Authors: Barbara Paul
A Chorus of Detectives
An Opera Mystery
Giulio Gatti-Casazza, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, was not in the habit of taking orders from scrubladies. But this time he thought he'd better make an exception.
“You come!” The woman was wild-eyed and distraught, motioning with both arms to compensate for her imperfect grasp of the English language. “Evil thing. Come now!”
thing? Gatti-Casazza gestured to her to lead the way. A big, lumbering man now with gray in his beard, Gatti did not normally move quickly; he had to exert himself to keep up with the woman.
The scrublady led him to the chorus dressing room on the fourth floor but stopped at the doorway. “Inside. You go!” she commanded imperiously, and refused to budge.
With a shrug Gatti stepped into the dressing roomâand gasped. There, dangling from an overhead water pipe, the body of a man rotated slowly back and forth, his eyes bulging in death. Gatti covered his own eyes with one hand; the poor man had hanged himself with his own suspenders.
. When Gatti could stand to look again, he recognized the dead man as one of the tenors in the chorus. A new man, hadn't been with the Met long. With heavy step Gatti moved over to stop the obscene rotation of the body. The corpse was still warm.
The general manager edged back out into the hallway and closed the door behind him. He hurried downstairs and rounded up three stagehands to take down the body. After explaining their unpleasant chore, he swore them to secrecy. “The other choristers, they must not know of their comrade's sad end until after the performance tonight,” he insisted. “It is hard enough even then!”
The stagehands gave their word. “But won't they miss him?” one of them asked.
Gatti pulled nervously at his beard. “Perhaps they think he is ill. I myself tell them afterward.” He took out his watch and checked the time. “Please! The others, they start to arrive any moment now. You must make haste.”
Without another word the stagehands hurried up the stairs. That evening's opera was
, a work that kept the chorus fairly busy; perhaps they would not have time to worry about the missing tenor. Belatedly, Gatti remembered the scrublady and looked around for her.
She had disappeared.
“The poor man,” soprano Geraldine Farrar said the next day. “What could have gone so wrong in his life that he'd do such a thing? He wasn't very old, was he?”
“A mere boy,” Antonio Scotti replied, “only twenty-nine, Gatti says.” He adjusted the limousine's lap rug. “Are you warm enough,
“I'm fine,” she murmured absently. “That's two members of the chorus who've diedâand within four days of each other.”
“Ah, but the young sopranoâshe does not kill herself, remember. An accident,
And such a bizarre one
, Gerry thought. Right before the final scene of last Friday's performance of
Samson and Delilah
, an ornamental urn had toppled from its pedestal on to the head of the chorister unlucky enough to be standing beneath it. Fortunately the curtain had not yet opened and the audience was spared the sight of a member of the Metropolitan Opera chorus dying on stage. “It wasn't even a real urn,” Gerry said. “It was only a stage prop.”
“But heavy enough to crush the skull,” Scotti remarked. “The opera stageâit can be dangerous place, no?”
“So can the street,” Gerry gasped as the limousine unexpectedly swerved to avoid hitting a crowd of people. “What is it, Albert?”
“Don't know, Miss Farrar,” the chauffeur said. “Buncha men carrying signs. Couldn't see what they said.”
“Veterans, probably. Could you read the signs, Toto?”
Scotti shook his head. “Anarchists,” he muttered darkly. “They are everywhere.”
Gerry peered through the tiny back window of the limousine. “No, I think they're veterans. Several of them are on crutches. What a sad sight.”
The war had ended two years earlier, but the peace that followed had proved an uneasy one. Nothing could go back to what it had been, but the discontent that muttered and throbbed and threatened constantly to erupt into violence was in its own way as frightening as the war itself had been. The Allies' long-awaited triumph over the Central Powers had not restored harmony to the world, as everyone had been so sure it would do.
That lack of political harmony was nowhere more evident than at the Metropolitan Opera, where the international make-up of the company was a source of constant friction. During the war, singers, conductors, managers, members of the orchestra, valets, maids, and backstage workers had all divided into antagonistic camps, each individual loyal to his or her home country. Gatti-Casazza had responded to the American audiences' patriotic fervor and let all the German soloists go, vowing that the Metropolitan would be at least half American. Wagner was dropped from the repertoire.
The wound left by the war was deep and only now beginning to heal over. In the fall of 1920, Gatti-Casazza had nervously restored Wagner to the repertoireâbut Wagner sung in English; the German language was still anathema to most of America. The first postwar performance of
Tristan and Isolde
had gone off without incident, however, and the opera company began to breathe a little more easily. But now a few weeks later, in December, resentments and bad feeling still lingered; it would be a while yet before any âfamily' atmosphere returned to the Metropolitan Opera.
The limousine carrying two of the Met's most lustrous stars turned on to Park Avenue just south of Grand Central Station and came to a stop in front of the Vanderbilt Hotel. Enrico Caruso and his wife had moved into the penthouse apartment only a few months earlier and had been âwarming the house', as the tenor put it, ever since. Gerry Farrar had missed one of the Carusos' lavish dinner parties the evening before because of a prior engagement, so both Enrico and Dorothy Caruso had insisted she come to lunch to make up for it.
“You eat the left-behinds, yes?” the tenor had said, his face a study of guilelessness.
It was a joke; Caruso would slit his wrists before he'd allow leftovers to be served at his table. So Gerry had come to the Vanderbilt for her compensatory luncheon; Scotti, who had been at the dinner party, came along because he always came along.
Gerry! Toto!” Caruso greeted first the soprano and then the baritone with a warm embrace. Dorothy Caruso smiled and extended her hands in a less Italianate welcome.
“Rico!” Scotti exclaimed in mild alarm. “Something you eatâit does not agree with you?”
The tenor spread both hands and placed them on his expansive waist. “Everything I eat agrees with me! Why you ask?”
“You do not look well.”
Caruso waved one arm dismissively. “
“His color is not good,” Gerry said to Dorothy, low. “Has he seen a doctor lately?”
“Several,” Dorothy answered with a delicate grimace. “But I do not trust them. Besides, Rico thinks it's a sign of weakness to give in to illness.”
, Gerry thought glumly.
Lunch was lightâbroiled chicken; Dorothy had finally convinced her dangerously overweight husband that it wasn't necessary to eat pasta at every meal. Halfway through the luncheon Caruso sighed and said, apropos of nothing, “I miss you, Gerry.”
The other three at the table knew what he meant. No one had seen the names of Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar on the same printed program since opening night of the preceding season. The two stars sold out the house every time either one of them sang, so Gatti-Casazza had figured he was losing money by scheduling them in the same production. It had been over a year now since they'd sung together. “Maybe Gatti will change his mind,” Gerry said to Caruso, not really believing it.
Talk inevitably turned to the man who'd hanged himself in the chorus dressing room. There was some speculation as to why he'd done it, but no one knew the man well enough to suggest a reason with any certainty. Then someone mentioned the young chorus woman who'd died on Friday.
“I see it!” Caruso exclaimed, bug-eyed. “I stand in the wings and look straight out to the stage and I see it happen!”
“Try not to think of it, dear,” Dorothy said in her genteel voice.
As a matter of fact, Caruso had been flirting with one of the dancers in the ballet at the time of the accident, but by now he was thoroughly convinced he'd witnessed the whole thing. The last scene of
Samson and Delilah
takes place in the temple that the hairless hero ultimately brings down; with the soloists, the chorus members, and the corps de ballet all on at the same time, the stage did get a bit crowded. It was understandable how someone might jar the pedestal and dislodge the lethal urn.
“Perhaps she did it herself,” Gerry suggested. “Bumped against the pedestal, I mean. What a horrible way to die! I'd just assumed all those urns and pedestals and things were anchored in place.”
“They are supposed to be,” Scotti said.
“No, no, she touches nothing!” Caruso insisted. “She just stands there, andâ
The urn, it falls on her head!
We are none of us safe, no?” The tenor shuddered as intimations of his own mortality touched him.
“A lot of people are on stage for that scene,” Gerry commented. “I suppose vibrations from the stage floor could have started the urn wobbling.”
“That stage, it is not safe!” Caruso exclaimed.
“Nowhere is safe,” Scotti contributed somberly. “On our way here, we see anarchists rioting in streets, Gerry and I!”
“Oh, Toto!” Gerry laughed in exasperation. “That was no riot. And they weren't anarchists, they were veterans. Don't exaggerate.”
“Veterans can be anarchists too,” the baritone proclaimed earnestly. “These anarchists, they are everywhere. And those two in Massachusettsâthey want to set them free!” Of the entire Italian community at the Metropolitan Opera, Scotti was the only one who thought Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty.
“Let's not talk politics,” Dorothy murmured quickly as she saw her husband starting to turn red. “Tell me, Gerryâwhen do you sing your first
The soprano acknowledged that a change of subject might be wise. “Not for another few weeks. On Christmas Eve.”
“But â¦?” Dorothy cast a puzzled look toward her husband. “I thought you were singing
Christmas Eve, Rico.”
is the matinee performance,” Gerry explained.
“Ah. Then, Toto, you must be singing the matinee with Gerry.”
,” Scotti said, lifting Gerry's hand to his lips with a smile. “Always.”