September 23, 2004

Under a certain very narrow set of circumstances I can lie like a champion. Sentences like “No, of course I don’t believe Republicans should be drawn and quartered” and “Oh, don’t be silly, those bruises on my ass look nothing like somebody else’s thumb prints” ring monstrously false the instant they leave my mouth. But I am brilliant at praising bad performances (in any number of contexts) to the skies. “You were so fabulous,” I’ll gush. “I especially appreciated your [pacing during the second-act monologue, coloratura in the third aria, neatly shaved pubic hair].” Because, of course, whenever you say anything in such situations, people hear it as a referendum on their worth as human beings, which, I assure you, I have no interest in damaging, at least not sometimes.

There’s a point to this, I promise. Years ago, in my former life as a very good classical singer, I participated in a competition run by the National Association of Teachers of Singing. (N.B.: if you start an organization, do not give it a name homonymous with that of an irritating bug.) NATS was, I had been given to understand, an organization with problems; just how true this was became clear to me when I won second place in my division rather than first.

Though the competition had clearly been a travesty of the most grotesque proportions, I chose nonetheless to participate in the recital given by the winners at some sort of French library in Boston. I prepared my four songs, worked with my accompanist, and showed up at the appointed time and place.

It was horrible.

First, I had to sit through the high school division. Each singer was worse than the last–and, since they started with third place and worked their way up to first, that should tell you something. Songs about vengeance (a particular interest of mine) sounded so lilting and pretty as to be utterly unbelievable; songs about warbling doves, on the other hand, seemed to be coming from the throats of dying toads.

Then came my division. The third-place winner was, inexplicably, absent, so I went first, acquitting myself admirably, if I do say so myself. Then it was the first-place winner’s turn; she was worse than all the high school kids put together. At one point, unable to determine whether she was howling in French or German, I looked down at my program only to see that she was ostensibly singing in English. It was so awful that, when she was done, I had to move to the back of the room, from which position of relative anonymity I cringed through the rest of the performances.

At one point the program caught my eye caught and I saw that the first-place winner of the 35-and-up division was going to sing “Porgi, amor,” the Countess’s aria from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro–a fiendishly difficult, high, sustained piece that’s also one of the most beautiful things ever written. “Oh, thank God,” I thought. “Nobody on earth would program ‘Porgi, amor’ unless she really knew what she was doing. I may have to sit through the shrieking of harpies to get there, but the end of this recital will be something to hear.”

It certainly was.

She was so bad I cried.

I’m not kidding. She mangled Mozart so brutally that I wept actual salt tears.

And then, years later, it was finally over. There was a reception afterwards, complete with cheap cookies and punch made with off-brand ginger ale, to celebrate. I stationed myself by the cheese and crackers and ate, lying through my teeth to any performer who came by. “You were so fabulous,” I gushed. “I especially appreciated your [coloratura in the third aria, unique groaning, good skin tone].”

I avoided, however, the “Porgi, amor” lady. Lying rug that I was, I still wasn’t sure I’d be able to manage it. So of course she sought me out. The first time she passed by me, I escaped meeting her gaze by diving into the cookies; the second time, though, I’d eaten them all, and there was nothing left to do but face her. She complimented me on my German, and I opened my mouth to tell her she had been so fabulous.

And nothing came out.

It would have been simply too gross a betrayal of Mozart and of music and of the ideal of beauty to do it.

So I stood there for a moment, my mouth working silently. And then I said, “I cried when you sang ‘Porgi, amor.'”

She was visibly moved by this. She said, “Oh, you’re too, too kind!”

And I said, “No, really. I couldn’t help it.”

I’ve tried and tried, over the years, to feel bad for being so vicious. But every time I make the attempt, I am brought up short by the absolute certainty that she feels no remorse for what she did. So I go on my merry way, secure in my meanness.

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10 Responses to Under a certain very narrow

  1. Stairs says:

    I am grateful that I’m artistically talentless; if ever we encounter one another on the streets of London, I will be many times less likely to bring you pain by an order of magnitudes.
    That makes me happy 🙂

  2. Sparky says:

    And now I can no longer trust any flattery you ever pay me.

  3. tim says:

    For future reference:

    “You were so brave to put yourself out there.”

    “I am shocked at your openness, your willingness to be exposed. How refreshing.”

    “I don’t have the words.”

    “Please accept my gratitude.”

  4. campbell says:

    “Darling; good simply wasn’t the word!”

    Sir John Gielguid

  5. bitchphd says:

    That’s wonderful.

    I was expecting you to say, “I’ve always loved that aria” and leave it at that.

  6. Stairs: But what if I want you to bring me pain? Oh, wait, you meant a different sort of pain. That’s okay, then.

    Sparky: No, you can trust me. You were so fabulous.

    Tim: I love how these can actually all be true, or at least lies of omission: “I am shocked at your openness, your willingness to be exposed . . . AS A LUNATIC!”

    Campbell: Of course we must all bow to Lord Gielgud.

    BitchPhD: Unfortunately, in classical singing circles, “I’ve always loved that aria” is widely-known code for “You couldn’t sing your way out of a paper bag and I hope you die.” So necessity gave birth, as it so often does, to invention.

  7. JT says:

    You are a true wordsmith

  8. Jill Smith says:

    Ah – that reminded me of the classic Daniel Handler story (D.H. is the human behind the pseudonym “Lemony Snicket”). A woman at one of his readings took him to task because sometimes his young hero and heroines lied in his books. He asked this woman if she had never had an instance where it was necessary to lie, and she virtuously said “no” and turned his question back on him. His response? “Nice sweater.”

    Apparently, she didn’t get it…

  9. Adam875 says:

    I’m a fan of, “Wow, you were really on that stage!”

  10. Jake says:

    A few more suggestions:

    Of all the people on that stage, you were one of them.

    I couldn’t do what you did up there.

    I can’t believe you did that!

    Nice work.

    (And “Porgi, Amor”? Sounds like that Mozart guy was stealing ideas from George Gershwin …)


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