you are the most likely vehicle for the manifestation of the miracle which I am requesting God provide me with, in exchange for the honor of my continued residence on the earth."
Tears began to drip out of Antoniaís eyes. "Salvatore," she pleaded again. "I canít." Then her eyes lit up momentarily; her mind was as fast as a childís hands reaching for a ball. "You must give me time to practice!" she insisted. But, just as quickly, she shivered as he shattered her cleverness with his perception, which took the form of a merciless laugh. She was quick on her feet, but no match for his resolve. The barrel of the gun seemed to grow an inch, it seemed to become darker by the second and she imagined she could see the bullet inside of it; at least, she was sure, she could hear it breathing from inside the barrel, giving itself away, like a criminal hiding behind a door.
"Sing it," Salvatore told her gently. "The aria. Sing it. Give it a try. See if the angel will come."
"Thou shalt not tempt the lord," she begged him.
"We are past that point," he said.
"I canít," she said. "I wonít. I wonít disappoint you. I wonít be the one." Then, furious from within her terror and confusion, and unable, as ever, to impede the eruptions that came from her unpredictable changes, that left one to wonder if there was actually one Antonia in the midst of the several that one knew, she said: "My voice belongs to me! You canít tell it what to do! Itís my voice, mine! It obeys me, not your sickness! Your sickness disguised as beauty! I donít want to sing your aria, I have the right to choose my own material! Iím a free spirit!" She regarded him, one half a lioness, one half a doe paralyzed with fear.
He smiled gently, nodding, attempting to reassure her. "Itís all right, Antonia. Itís all right. You can go," he agreed. "You donít need to sing the aria. I see your pain, I see my own domineering and self-centered nature. I thought I had wanted to find God, but now I see that perhaps all I want to do is tear up the world before I go. I see a callous man whose spirituality is nothing more than a weapon used to hurt others. I thought I was a seeker, now I see I am merely a pig. Thank you, Antonia, for showing me to myself; you can go. I am sure, now, as I was not before, that I must die. I donít deserve to live another day, another minute. Someone else ought to eat the bread that my mouth squanders. Do you know, in my Will I have left this piano to you? Iíll try not to get blood on it. Go, quickly, so that you donít have to see!"
"No, stop!" she screamed, observing the look of resolve in his eyes, the sudden ripping away of his gaze from her, its turning inwards to the self-hatred that thrived between his ears, the rigid, terrible impulse that seemed to jump through his arm like a current of electricity into the hand, the trigger finger. He was a split second from carrying out his threat. "No, stop, for Godís sakes, Salvatore, stop! Stop! Please!"
He regarded her, his spirit disheveled after only one instant of being prepared to die, like a man who has lived for a year in the forest without a bath.
"Salvatore!" she pleaded, trying to come to him.
"Not another step!" he warned. He knew if she got close that she would try to take the pistol away from him.
"Salvatore! Salvatore! You are a beautiful man! Donít do it! You mustnít misunderstand my rejection! I am a prisoner of my own vices, my own excesses! You are too serene, too noble to be stained by my need to explore, to be practical, whatever Devil it is that possesses me! I donít know, but you are not a part of the sin! You are a romantic, an artist Ė I adore you, which is why I could never be close to you, never allow myself to prove you were not the man I thought you were. I, too, have my ideals, I need you far away if I am to survive the mire I have fallen into, I need you to be outside of the mess! I need a lifeboat in the sea of my lust, shameful woman, disgrace to God that I am, but Iím an artist, too! I canít help it that I like brutal men, men who break my body in two and throw me away! Do not misread what I am saying! I donít want you, do you understand, not as a man! I donít want to see your member, hanging down between your legs! I want to see you fully dressed in those romantic, billowing shirts, and black slacks, sitting with an ecstatic look above the piano; sometimes with a patient look, the look of a fisherman with his line cast into an ocean of sound, waiting, waiting for something big to bite. I donít want your piano, Salvatore, Iíll burn it, or have it thrown off a cliff into the sea if you kill yourself, I swear I will! Donít misunderstand me, this isnít going to end with a kiss, I have the bravery to say that even though you have a gun to your head!"
"I am that hideous?"
"No, youíre beautiful, and thatís why I donít want you! Do you understand? Your madness and mine were born to walk side by side in the world, to hold hands, but never kiss! You are my dearest friend, Salvatore, and I love you, but I will not betray my nature or cause you to betray yours by giving in to desire! Not with you! I am Pasiphae, hidden inside the wooden cow, with my dress lifted, praying for the white bull of Poseidon to mount me! Disgraceful, how dare I show my face in Church! How carefully I comb my hair to hide my horns! But I will not change, Salvatore, though I boil like water, I am as unchanging as a rock; hammers will break on my spirit before they make a dent! This having been said," she continued, and that little phrase Ė this having been said Ė seemed so charming and utterly out-of-place in mist of the chaos: "I think you are the most beautiful man who I have ever known, and there is no one who deserves to live more than you do, with your creativity and you kindness, and I know you hate to hear me diminish your manhood by saying that you are kind, but there are enough beasts in the world, Salvatore! In the name of Jesus, in the name of Mary, spare yourself, Salvatore, my dear friend, give yourself a chance!" She looked at him, but saw that her words had not soothed his determination to die, only thrown rose petals beneath his feet, which were marching resolutely towards his doom.
"I thank you, Antonia," Salvatore said. "From the bottom of my heart. You know what you mean to me, I will not deter myself by reminding myself of it. But this is Ė and everything I understand seems to come as a result of your dramas, which have taught me all that I know Ė this is about God. About God, Antonia, not you, and not me. He has not come. He has not sent an angel. And so, I must die." How peaceful with his choice and utterly convinced was his tone of voice, how impervious to restraint. "I must die. I vowed to myself I would pull the trigger unless I heard the voice of an angel singing, and I must carry through my threat. My threat to the Universe."
"Salvatore!" Antonia begged. "Please! No!" She reached her hand out towards him, but he was far away on his stool with the pistol, beyond her reach.
"Thank you for everything," he said, again. "Now, please go! You donít have to see it. I will pull the trigger; in ten seconds I will pull the trigger. Go! Go, quickly, do not let me poison your future with the sight of my bloody demise! You have not failed me, God has failed me. You have given me everything you could, while staying true to yourself, and I would never permit you to be who you are not! God has failed me, not you! Never you! Go, Toni, go quickly before you see!" And he began to count.
Antonia trembled, her mouth opened and said nothing, she shook wildly, she nearly fainted, and as he counted aloud to seven, she finally screamed, which was nearly a miracle in itself, since she was frozen like a hare in the jaws of a hunting dog: "No, Salvatore, Iíll do it! Let me try! By God, Iíll do it!" And she fell upon her knees, praying to God to somehow change her throat, to make it ten times greater than it was, to stretch her vocal cords beyond the mortal limits of human beings, even if it destroyed her voice forever and she could never sing again. She took out the rosary beads she had brought when she first came, imagining Salvatore to be sick in his bed rather than sitting on a piano stool with a gun pointed to his head, and she prayed and prayed, sounding, he thought, like his befuddled, persistent mother in the Church; till finally, as he began to grow agitated, thinking that once more she was attempting to outwit him, and dampen his enthusiasm for self-destruction, she rose from her knees with a look of desperate courage in her eyes, the look of children standing before the Mediterranean hoping its waves would part to let them walk across the sea bed, and holding the sheets of impossible music before her, she began to sing.
The effort was poignant and pathetic. She tried her best, but at once, she began to butcher the notes, to miss them entirely, to sing out of key, to leap up and grasp at them and slide off of them as quickly as she reached for them, as though they were made of slippery ice; and to dig for them, octaves beneath the earth, notes far below baritone which were barred from her by miles of solid rock on which the shovel of her will was broken. In spite of her great talent, she was like the most awful of vocal students, the kind of student who makes oneís music teacher cringe and finally tear up the money he has been offered by rich parents, and walk away, choosing sanity over wealth. But in her eyes, there was fury and love, an unbroken sincerity that gripped her, even as she floundered. And Salvatore, in his turn, began to shake. He saw this beautiful woman, trying to do the impossible in order to save him. He saw the tears pouring down from her eyes in uninhibited, desperate streams, heard the badly-cracking voice, battering itself against limits it could not break. He saw her trembling, fighting with the ocean, because of him! And suddenly, every note she could not reach seemed beautiful, because in its absence, there was a person who loved him. How dare we try to define what love is; it is defined by those who love us! Let them love us as they can! And Salvatore, too, began to weep. He wept because no angel could have moved him as Antonia moved him, failing to be an angel.
For others, it might not have been enough. But far from the realms of the intellect, Salvatore understood. Antonia, standing there on that day, trying to be an angel, proved to him that God exists.
Slowly, Salvatore put down his fatherís cruel gun, stood up, and went over to embrace Antonia: the embrace of a friend, which would never stain the immaculate wall that separated their bodies but let their hearts and minds commune as one. "Thank you," he told her. "I have heard something greater than the voice of an angel. Behind the shattered notes, which you could not bring into the world, I have heard the music of your intentions and your soul. A concert such as this would not be possible without a God."
For over an hour, they stood together without speaking, holding one another, crying in proud and tender silence.
Now, over a century has gone by since these two great friends passed from the earth, and you may wonder what became of them, and why their names are not enshrined in the history books (though those who are addicted to the lore of the opera may recognize them as one of many radiant footnotes, which taken together, enliven all that has been forgotten). With regard to this, there is nothing much to say, only that: Life needs to leave no record behind it in order to be worth living. Below the heights of success, great empires of feeling reign and rule the earth, and forever will. Most of the earthís gold is invisible. What we read in our history books barely scratches the surface. And what matters most are the unseen histories which we write with those we love.
Somewhere, within the gigantic realm of the unknown, Salvatore R. and Antonia Maria C. spent the rest of their lives dreaming, and rising to the height of angels by failing to be angels.
In a handful of obscure libraries throughout the world, but mainly in Europe, copies of the "Angelís Aria" remain. To this day, no one has succeeded in singing it. But, perhaps, because a few brave souls from every generation try to, Humanity is not yet a lost cause. DEO GRATIAS! Thank you Salvatore, thank you Antonia! And thanks to the rest of you! DEO GRATIAS!
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