The Bel Canto Brogue
By Wil Forbis
It was a cold day. That much I remember, though a cold day in October is hardly uncommon in Cour d’Alene. The heater had gone out in my Dodge —- yet again —- and I could see little clouds of my breath as I drove down the freeway. Miniature glaciers of snow and ice lay at each side of the road, reminders of the season’s first snowfall a week previous.
I slowed, exited the offramp and took the first turn into the parking lot of O’Grady’s Sports Bar. I parked the truck and hopped out, pausing briefly for a mental Polaroid of the setting sun. Then I slammed the door. My shift started at five o’clock and I was late.
As I walked towards the entrance of the bar, I looked across the street to the Easy Nite hotel. Their parking lot was less than a quarter full. Their customers tended to be ours, so I figured I had a slow night coming.
I walked into the bar and greeted the large, mostly empty room, receiving only incoherent mumbles in return. I hung my thick parka on the coat hanger and stuffed my gloves in its pockets. Then I took a few steps to the nearby player piano backed against the wall. Enough of my high school music lessons remained that I could sort of pick out the opening bars of Fur Elise. Music was a gift. One I’d never received.
“Bob!” came a voice from behind me. “Where the Christ have you been?”
It was Louella, the daytime bartender. My face turned sheepish. “Sorry. The heater went out in the truck. I spent about 15 minutes trying to get it going, then just gave up and came over.”
She looked at me sternly while unhooking her coat from the coat rack. “I’ve got a babysitter watching over three kids. She don’t come cheap.”
I helped put the coat around her shoulders. “It won’t happen again. How’s business been?”
Louella looked around. “How’s it look? Mostly regulars. Plus that one.” She nodded at a portly middle-aged man wearing a an expensive suit and a full head of red hair and sitting at the end of the bar. “He’s been here since three. Already had four whiskey on the rocks. You might have to cut him off soon.”
“You let me worry about that,” I said. “Run home to your brood.”
Louella’s prematurely aged face lit into smile. “You’ll have one yourself, one of these days,” she said. “You’re not going to be a young man, forever.” She walked out the door, into the cold.
I stepped behind the bar and checked the till. There was $120, mostly small bills. In a hidden shelf underneath the register lay the shotgun. In my four years at the bar, I’d only had to pull it out once, to make my point to a drunk who didn’t understand what closing time meant.
All told, there were seven people in the building. Seated across from me at the counter were three regulars. Down at the far end was the guy Louella had pointed out. A young couple was sitting at one of the tables, singing along with a Reo Speedwagon song playing on the radio. It had come out only few weeks previous, but I was already sick of it.
I looked at the trio in front of me. “Anyone need a refill?”
Tom Pinker, a bearded father of six, answered by pushing his beer glass towards me. He looked up from his paper. “Goddamn Reagan,” he said. “He says he can’t remember if he sold weapons to the Iranians.”
I knew the comment wasn’t going to go unanswered. Terry McFarland and Jack Kittredge lit into Pinker, admonishing his inability to understand foreign affairs. Politics and booze are never a good mix, but the three of them were buddies from high school and I knew they’d sort it out. I poured Pinker a new round and kept my mouth shut.
I turned on the TV and caught some sports scores. While the announcer did the tallies, I looked over at the man down at the end of the bar. His drink was close to empty, but I didn’t approach him. After what Louella had said, I wasn’t going to offer. I’d let him speak up, and then decide whether or not there was going to be a problem.
The sports news ended and the TV went into commercials. As I busied myself refilling the pretzel jars, the two love birds got up and grabbed their coats. They waved to me on the way out.
From the end of the bar, I heard knuckles rap against wood. I looked over and saw the middle-aged man raise his empty glass. “Another whiskey,” he said.
After tending bar for a couple years you get a pretty good sense of how schnookered somebody is. Lots of people think they hide it, but they can’t see the fog in their eyes, or the way their body subtly shifts its weight from one side the other. This guy didn’t look too bad. I thought I caught the barest hint of a slur in his voice, but it wasn’t much. No reason to cut him off.
“Jameson’s?” I asked. It was one of the three brands of whiskey we carried. The most expensive one.
“Nothing but the best,” the man replied. And then I caught it. It wasn’t a slur in his voice, it was an accent. British, or Irish, or Scottish.
I grabbed the bottle, walked down and refilled his glass. He pushed a couple bucks at me. “Thank you, lad,” he said.
I grabbed the bills and nodded at him, studying his face for any other signs of inebriation. His eyes were alert. The guy could handle his liquor. But something was bugging me. I was halfway back to the cash register when I turned back towards him. “I can’t believe I’m asking this, but are you Shane O’Rahilly?”
The man blinked and pursed his lips, expressing either confusion or bother —- I couldn’t tell which. He said not a word.
“You are him, aren’t you?” I continued. “It makes sense. I’d heard you were going to be performing at the Seattle Opera House this weekend.”
The man sighed. “I didn’t think I’d be recognized here. And by a lowly barkeep, no less. What are the odds?”
I ignore the jibe. “Actually, I’m a huge opera fan. I got it from my mother. She was there when you saying ’Macushla’ at your Carnegie Hall debut. She used to say you were the reincarnation of John McCormack.”
“Ah, MacCormack …the original Irish tenor. ’Tis true; many have compared me to McCormack. As a teenager, in Dublin, I studied with him. Late in his life, when the Nazis were tearing Europe asunder.”
“I’ve heard about that,” I said. “You were working in a laundry and McCormack discovered you. Within five years you were touring Europe.”
O’Rahilly smiled. “It appears I’ve met someone who knows my own life better than I do.” He winked at me and took a deep sip from his glass of whiskey.
“But why are you here?” I asked. “I would have figured you traveled with an entourage. And stayed at fancy hotels and all that.”
“Indeed, sometimes I do. In fact, I suspect that right about now my manager is throwing himself into a tizzy because I haven’t disembarked from the plane I was supposed to be on. But for years, I only saw this great country through the shaded windows of a tour bus. The only citizens I met were mayors and academics. Recently, I decided to get out of my comfort zone. To explore America’s nooks and crannies. So, when I get a chance, I rent a car and drive myself. I was in Chicago two nights ago. Wonderful town.”
As he spoke, the Irish inflection bubbled up through words. The music press often mentioned his infamous accent, dubbed “the bel canto brogue.” It was ironic that his speaking voice was so different from the polished tenor that could perfectly render the arias of Donizetti and Puccini.
His voice, and celebrity, and presence were so captivating that for a moment I forgot there were other people in the bar. Then I heard Jack Kittredge speak up. “It’s starting to snow again, Bob. We’re going to hit the road.”
“Have a good one.” I waved as the three men sauntered out into the cold night air.
O’Rahilly spoke. “Looks like it’s just you and me, lad. Can you pour me another?”
It would be his sixth whiskey of the night. “Sure you can handle it?” I asked.
O’Rahilly laughed and rolled the seat of his bar stool around so that he was facing me. “It’s okay,” he said, patting his voluminous paunch. “I’m drinking for two.”
The joke seemed a bit hollow, but I let out a chuckle. The truth was, I couldn’t believe my luck. In Cour d’Alene, it was rare that I came across opera lovers —- especially my age —- much less an actual opera star. I pulled out the bottle of Jameson’s and filled his glass.
“So,” I said. “What’s your favorite opera?”
“To listen to? Have you heard Der Freischütz?”
“By Weber. Sure. But I’m surprised your first choice would be German. You’re mostly known for the Italian works.”
“Perhaps that’s why Weber intrigues me, lad. His work is still novel to my ears. He takes a left when I’m expecting a right.”
“How about to perform?”
“Mmmmm. That’s difficult. Rossinni’s Seville is grand. Don Giovanni is always a pleasure. Last year, I performed it with the Barcelona Symphony. The lovely Melanie Lassus sang with me. What an incredible talent!”
“I’ve seen videos of her.” I replied. “She’s very attractive.”
“And wild! After we finished our first performance, she grabbed several bottles of wine and whisked me away in her private limousine. We opened the top hatch of the car and sang and drank for hours, bathing in the light of the moon and the stars. When I woke up, we were in Monpellier, parked on the beach underneath a giant Ferris wheel. The Spanish press went crazy.”
And so it went. For the next three hours, O’Rahilly entertained me with stories from his life. The great conductors he’d worked with. The opulent productions he’d taken part in. The divas who were as demanding as they were beautiful. Dinners with statesmen, artists, scientists, philosophers. And the music. The passionate rendition of the finest musical compositions mankind has produced. The thrill of chasing the perfect performance and the elation of finding yourself singing that soaring, flawless note, hearing it resonate through the opera hall. That single moment of creating perfection.
As O’Rahilly spoke, I knew I would remember this night for the rest of my life. And I was no longer shy about plying him with liquor. As the hours stretched onward, he drank more and more, and eventually the bottle of Jameson’s was down to the bottom.
At that point, O’Rahilly rose from his seat. He seemed a bit bashful about his alcohol consumption, and, while impressively still standing, did not have the alertness I’d initially seen. He turned to me.
“I had a very good time talking with you tonight, my lad. It was in search of conversations such as ours that I made a point to escape the confines of the tour bus.”
I smiled. “This is been a tremendous thrill for me as well, sir. Are you staying just across the street?”
“I am. Don’t worry, I can make it there on my own.” He offered a drunken wave, and started stumbling towards the coat rack, where an exquisite knee length overcoat hung.
But I wasn’t quite finished. “If you don’t mind, sir, I have one final question.” I didn’t wait for his approval. “I’ve read your biographies. Until you met McCormick, you had no formal training. But it only took a couple years for you to become a professional. How did you get so good, so fast?”
O’Rahilly donned his overcoat and pursed his lips for the second time that night. Then he smiled and looked at me. “That’s the gift of the gods, my lad. Why it strikes man and not another is the age-old question.”
The words stung. Whether he meant it as such, it was an insult. A recognition that he had been granted —- through talent, or skill, or pure chance —- a life of renown, of grandeur, of worth. Whereas I was stuck in a small town working the night shift at a bar. Did he not think I had desires for greatness? Or was he like most urbanites who drove through this town? Eager to presume that its residents were barnyard hicks too stupid to even yearn for any other life than the one they had?
In normal situations, I’m pretty good at keeping my emotions to myself. But I’m certain that —- if only for a moment —- my feelings crept across my face. O’Rahilly looked briefly shocked, and then his eyes creased towards guilt. He could see that what he’d said had hurt. He limply waved goodbye, turned, and walked out the door.
What had been an otherwise extraordinary night had ended poorly. With several hours of my shift to go, I began soaking some of the beer glasses. But within only a few minutes, O’Rahilly returned. Wearing a blank expression on his face, he walked through the door and up to the bar. He looked directly at me. “Do you really want to know?” he asked.
“Do you really want to know how I was blessed with my singing voice?” he said in the infamous bel canto brogue.
I got a little nervous. Was he going to break down in some weepy confessional about his torturous life as an artist? Perhaps I had plied him with too much Jameson’s. Nonetheless, I had to indulge him. “Sure.”
“When I was a child, in Dublin, they sent me to McCormack’s estate with a bag of laundry. I came across him, lying on a couch in his den. He was very sick at that point. He told me to sit down. He told me that all his success had begun one particular day when he was a child. He had discovered a rock in the hills near Terenure. And something had emerged from the rock. A creature like he had never seen. The creature climbed up his neck and slid down his throat, and from then on he was able to sing with this beautiful voice. But it was not his voice. It was that creature. And he asked me if I wanted to carry on this gift. If I wanted to be a vessel for this creature. I didn’t have to think hard. I was a poor, Irish bloke whose father had drunk himself to death before 40. I accepted the offer.”
As he spoke, O’Rahilly’s voice remained strictly monotone. And his blank expression did not change. It was the most impressive poker face I’ve ever seen. When he finished, I did the only thing I could do. I broke into laughter. The chortles rumbled up from my belly and tears started to stream from my eyes. It was one of the funniest, most ridiculous stories I’d ever heard in my life.
For a few seconds after I began guffawing, O’Rahilly held his expression. Then he smiled. “I told that story to Domingo once,” he said. “He thought I was crazy and stopped speaking to me.”
“That’s really very good.” I said, wiping my eyes. “I mean, you really delivered it well. That’s the silliest thing anyone’s ever told me.”
O’Rahilly blinked several times and smiled. He held out his hand. “I hope this means we can part on good terms, my lad.”
Reaching over the bar, I returned the handshake. “It’s been a real pleasure, Mr. O’Rahilly.”
His grip was warm and firm. For the second time that night, he headed towards the door. Then he stumbled, turned and looked at me. “Forgive me, lad. I think I’ll need to take use of the water closet before I go.”
“No problem. It’s down the hall just past the cigarette machine.”
He disappeared, and I returned my attention to the television. There was an advertisement for a used car lot, and then one for life insurance. Finally, the main program returned: a made-for-TV detective movie. Several scenes went by before I realized that O’Rahilly had not returned. I walked around the counter and towards the bathrooms. I stopped outside the door of the men’s room and raised my hand to knock. Then I heard it. A retching. The sound of a half bottle of Jameson’s coming up a middle-aged man’s throat. I figured the last thing he would want was me looking over his shoulder so I walked back to the bar and behind the counter.
Two minutes later, O’Rahilly, looking haggard, returned to the main room. He walked up to the bar, reached into his overcoat pocket, removed something and placed it on bar. As I gaped, the thing moved, rolling to one side. I was several feet away, but from what I could see, it looked like a small, wet, live ferret. It was less than a foot long, with spotty patches of white hair covering scaly gray skin. For a few seconds, it just lay limply on the bar but then it brought itself onto its hind legs. It looked at me, sadly, clearly displeased with being soaked in boozy vomit.
Without saying a word, O’Rahilly walked over to the piano and sat down. For a moment, his hands hung over the keys, then he began to play.
Almost immediately, I recognized the piece as Puccini. The opening accompaniment to the aria “E Lucevan Le Stelle” from the Opera “Tosca.” The slow, sad harmonies filled the room, delicately rising, building, and then coming to a pause.
Then the creature on the table began to sing. With crystalline tone that projected shimmering, heartfelt emotion, it rendered the Italian verse. At first, the voice was measured, but as the music thickened, the passion erupted. The creature knelt and opened its tiny hands towards the heavens as it sang, giving life to the tortured soul of Tosca’s lover, Cavaradossi, as he awaited his coming execution. The dynamics rose to ever greater heights, eventually coming to a final, haunted silence.
It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.
When the aria was over, the creature looked down and slowly released the tension in its muscles, letting itself seemingly melt down to the bar where it then lay in a near fetal position. Tentatively, I walked over to inspect it. It was like no animal I’ve ever seen. Part reptile, part mammal, with tiny, delicate hands and feet. Its small chest rose and sank with the calm, rhythmic cadence of each breath.
I turned to O’Rahilly. “What the fuck is this thing?”
O’Rahilly rose, walked up to the bar and stood near his little friend. “I don’t know. McCormick didn’t either. Maybe it’s from the heavens, maybe the depths of the earth. All we knew is that it wanted to live inside us, in the damp caverns of the human body. And it loves to sing.”
“Does it speak?”
“As far as I can tell, it doesn’t understand any language. Other than the language of music.”
“And this is your singing voice? This is what you’re famous for?”
“Indeed. McCormick and I are merely vessels. Vessels for the greatest opera singer the world has ever known.”
“Jesus…” I said. My mind struggled for words to salve my incomprehension.
O’Rahilly looked at me. “There’s one other thing…”
He hesitated, then spoke. “When McCormick passed the little bugger onto me, he said that one day I would need to do the same. Offer the gift to someone else. He said I would know when that day came.” O’Rahilly looked at me knowingly.
At first I was confused. And then what I took be the intent of his words hit me. I was overtaken by a strange combination of fear and excitement. This was my chance. An opportunity to escape the endless highway of night shifts, broken heaters and soul killing conversation that seemed to lie before me. A chance to see the world, to be respected, renowned. But, while part of me felt like its prayers had been answered, another part was terrified. “I… you mean, me?”
“You want me to swallow that thing?”
O’Rahilly blinked, then scowled. “Of course not! That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’ve got plenty of living to do as the world’s greatest opera singer. Have you seen the women I sleep with? I’m hardly ready to give that up, my lad.”
I had misunderstood him. An uncomfortable silence began to fill the air.
O’Rahilly reached out and picked the creature up off the bar. It languidly yawned and stretched its little arms. Then, crawling on all fours, it scurried up his arm, into his open mouth, and slithered down his throat. When it had settled in his viscera, O’Rahilly patted his stomach. He then gave me a stern look. “I would take the trouble to advise you not to tell anyone what you’ve seen here, but I don’t think anyone would believe you. So, for the second time tonight, I must bid you adieu.” With that, the opera singer waved, and walked out of the bar.
I never saw O’Rahilly again, but I followed his career. He had many more artistic triumphs, and sang on several recordings that are considered to be modern exemplifications of the operatic style. But he was also noted for his personal life. He was linked to many beautiful women —- divas, models, artists —- often married, and the comedy of his romantic entanglements provided plenty of fodder for the gossip columnists.
Then, five years ago, he spent an evening with a woman of ill repute in a five-star hotel in Venice, Italy. Early in the morning, he woke, dressed himself, and went down to the hotel restaurant. He sat in a corner booth, drinking Bloody Marys, and was silently overcome with a heart attack. He was discovered slumped over in his seat by a letter courier delivering a message.
I stayed in Cour d’Alene. A few years after the night with O’Rahilly I met a gorgeous, intelligent, wonderful woman, and within a year we were married. We have two children, girls, who have grown into a remarkable young people. My oldest, Darlene, inherited my love for opera and possesses a remarkable soprano voice. She’ll soon be headed off to New York to begin serious music studies. And as much as she enjoys singing, she enjoys attending operas. Over the years, we’ve seen many of the greats —- Renee Fleming, Pavarotti, Anne Sofie von Otter. Even tonight we have tickets to see the remarkable young tenor, Michael Rose, perform in Don Giovanni.
I would not be surprised if you’ve heard a bit about the phenomenal Rose. He is Italian and was born to the name Micheal Rosetti. Like many of the great talents before him, he seemed to burst onto the scene out of nowhere. Indeed, before he launched his glamorous opera career he was a simple worker in Venice. A letter courier, I believe.
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