San Franciscio Opera


Happy Friday! Last weekend I took my daughter Mélanie to The Magic Flute at San Francisco Opera, her first full “grown up” opera. She loved it, and has been singing the Queen of the Night’s music. It was extra special that Papageno was played by Efraín Solís, a Merola Opera Program alum who was also her very first babysitter, back in the days when he was a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Efraín was wonderful and we got to see him afterwards.


Magic Flute is an opera Malcolm and Suzanne could introduce Colin and Jessica to. Perhaps they would play some of the music on a quiet evening, after the exciting events of Incident In Berkeley Square, enjoying an evening at home with the Davenports, Laura, Raoul, David, Simon, and everyone’s children.

Incident in Berkeley Square has been out for almost two weeks now. I thought it would be fun to do another survey, this one exclusively about it. As always, feel free to answer as few or many questions as you wish, with as much or little detail as you choose.

  1. Favorite scene
  2. Most romantic moment
  3. Most suspenseful moment
  4. Favorite ballgown
  5. New character you’d most like to see again
  6. Biggest surprise
  7. Biggest question about what happens in the next book

Have a wonderful weekend!!


Last Friday I saw an amazing Lohengrin at San Francisco Opera, including a truly fabulous vocal and dramatic performance by Brandon Jovanovich in the title role. With its story of a heroine who must swear never to ask her husband’s name and then begins to wonder who the man who married really is, the plot gave me a lot to think about in terms of the struggles I’m dramatizing for Suzanne and Malcolm. A key scene in the opera is Elsa and Lohengrin’s wedding night. Though it begins with the now iconic wedding march and includes some ravishing music, it is ultimately a confrontation that marks the end of a marriage rather than the consummation of one.

Watching it I thought about other memorable wedding night scenes. Peter and Harriet’s in Busman’s Honeymoon is probably my favorite for emotional resonance, but I was also thinking about stories in which the wedding night veers off from the expected and, as in Lohengrin, takes the couple in a different direction. One that immediately came to mind is Nicholas and Gelis’s wedding night in Scales of Gold in Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series. It contains what is known to Dunnett readers as The Wedding Night Surprise, a much analyzed and debated scene that changes the course of the marriage and the series. (As a side note, Saturday was Dorothy Dunnett Day, and I spent it at lunch with some wonderful Dunnett readers).

For my November teaser it seems appropriate to post a bit from Malcolm and Suzanne’s wedding night from His Spanish Bride (which will be released on November 23). What are some of your favorite wedding night scenes?

I just got some gorgeous coverflats for The Paris Affair, so I’ll give away a signed one to one of this week’s commenters. And check out this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition from Cordelia to Violet.


Malcolm drew a breath and rapped at the bedchamber door.
“Yes.” His wife’s—his wife’s—voice came from behind the polished panels. “That is, come in.”
He turned the handle. Never had he felt such trepidation at stepping into his own bedchamber.
Suzanne sat on the dressing table bench, wrapped in a dressing gown of seafoam silk. Her dark hair spilled loose over her shoulders, the cropped bits still curled round her face. Her bare feet peeped out from beneath the silk and muslin of her dressing gown and nightdress. He had seen her in dresses that exposed more skin, but something about the déshabille was at once more seductive and more vulnerable than any glimpse he’d had of her before. His throat closed. His mind clamped down on every impulse of his body.
“Do you have everything you need?” His voice sounded thin to his own ears.
“Yes.” Her own voice was like frayed silk. “Addison arranged things perfectly. Though I’m afraid I’ve quite taken over your dressing table.”
Enamel boxes and glass jars clustered on the dressing table top. He wasn’t sure what had become of his shaving kit until he saw it on the chest of drawers. He saw something else beside the chest of drawers. A silver cooler with a bottle of champagne.
“Addison left that for us,” Suzanne said. “A touch of romance I wouldn’t have expected.” She bit her lip as though she wasn’t sure about the word “romance.”
Two crystal glasses stood on the escritoire, sparkling in the light from the brace of candles. Malcolm wasn’t sure whether to thank his valet or groan. He picked up the champagne bottle and opened it, which at least gave him something to do with his hands. He splashed champagne on the dressing table but managed to hand Suzanne a glass without breaking it or spattering champagne on her. He picked up his own glass and touched it to hers. To say “to us” seemed presumptuous when there scarcely was an “us.” Instead he said, “To the future.”
She smiled and took a sip of champagne. He did as well, a rather deeper sip than he intended. “Suzanne—” He retreated to lean against the chest of drawers. “We needn’t— There needn’t be anything between us until after the baby’s born. Or even after that. Not until—not unless you’re ready.”
He more than half-expected her to look away. Instead she met his gaze. Her eyes looked very open. He realized it was because she’d removed the blacking she used to line them and darken her lashes. “You already made that very obliging offer. But we’re married, and I think we should begin as we mean to go on, as it were. “
He took another sip of champagne. His mouth was dry. “What I’m trying to say is you can define how we mean to go on.”
“And what I’m trying to say is that I’d welcome new memories to make the old go away.”

I spent this afternoon at a fabulous matinee of Werther at San Francisco Opera. The production, directed by Francisco Negrin and conducted by Emmanuel Villaume, brought out the layers and ambiguities in the story and made me like the opera more than I had on previous viewings (though I still think the opera lacks the irony in the novel). Watching the opera, I was reminded that the Goethe novel it’s based on (The Sorrows of Young Werther) was wildly popular among young people in the late 18th century. A lot of young readers apparently took its tale of star-crossed love seriously, though the book can be read as commenting on the dangers of wallowing in romanticism. It’s a book most of my characters probably would have read as teens. I haven’t referenced it in my books, but I think I will in the future. It’s interesting to contemplate who would have been caught up in the romance of the story and who would have seen the ironies (Charles, I’m sure, would have seen the ironies; Gisèle might have been caught up in the romance).

I recently saw another opera that I have referenced in my books, The Marriage of Figaro. A sequence in Vienna Waltz takes place at a performance of the opera. And Mélanie’s middle name (and the name of her Vienna Waltz alter ego) is Suzanne after the Beaumarchais play upon which the opera is based (Susanna in the opera). The Beaumarchais trilogy, with its sharp critique of class structure, was a favorite of both Mélanie’s father and of Raoul. Colin’s stuffed bear is named Figaro, presumably because his parents have told him the story. When I originally wrote Daughter of the Game, I struggled to find the piece of music with a precise chord that Charles knows always brings tears to Mélanie’s eyes. After the book was published, the Merola Opera Program performed The Marriage of Figaro, and I realized that of course the piece of music that would have that affect on Mel should be the Countess’s aria “Dove Sono”, in which she asks where the happy moments of her marriage have gone. I was able to make the change in the text when the book was reissued as Secrets of a Lady.

I’ve also, as I’ve mentioned, been rereading Pride and Prejudice on my ipad. I’ve written Fraser Correspondence letters in which Mel, Charles, and Simon talk about Pride and Prejudice (with Mel and Simon comparing both Charles and David to Darcy). It’s fun to reread it thinking about how my characters would react to the story.

Does reading historical fiction drive you to seek out novels or plays written in the same era? What’s it like going from an historical novel to a novel or play actually written in the era? Writers, do you read novels and plays written in the era about which you’re writing?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is Mel’s reply to Simon’s letter from last week.

This past weekend was opening weekend at San Francisco Opera. Which meant that instead of spending the weekend curled up with research books and my laptop as I frequently do, Friday night I got to dress up in a favorite long dress and put my hair up with lots of ringlets and enjoy sweeping over marble stairs in a long skirt (which always makes me feel like a character in one of my books), sipping champagne, and listening to fabulous music (Verdi’s Aida). And Sunday I got to lounge on the lawn at Sharon Meadow in Golden Gate Park, picnicking with friends and listening to more opera at a glorious Opera in the Park concert.

Getting back to work today, I found I was rejuvenated. I find music makes for wonderful writing inspiration. Which made this seem like a good time to post a video clip about the influence of composers on Vienna Waltz:

Do you associate particular composers or pieces of music with particular books? Do you like books with musicians as characters? Any particular favorites? Writers, do you get inspiration from music? Do you listen to music when you write?

I’ve just posted a new letter to the Fraser Correspondence from Raoul to Mélanie, inspired by the great discussion following last week’s post.

San Francisco Opera’s fall season opened with a fabulous production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore. I was lucky enough to see it three times (the final dress rehearsal, a simulcast at ATT ballpark, and the closing performance). The production updated the setting from medieval Spain to the Peninsular War, which of course I loved. The Goya-inspired setting fit well with a story of war, divided families, and one atrocity leading to another.

At the heart of Trovatore’s tangled, over-the-top plot are two brothers, separated at birth, now unknown to each other fighting for opposite sides and rivals for the love of the same woman. Watching the opera, I found myself thinking about brothers in literature. As I write this, I’m watching The Man in the Iron Mask, yet another take on brothers separated at birth who become rivals. Sibling relationships are fascinating, but in British historical stories the laws of inheritance make the rivalry between brothers particularly intense. Among the aristocracy the eldest son inherits the title and estates, while younger sons may at best receive a secondary property of their mother’s and in many cases have to make their own way in the world as soldiers, ministers, or barristers. In As You Like It, Orlando is living as a servant on the dubious charity of his elder brother Oliver who has inherited all the family lands and fortune.

Questions of legitimacy can further complicate this rivalry. In King Lear, the Duke of Gloucester’s illegitimate son Edmund sets out to destroy his legitimate brother Edgar, driven by the pent up jealousy of watching his brother be heir to their father’s lands and title due to the fact that Edgar’s mother was married to the duke while Edmund was born on the wrong side of the blanket.

The issues grow even more tangled when an acknowledged son and heir may actually be illegitimate. The rivalry between Lymond and Richard runs through Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles (including one of the best literary sword fights I’ve ever read in The Game of Kings). At the heart of that rivalry is competition for parental affection and the family estates, and the question of who is who’s son, who deserves what, who is loved best. What makes rivalry between brothers particularly interesting, is that it tends to be mixed, as in Lymond and Richard’s case, with strong love that goes back to the cradle.

I think I had Lymond and Richard in mind when I created Charles and Edgar in Secrets of a Lady. I know I was thinking of Edmund and Edgar, because I deliberately named my Edgar after the legitimate brother from Lear. I decided quite early on in the plotting process, over lattes with my friend Penny, that Charles was illegitimate, that Edgar knew this and Charles didn’t, and that part of Edgar’s motivation stemmed from feeling that everything Charles had inherited should rightfully be his. I also knew I wanted the bond between the brothers to be strong, so that Edgar’s betrayal would be a particularly intense blow to Charles (poor Charles gets betrayed a great deal).

Beneath a Silent Moon features another pair of brothers in Quen and Val. There’s a rivalry between them that their father has encouraged. Charles tells Mel about the boys trying to scale the Old Tower at Dunmykel when they were children. But I found as I wrote the book that, despite the fact that much of Val’s behavior is appalling, the relationship between the two brothers was more complex and had more affection in it than I had at first envisioned. Quen and Val’s relationship is also clouded by questions of legitimacy as the story progresses. I think that one of the reasons I write about legitimacy and illegitimacy in so many books is that so much of the social order among British aristocrats was build on birth. So that questions about legitimacy can strike at the very foundations of that world (foundations which Edgar, in particular, takes very seriously).

In Beneath a Silent Moon, the reader doesn’t see Val react to the revelations about Quen’s birth, but in the letters I wrote for the new edition, Quen writes to Aspasia that Val said their father “wouldn’t do violence to himself–Talbots have too strong a sense of self-preservation, as we both should know. I pointed out that I’m apparently not a Talbot, as I had explained to him before we left Scotland. Val shot me one of his looks and said I’d been raised as one, I couldn’t escape the legacy.” Val handles the revelation of his elder brother’s illegitimacy better than Edgar. But then, for all his faults, I think Val has more ambiguity tolerance than Edgar.

Do you like stories about brothers? What are some favorites? Writers, do you enjoy writing about brothers as rivals?

In honor of the National Equity March, this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a love letter from Simon to David.

I had another blog topic in mind for today, but I came home (from a fabulous San Francisco Opera “Opera in the Park” concert) to an interesting question from Anne K on the Fraser Correspondence page about David and Simon. I had fun posting a long answer, and then I realized I wasn’t sure how many people would see Anne’s question and my answer, because I wasn’t sure how many people check out the comments on the Fraser Correspondence page. So I thought I would turn both into this week’s blog. Which ties in nicely with this week’s Fraser Correspondence letter, Charles’s reply to David’s recent letter about the difficult family dinner he attended and the pressure his father is putting on him to marry and produce an heir.

Anne said, “egarding David and Simon (two of my favorite characters), I ma surprised that Simon is accepted into David’s family’s home. It would seem to me that David’s father would eventually wage war against Simon as a way to get David to “take his responsibilities as a future earl seriously”. Maybe he (David’s father) is a more complicated and interesting person…

For David, really, his concern should be lessened, if he would appoint Belle’s son as his heir. Besides, wouldn’t that be the way the lineage would work, if David outlived his father and died himself childless? Alternatively, he could adopt a some foundling and name him/her as the heir/heiress. If he really needed some good publicity about it, the mother could claim him as a father — in her dying breath. Simon does know an actress or two. Too much a Winter’s Tale?”

Her questions rather a number of interesting issues relating both the British inheritance laws and the dynamics of the Mallinson/Carfax family. Here’s my reply to Anne with a few edits and embellishments:

I’m glad you like Simon and David. I’m very fond of them both and enjoy writing them and exploring the dynamics of their relationship. David’s father, Lord Carfax, is an interesting character. He features prominently in The Mask of Night. He actually started out much more as a stereotype of a bluff English gentleman and got much more interesting and complex in subsequent drafts (I changed a reference to Carfax in the new edition of Beneath a Silent Moon to fit with his evolving character). Carfax was Charles’s spymaster, and I think in many ways Charles is the son he’d have liked to have, or at least that’s what David thinks (though Charles and Carfax clash frequently too).

Simon and David officially are friends who share rooms, as many single young men did. David’s family go along with that story and therefore sometimes include Simon at family events. I think Lord and Lady Carfax are wise enough to know that pushing this point would push David away. And they hope this is a phase that David will grow out of. But I think you’re right, as time goes by, Carfax is likely to try to drive a wedge between David and Simon. I actually have some thoughts for how this will play out in subsequent books, which will have repercussions on Charles and Mélanie.

Because the Carfax title and estates go through the male line (as most British peerages do), Isobel’s son wouldn’t be the heir after David. Since David is the only son, the next in line would be his father’s younger brother, if he had one. As Carfax doesn’t have younger brothers, the title would then go to the descendants of Carfax’s father’s younger brother. So a second cousin of David’s. David could adopt an heir for his personal possessions but not for the title and the entailed property. Even if he claimed a foundling as an illegitimate son that wouldn’t help, as illegitimate children couldn’t inherit titles or entailed property. The Carfax title and estates are in a sense a trust that David holds to pass onto the next generation. Part of his duty, as he sees it, is to raise up and groom an heir to pass them along to. And of course, the current Carfax would like the title and estates to go to his direct descendants (actually Isobel is probably Carfax’s favorite child, but the Carfax title isn’t one of the rare ones that can pass through the female line).

So the conflict David faces between his love for Simon and what he sees as his duty as the future Lord Carfax is a complex one. As is the conflict between his liberal principles (something he and Charles share) and his deeply ingrained sense of what it means to be a future earl.

Any thoughts on where you think the tensions in the Mallinson/Carfax family are headed? Historical writers, do you enjoy dealing with inheritance issues and how they influence your characters? Any favorite books in which the intricacies of inheritance and entails drive the story?

As you may have seen if you happen to follow me on Twitter, during a performance of Tosca at San Francisco Opera last week, I found myself thinking about how Mélanie would have played the situation differently from Tosca. Yes, I think about my books and characters all the time, even-or perhaps especially-at the theater. After Adrianne Pieczonka’s powerful “Vissi d’Arte” (in which Tosca realizes she’s going to have to agree to sleep with Scarpia to save her lover Cavaradossi) I decided that Mélanie probably wouldn’t have killed Scarpia as Tosca does. She’d have been too aware of the complications that would create. His body would be discovered, and ten to one they’d be caught before they could escape. Mel would have been quite capable of going through with the bargain and sleeping with Scarpia. But she’d also have been aware of the likelihood that Scarpia would double-cross her, so she’d have figured out some plan to outwit him. Of course, Charles would have played the situation differently from Mario Cavaradossi in the first place (he’d have told Mel what was going on for one thing). Not to mention that Charles and Mel might well have had different agendas from each other, which would have led to a whole new set of complications…

I was also struck, as I have been before, by some interesting parallels between Tosca and The Scarlet Pimpernel. The three central characters are similar in both–the beautiful, emotional actress, the idealistic hero, the cold, scheming police chief/agent. But the most striking parallels are not to the original Scarlet Pimpernel book, but to later adaptations. It’s in the film adaptations (and the musical) that one finds the triangle Marguerite/Percy/Chauvelin triangle which has similarities to the Tosca/Cavaradossi/Scarpia triangle. And then there’s the ending. Tosca ends with Cavaradossi going through what is supposed to be a mock execution, only Scarpia double-crosses Tosca, and Cavaradossi actually dies. The Howard/Oberson and Andrews/Seymour Scarlet Pimpernels end with the reverse. Marguerite believes Percy has been executed, only to learn it was a mock execution (does anyone know if the mock execution is in any other versions of TSP?).

Do you ever find yourself watching a play, opera, movie, tv show and thinking of how characters from a different story would behave in similar circumstances? Writers, do you find yourselves imagining what your own characters would do in the plot of another story? Has anyone else noticed the Tosca/Scarlet Pimpernel parallels?

Talking of Mélanie’s behavior in the midst of intrigue, this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is another dispatch from her to Raoul from the Congress of Vienna.

I recently saw an opera I’d never seen before, Puccini’s “La Rondine” (a lovely production at San Francisco Opera with Angela Gheorghiu and Misha Didyk). The story is not an unsual one. Magda, a beauiful worldly woman who is the mistress to a banker, falls in with an ardent, naïve young man. She leaves her glamorous life in Paris and runs off with the young man. She doesn’t succumb to consumption like Violetta in “La Traviata,” but when her young lover proposes and starts talking about taking her to meet his mother and raising children, she decides she’s too damaged to be his wife and leaves him (in a stunning, poignant aria).

Magda is just the sort of heroine I always find myself wanting to have a happy ending. I’ve always thought “fallen women” make some of the most interesting heroines–there’s so much history and potential conflict (not to mention that they often get to wear the best clothes; I noticed that even before I was quite old enough to understand what a “fallen woman” was :-). Rakish heroes often reform and settle down with virtuous young girls. Even if they think their past makes them unfit to touch the hem of their beloved’s gown, the heroines can usually persuade them otherwise (a couple of lovely scenes from Georgette Heyer’s “These Old Shades” and “Venetia” come to mind). But the double standard ensures that the rake’s female counterpart seems doomed to a tragic ending in most stories.