current events in a while. I am immersed in writing the 14th Cyrus Skeen detective
novel, Manhattan Blues, set in New York City in March 1929. I shall return to my commentaries once I have
finished the novel. My novels are my life work, and they always come first.
1929. Cyrus Skeen is called to New York by his father, Garnett Skeen, to attend
to some trust fund affairs. Skeen’s detective agency is subsidized by a trust
fund his father set up years before, but his mother, Eleanor “Nellie” Skeen,
wishes to set up her own trust fund for her son. A daughter of an Oklahoma oil
magnate, she is “very well situated” in terms of wealth. Skeen’s parents,
however, are driving to Nags Head in the Outer Banks of North Carolina to spend
the rest of the winter. The elder Skeen tells his son that he must prove his existence
to a new bank officer who will be administrating the new trust fund;
therefore, Skeen must travel to New York City.
York, he meets an alluring and tempestuous opera singer, Brianna “Ginger” O’Quill.
During one of her performances at the Metropolitan Opera, he goes backstage and
kisses the diva’s hand. She interprets the gesture as an invitation to pursue
him, which she does even though she knows he is married and in love with his
wife, Dilys. But a rival for her attentions is jealous and attempts to murder
Skeen – or O’Quill…or anyone.
The conductor, Lawrence Hauck, who was a dead ringer,
Skeen thought, for Leopold Schacht but sans
the spade beard, abruptly appeared over the intricately carved black mahogany partition
that separated the orchestra from the audience and that put both out of sight
of each other. The audience applauded and he took a bow. Then he turned, dipped
out of sight, and disappeared. There must have been steps from the podium Skeen
had not noticed earlier.
orchestra began the Overture.
The opening brass notes were intended to get one’s attention. They got Skeen’s.
Then the strings weighed in, and, working with the winds, with soft,
somnambulant notes, gently prepared one for the lively, joyous, almost dizzying
dance-worthy main section in which the whole orchestra participated.
was enchanted by it. He felt himself smiling. This was not the Mozart he had
heard in Maud Skipton’s music parlor on Nob Hill in San Francisco. He wished it
to go on. But in a swift reprise of the opening dancing notes it ended with a
majestically behind the impossibly complex gilded proscenium. Their parting
revealed yet another red curtain; this one rose to reveal a stylized forest.
Beyond it were flats depicting faraway mountains and a blue, cloud-dotted sky.
But above it all was a kind of dome of the black night sky, the stars formed in
a whirlpool whose vortex was not yet visible.
medieval – appeared, running full tilt, armed with a swordless scabbard, and a
bow with no arrow in it and no quiver of arrows. Some growling was heard and
what looked like a puce-painted Chinese New Year dragon appeared from behind
the “forest,” and chased the fellow around the stage. He guessed the fellow was
supposed to be Tamino, the story’s love interest, the prince with no political
antecedents. The dragon had about two dozen legs (the legs of cast extras), also
in puce but with fur. The thing more resembled a giant centipede with a
dragon’s head tacked on. The fellow in the head also blew some kind of smoke
from the dragon’s open mouth, which was loaded with scimitar sized teeth.
rhyme or reason for anything in it. Don’t shake your head. People might notice.
thought Skeen. He consulted his libretto for the scene.
emerged from the forest. They slayed the dragon with waves of their magical
wands, then ooh-and-awed in dialogue and in song over the prone body of the
prince, almost as though they wanted to molest him. He could see the greed in
their eyes. They wore feathery headpieces and gowns the colors of Germany’s
flag: black, red, and gold. They kept nudging each other aside with unladylike
elbows to ribs as they bent over the unconscious Tamino.
singing. According to the libretto and Britannica,
they couldn’t decide what to do about Tamino.
onstage. Skeen consulted his libretto. This was Papageno, the birdwatcher. No,
he corrected himself: the bird catcher. He carried a bird cage and panpipes. He
sings his song and plays his pipes (or someone in the orchestra did). Tamino
awakes, and thinks Papageno slayed the dragon. The bird catcher doesn’t deny
it. The Three Ladies reappear and punish him for lying by putting a lock on his
mouth. Then they crowd around Tamino and manage to show him a picture of
Pamina, his future love interest. He sings his love for her; The Three Ladies collectively
practically smother him with their attentions.
Night. Her entrance was heralded by winds in the orchestra. This development
took Skeen by surprise. She simply appeared out of nowhere, probably by an
elevator built into the stage, sitting on a throne. He should have expected
something extraordinary because the forest was suddenly enveloped in a mist.
The lights dimmed a little over the stage. The whirlpool of stars above began
to slowly rotate, the vortex appearing directly over the head of the Queen of
modified flamenco costume, all blue satin, it seemed to Skeen, judging from the
sheen of the material, with winking sequins. Generous flounces over her wrists
and at the bottom of the gown gave her costume that Spanish look. Ruby earrings
the size and shape of fishing anchors flailed out when she moved her head, but
Skeen doubted they were lead.
flowed a gossamer veil or train, almost invisible but for the twinkling sequins
on it. Her hair was gathered behind in a kind of translucent basket the fabric
of which he could not identify from where he sat. She began to sing her first
aria, “O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn.” Skeen consulted the libretto. It was “Oh,
tremble not, my dear son!”
it when she rose and descended the steps in mid-aria to address him. Skeen
could not see Tamino’s face, but O’Quill’s was observable. He was transfixed by
the multitude of convincing expressions and emotions O’Quill was able to
convey. It was a lovely, moving, and pleading aria – save my daughter from the
evil designs of the wizard Sarastro, and her hand is yours in marriage – but Skeen
could see by her eyes and her posture and by the tone of her words, even though
they were in German, that she was setting up Tamino for something other than
rescuing her daughter, Pamina, from the evil wizard Sarastro. She descended the
throne, bid Tamino to rise, and held him by the shoulders to complete her aria.
that Skeen half expected Tamino to depart from the script and tell her he knew she
was lying and to reject her heart-rending plea. Skeen sat mesmerized by
O’Quill’s performance, sitting forward with his elbows on his knees, his hands
folded beneath his chin.
of the Night, with an imperious sweep of her trailing veil, disappears with her
throne into the mists. The faraway mountains reappear and the forest is visible
Tamino. They give him a long, silvery object. This is the magic flute. They so
crowd around Tamino they nearly knock him over. Skeen did not think that was in
mouth-padlock and give him a contraption with bells on it. He will accompany
Tamino on his search for Pamina. The flute will protect Tamino from all sorts
of mishaps, while the bells, if rung, will also perform magic for Papageno.
wizard, but some sort of benevolent wizard whose kidnapping of Pamina remained
was Pamina’s father? Was she the result of a union between the Queen of the
Night and Sarastro? Were the Queen of the Night and Sarastro once “married,”
but had a horrific fight and separated? Was Pamina born out of wedlock? Was
there such a condition in the world of The
and anything odd and unanswered was to be taken literally. Too many questions would
spoil the fantasy and explode the illusion.
recalled that, as a child, he had never taken seriously the tooth fairy, or the
Easter bunny, or even Santa Claus. He distinctly remembered now his assertion
over dinner one Christmas season evening, when he was five, that not only was
it physically impossible for Santa Claus to deliver overnight presents to all
the children in the world so that they would have them by Christmas morning,
but it was physically impossible for him to carry them. Further, he declaimed
that evening over his half-eaten dinner the impracticality of “eight tiny
reindeer” to pull such a load, and of a sleigh that could land on anyone’s roof.
sad shake of her head. And he also remembered his father chuckling and
remarking to her: “Well, at least we’re not raising a Socialist, or a
Progressive.” He understood the meaning of that remark years later.
figured prominently in the action. Mentally, Skeen kept renaming him “Monsanto”
after the agricultural company. The singer was not only in black face but in
black torso. It was disconcerting to see him and his fellow slaves cavorting
around the stage wearing baggy pantaloons and vests and slippers with curled
toes. A few of them wore turbans and sported organ-grinder moustaches. It was
also jarring to hear them speak and sing in German.
recognized the face of the hand-wringing roll-poly man he saw outside of
Brianna O’Quill’s apartment the night before.
his face the rest of Act One, frequently consulting his libretto to understand
the actions and dialogue on stage.
incredible fairy tale required an enormous amount of work. The singers had to
work with the orchestra and its soloists, as well, everything had to be timed
and paced perfectly, everyone from the cast to the stagehands who worked the
scenery had to know what he was doing, when to do it, and where he had to be
curtains closed on Sarastro’s temple and Tamino and Pamina see each other and
embrace for the first time on the stage. The audience broke into applause and
the principal singers came out from behind the two curtains to take their bows.
Twice, because the continuing applause
called them out again.
Skeen rose. The program said there would be a half hour intermission. Skeen
could hear the stage behind the curtain being prepared for Act Two, with
scenery being removed and replaced and many footsteps thumping on the stage. He
rose and faced Morton Lawry. “I’m going out for a smoke.”
eyes, and they were set in anger. Something about the performance of The Three
Ladies had upset him. “I would join you, Mr. Skeen, as you are probably
brimming with questions I would be only too happy to answer. But I need to go
backstage to knock some heads together. Please, follow me. You can smoke
outside on the loading platform. Smoking is not allowed backstage, only in the
dressing rooms. But you needn’t trek all the way to the lobby.” He nodded to
the stream of patrons snaking up the aisles to the front of the theater.
the first row of orchestra seats to the far end. Skeen followed him. There they
encountered an usher who let them pass through an emergency door. He said to
the man, nodding to Skeen, “This gentleman is a guest of mine. Please let him
back in when the time comes.”
dock, then disappeared into a maze of narrow halls and corridors.
cast. He lit an Old Gold. It was chilly and the skimpy costumes of some of the
actors and singers must not have been much protection against the cold. The
dock faced the blank wall of an adjacent building. Some scenery flats were
propped up against the wall behind him. More cast and stagehands emerged from a
separate door further down the long stretch of cement.
of the people standing with him.
story. Perhaps it was innovative in Mozart’s time. But the story has been
repeated and retold in countless forms countless times since then.