The Big Chance
by Chrissie Ward
Jeremy could hardly take in the excited words his agent was babbling over the telephone.
"...Trendini must have got a dud one. Serves him right, the greedy guts, eating oysters at lunch time when he's singing in the evening. No wonder he's so fat! Lucky they called me, and lucky you're in Sydney. Jerry, boy, this is your big chance!"
"They want me?" Jeremy asked stupidly.
"Haven't you been listening?" The agent spoke very slowly and clearly. "You, Jeremy Newcombe, are singing Rodolfo in La Bohème at the Sydney Opera House tonight. Now, get over there—fast!"
There were only two hours until curtain-up. Jeremy seized his vocal score and his talisman, a tiny silver star, and went.
In the taxi he flicked distractedly through the score. This was it, the break he'd been dreaming about. He knew the role, and had sung it at the small German opera house where he'd been working for the last five years. The music critic of the local newspaper had praised the "virile lyricism" of his voice and his perfect intonation.
Intonation had never been a problem, for Jeremy was among the minute percentage of the population with absolute pitch. Singing in tune came naturally. For a soloist this was a blessing, and he had rapidly progressed from the chorus to minor and then leading roles. The Germans had wanted him to stay, but he couldn't take the cold, dark winters any longer. Coming home had been a risk, but he had thought his European experience would count for something. Instead, since he'd been back—nothing. Until tonight. Could he do it? His Rodolfo had been highly praised, but that was in Germany. To make his Australian debut in the role was something else, especially in front of an audience who'd been expecting the great Trendini.
As soon as he arrived at the opera house he was rushed to the wardrobe department, where two women crawled around him sewing tucks into a pair of black trousers. The wardrobe mistress gave his leg a reassuring pat.
"Well, at least you'll look the part, dear. Trendini as a starving poet calls for too much suspension of disbelief, but you and Belfleur will make a lovely couple."
Belfleur! In his general panic Jeremy had forgotten that his Mimi would be Catherine Belfleur, the young French soprano who had shot to stardom in a meteoric burst.
"Not since Callas have we seen such sensitivity to every nuance of a role," the critics enthused. "The beauty of her tone is matched by her stunning stage presence..."
The more carping complained that, like Callas, her top notes weren't all they might be. Once Belfleur went above A, she was inclined to sing just a teeny touch flat. But this small flaw could be forgiven for the purity of her middle register, the plangency of her lower voice, the emotional intensity of her interpretations, and her looks.
This last was something everyone agreed on. Belfleur looked gorgeous. She was tall and graceful, her features were finely cut, her blue eyes enormous, and her fair hair fell to her waist in a rippling cascade.
It was with this goddess that Jeremy would be sharing the stage. She was bound to be puffed up by all the adulation and would be furious about singing with an unknown. Tonight would have been her first appearance with Trendini, an event awaited with bated breath by the critics—"The two greatest voices of our time meet at last," they gushed. Jeremy winced.
"Fifteen minutes," the Tannoy informed him.
Jeremy's stomach churned as if it had been he who'd eaten the bad oyster. He sat alone in Trendini's dressing room, surrounded by the cards and flowers intended for the great man. There were no good luck messages for Jeremy, but not even his parents knew he was appearing here tonight. The announcement would be made soon, he guessed.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we regret that Trendini is indisposed." Jeremy imagined the groans of disappointment. "At very short notice, the role of Rodolfo will be sung by the young Australian tenor, Jeremy Newcombe."
"Who's he? Never heard of him!" the audience would grumble. Would they demand their money back?
Just do the best you can, Jeremy instructed himself. He pressed his lucky silver star to his clammy forehead and tried to concentrate on the role. Thank goodness there was nothing difficult in the first half of the act. As long as he remembered the words, and as long as the other men were sympathetic, he should be all right. The real meat of the act was in Rodolfo's scene with Mimi, when the little seamstress came down from her attic to get a light for her candle. She tapped at his door.
"Chi è là?" called Rodolfo/Jeremy. "Who's there?"
"Scusi," a woman's voice responded, and a tall, slender figure entered the dressing room.
"Belfleur!" Jeremy exclaimed, starting up in surprise.
Belfleur leant back against the door. She was clad in Mimi's plain grey dress, and her hair was parted in the middle and twisted up at her neck.
"You must wish me luck," she whispered.
"I—wish you luck?" Jeremy stammered.
Belfleur came closer and he saw that she was trembling.
"You will think I am vairy silly," she said shakily, "but I am superstitious. Always my Papa travel with me, and before I sing he come to my dressing room. He kiss me here, here and here"—she touched an index finger to her cheeks and forehead—" and he say, 'Bonne chance, chérie!' Then I can sing. But Papa has broke his leg and cannot come, and who is to wish me luck? I am feared to ask. Then I think, this Zhaireemee Noocoome who replace the fat Trendini, he is not famous, he will not laugh at me. So—please?" She looked at Jeremy beseechingly, her magnificent eyes underlined by the dark shadows of Mimi's make-up.
Amazing, Jeremy thought. The world's at her feet, but she still needs her daddy's good luck kisses! And how charmingly she had mispronounced his name.
"I'm superstitious too," he said, and showed her the silver star before slipping it into the pocket of Rodolfo's tight trousers. He leant forward and, very carefully so as not to smudge her make-up, kissed her right cheek, then her left, then her forehead. Her skin tasted of powder and the salt of her nervous perspiration.
"'Bonne chance, chérie!'"
Belfleur smiled radiantly. "Thank you, Zhairee!"
Jeremy smiled back, thinking she had called him "chéri".
"I disturb you too long," she said, turning to go.
"Wait!" Jeremy cried, catching her hand. It was icy cold. "Your hand's freezing," he said with concern, and sang sotto voce: "Che gelida manina, se la lasci riscaldar: let me warm it." He held her hand in his and rubbed her fingers.
"Ten minutes," crackled the Tannoy, and Belfleur's hand jerked.
"Don't go yet," Jeremy said quickly. "I wanted to ask you—at the end of the act, our three off-stage 'Amors'. For the last one, would you rather I went up or down?"
"Trendini always go up," Belfleur said, frowning slightly, "but I do not mind. I leave it to you."
She left the room, calling "Good luck!" over her shoulder.
Jeremy made his way hurriedly to the stage and took up his position. He was now Rodolfo, the poor poet, gazing dreamily at the smoky Paris skies. His voice shook at his entry, then the familiar role enveloped him like a cloak. All he had to worry about was finding his way around the unfamiliar set during the busy scene with the other three bohemians. The baritone singing Marcello was particularly helpful, nudging him in the right direction and whispering instructions.
The others departed for the Café Momus, leaving Rodolfo alone to finish his magazine article. There was a tap at the door.
"Chi è là?"
Mimi entered, asking for a light for her candle. Intrigued, attracted and alarmed by her frailty, Rodolfo tried to detain her. Her re-lit candle blew out again, Rodolfo surreptitiously blew out his own, and in the moonlight they hunted on hands and knees for Mimi's dropped key.
"Ah!" Rodolfo exclaimed as he found the key and pocketed it. His trousers were very tight. Jeremy heard something small bounce across the stage. "Damn!" he muttered under his breath.
"L'ha trovata? Have you found it?" Belfleur sang, and whispered, "What?"
"No," Jeremy sang, and hissed, "My star."
"Oh no!" Belfleur gasped, realizing the seriousness of the loss. They hunted in earnest, continuing to exchange musical phrases.
"Cerca? Are you looking?" sang Belfleur.
"Cerco," Jeremy sang back, desperation in his voice.
"Here it is," Belfleur whispered, passing the star to him. Then she gave Mimi's startled "Ah!" as her hand met Rodolfo's in the dark.
They stood. Belfleur's hand was warm, the palm moist.
"Che gelida manina," Jeremy sang, "se la lasci riscaldar ..."
He poured out the eloquent declaration of his hopes of fame, his dreams of love. It was the tenor's show-piece aria, and he put everything into it. His voice was lyrical, his intonation perfect. When he finished there was a few seconds' hush before a storm of applause and shouts of "Bravo!"
Flushed and triumphant, Jeremy forgot his role and beamed at the audience. Belfleur squeezed his hand. He turned to her and was astonished to see she was beaming too. He thought: She really cares!
The audience shushed each other, and Belfleur began Mimi's touchingly innocent reply, "Mi chiamano Mimi: they call me Mimi ..."
Jeremy stood motionless through the aria. Half his mind was on Belfleur's ravishing singing, while the other half worried about the forthcoming Amors. What Puccini had written was a subtle piece of harmony. The tenor's second Amor finished on F, then his third Amor began on the same note and dropped to E, while the soprano soared from A to high C. However, a tradition had arisen of the tenor showing off by also going from A to C for the final Amor, so that he and the soprano were in octave unison.
Jeremy couldn't decide which to do. He preferred Puccini's version, but Trendini always went up and Jeremy wanted to make the maximum impact. On the other hand, Belfleur's top C was bound to be slightly flat. If his was in tune (which it would be) it might sound as if he was trying to outdo her. Flat top notes or not, she was the perfect Mimi, beautiful and moving; and she was so unexpectedly nice. But then again ...
The aria ended and the audience clapped and shouted. From off-stage came the voices of the three bohemians, hurrying-up the tardy Rodolfo.
"We won't be long," he called to them.
Go for impact, Jeremy thought. Anything Trendini can do, I can do better.
The love duet between Rodolfo and Mimi began. "Passion sets my soul on fire," sang Rodolfo. "Love alone commands me!" Mimi responded. Their voices blended enchantingly.
Jeremy dithered. Subtlety might be more effective.
They were leaving for the Café Momus. Rodolfo offered his arm, and Mimi took it with a sweet smile.
"Che m'ami di'," Rodolfo begged. "Say that you love me."
"Io t'amo," Mimi confessed meltingly.
Arm in arm, they passed through the doorway. They paused off-stage and turned.
"Amor, Amor ..." they sang, the ardent notes floating above the pianissimo orchestra.
Jeremy made up his mind. This was his big chance, after all. He went up from F to A.
He looked into Belfleur's face and saw her straining for the top note. She won't get there, he thought: I shouldn't have done this. But it wasn't too late.
He shut his eyes and, for Belfleur, made a supreme effort of mental contortion.
Jeremy's top C was flat. They were in perfect unison.
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