Hi! It’s a long time, since I’ve posted, and our world is such a different place. In the chaos of the past few weeks – canceled plans, learning to wear masks, learning how to use FaceTime and Zoom, worrying about friends and family – finishing up The Tavistock Plot has helped keep me sane. And now, on May 14, Malcolm and Mélanie Rannoch’s latest adventure will be out in the world. I can’t wait to be able to talk about it with readers (though of course it’s always a bit nerve-wracking waiting for responses).

The Tavistock Plot takes its name from the fictional Tavistock Theatre managed by Simon Tanner, where Mélanie Rannoch’s first play is premiering in the book. As I mentioned to friends at a Zoom birthday party tonight, it was both poignant and exhilarating to be working on a story set in the theatre when so many theatres are dark. This week started with the Merola Opera Program, where I work in the non-novelist part of my life, announcing the cancellation of our 2020 training program and festival season. It ended this evening with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where my daughter Mélanie and I go three times a year, announcing the cancellation of their fall season (after the spring and summer had already been cancelled). At a time when so many of my singer and actor friends are unable to perform, I am so grateful that writing is one art form that is not limited by quarantine. I’ve been reading excerpts from it on video on social media which you can find on my Facebook page. I’m already plotting next fall’s Rannoch novella, and the novel after that…

How are you coping in these challenging times? What are you finding to keep you going? My daughter Mélanie and I are making up stories and I’m reading Pride and Prejudice out loud to her. We’re having movie nights and learning that Zoom works for group playdates as well as meetings. We’re both expanding our cooking repertoire (we love risotto). With spring, we’re enjoying our yard (where we are in the picture above, with Mélanie’s first toy and constant companion Guena). We both love chances to connect with people. And I’m excited that The Tavistock Plot will soon give me the opportunity to do so.

Stay safe!

Tracy

Hard to believe, but it’s just a bit over two weeks until the release of London Gambit! I had a busy weekend with the Merola Opera Program’s Benefit Gala, April in Paris. In addition to raising funds for a wonderful cause, this event always make me think about the social events in my books. The clink of champagne glasses, the strains of music, the wandering entertainment (wonderful mimes and accordionist at this event), the flowers and candlelight, the hours in evening shoes, the feel of walking about in a long gown, the waiters/footmen passing drinks, the constant need to be “on” chatting with different people and circulating about the room. Above is a picture of Mélanie and me by the wonderful Kristen Loken -literally the first shot of the night, taken when we were testing the light for photos.

On another book-related note, I’m considering a possible Author Chat around London Gambit. Would you all be interested? And would you prefer to do it on my website, Good Reads, or Facebook? What day/time would be best?

Have a great week!

Tracy

8.12.15TracyMel

Happy Friday! The Merola summer is winding down. This week we had  our last public Master Class of the summer (the picture above if Mélanie and me when I got back) afterwards) with Antony Walker, who will conduct our Merola Grand Finale concert next weekend on August 22 (the culmination of the program and a wonderful chance to hear all the Merola vocalists sing on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House for anyone in the Bay Area).

I’ve taken a mini-break from my WIP to get started on novella that will be out this fall. I wanted to have a good start on the novel before I focused on the novella. Once I had the plot idea for  the novella it’s been falling into place with surprising ease (at least so far :-). It takes place during a ball Suzanne and Malcolm are giving in Berkeley Square. I realized I’ve never written a scene of them entertaining in a big way. Lots of great possibilities and fun to do the novella all on one night, with all the pressure of hosting a large event..It takes place about a month and a half after the end of The Mayfair Affair.

Here’s a teaser excerpt that takes place while Malcolm and Suzanne waltz. Early draft, so my apologies in advance for errors.

Have a great weekend!

Tracy

Suzanne stepped into her husband’s arms and smiled up at him. “How bad is it?” she asked as the first strains sounded.
He swept her in front of him, their hands interlaced. “Nothing we can’t handle. Child’s play compared to six weeks ago or three months before that or—“
Suzanne spun beneath his arm  “It must be serious indeed if it’s driven you to seek refuge on the dance floor.”
“On the contrary. I’m well aware the dance floor provides good cover.” He pulled her back to him, chest to chest. At a distance Emily Cowper and the other patronesses of Almack’s would not approve, but there were advantages in being a married couple. “Bertrand de Lisles and O’Roarke are in the study. With a young woman they smuggled out of France. Not sure if she’s an agent or just a Bonapartist, but they had a run in with excisemen who were after the smuggler who got them into Britain.”
Suzanne drew a sharp breath. The movement of the dance had her spun out to the side so she couldn’t look into Malcolm’s eyes. “Is anyone injured?”
“The young Frenchwoman. It’s not dire, but you should take a look at her. Bertrand’s all right. So’s O’Roarke, and it doesn’t look as though he’s met with anything serious in Spain.”
Suzanne spun back towards her husband and saw a relief in his gaze that mirrored her own. Last winter she’d never have believed they could get to this point.  Where Charles knew the truth about her and about Raoul, and Raoul was a frequent guest in their house. But perhaps oddest of all was that these days their feelings about Raoul seemed remarkably similar. Largely involving worry about what he might be getting into in Spain. She gave her husband a bright smile, part distraction for anyone watching them, part defiance in the face of challenge. “Life never gets dull, does it?”
“Not for long.”
“Darling, you’re enjoying this.”
He twirled her again. “Of course not.”
“Really, Malcolm, I know you better than that. The distraction of a mission and an excuse to escape into the study during a ball. It’s the answer to your prayers.”
He gave an bashed grin and pulled her back into his arms. “Put that like that— I’m not glad anyone’s injured. But I can’t deny it’s livened up the evening.”
“And you accuse me of living dangerously.” She looked into her husband’s gray eyes, so familiar, but often so unreadable. There was a time, not so very long ago, when she’d never thought to again see trust or tenderness in them again. She was beyond fortunate to have both back, even if the shadows of the past still hung between them. Now that he had communicated the most urgent facts, it occurred to her that her husband, a former British agent (assuming one could ever be a former agent) was hiding a French agent in his study. She drew a breath. “Darling—”
“Remarkable how far we’ve come, isn’t it?” He smiled. A sweet smile intended to reassure but also to deflect further probing into whatever he was thinking. There were some things Malcolm still wasn’t prepared to share with her. “I’ll cover so you can go in and tend to the woman. And we should send some food in. The Frenchwoman’s name is  Lisette d’Armagnac. At least that’s what they told me. Do you know her?”
He paused slightly before that last question, and Suzanne realized he wasn’t entirely certain she’d tell him the truth. “No,” she said. “Truly. At least not by that name. Did she say she knows me?”
“Not precisely. But she says she has a message for you.”
A chill shot through Suzanne. Along with the dangerous thrill that a return to game could still bring. “About what?”
“I didn’t ask.” Malcolm spun her under his arm and pulled her against him, her back to his chest. “Once you’ve found out what it is you can decide whether you want to tell me.”
She couldn’t see into his eyes, but she could feel the trust in the steadiness of his voice and the strength of his arm round her. Trust was such a precious thing and a fragile burden. That could upend a marriage if it tipped the wrong way. “Darling—“
He spun her to the side, their arms crisscrossed overhead, then forwards to face him. “All things considered, it’s probably best I know the truth. Makes evenings like these much easier to navigate.”
How often in the past four and a half months had humor saved them? It was, as Malcolm said, sometimes the only possible response. And yet Suzanne suspected that for her husband it was also a defensive shield. A shield over feelings still too raw to share with her. Over feelings he perhaps feared to let himself express. A shield she had no right to breech, even assuming she could do so.
“Of course I’ll—“
Malcolm’s fingers tightened on her own. “Best not to make promises.”
She nodded. “Carfax—“
“I know.” His mouth tightened. “No reason to think he has a whiff of what’s going on, but we’d best tread warily. I’ll keep an eye on him.” He turned round, holding her against him. “As you say, life certainly stays interesting.”

Mummy back from Merola's Schwabacher Summer Concert

Mummy back from Merola’s Schwabacher Summer Concert

Happy Friday! If you’re like me, you now spend the weekend anticipating the new version of Poldark on PBS Sunday nights. I still have vivid memories of being glued to the original series with my parents in late night reruns in the 80s. Watching Ross Poldark torn between Elizabeth and Demelza (and frequently thinking “won’t you wake up to what’s in front of you?”) I’ve been thinking about triangles. Last night at Merola’s wonderful Schwabacher Summer Concert a fabulous except from Verdi’s Don Carlo also made me think about the fascination of triangles (for those in the Bay Area, the concert is repeated Saturday at 2:00 for free outdoors at Yerba Buena Gardens).

The Mayfair Affair takes the Suzanne/Malcolm/Raoul triangle in some interesting new directions. This seemed a good time to ask what readers think of the current state of that triangle (is it even still a triangle?) and of literary triangles in general, and also to repost a post I originally put up in 2011 on Squaring the Triangle.

Have a great weekend!

Tracy

“Squaring the triangle” is a term the playwright hero of S.N. Behrman’s No Time for Comedy flippantly uses to describe what he does writing romantic comedies. I was thinking about this last week watching one of my favorite television shows, The Good Wife. The heroine is back together, at least on the surface, with the husband who betrayed her. Peter Florek is a deeply flawed character, yet I find him likable in many ways, and in last week’s episode I genuinely believed him when he said he’d fallen back in love with his life. I almost found myself wanting their marriage to work out. And that’s despite the fact that I really like Alicia’s colleague and old love, Will, and most of the time I desperately want the two of them to get together.

That’s the key to writing a really fascinating triangle, I think. Having all the characters interesting and sympathetic enough that one is somewhat torn about who ends up with whom. Which of course can create problems with also having a satisfying happily ever after, if such an ending is the goal of the story. As I’ve mentioned before, I think one of my favorite plays/movies, The Philadelphia Story, does this brilliantly in that both Mike and Dexter are sympathetic and possible options for Tracy (both much better than her stuffy fiancé George). I think often the viewer isn’t quite sure who will end up with whom. And yet the ending feels very right (at least to me).

Both Vienna Waltz and The Mask of Night have several triangles. I don’t really want Mélanie/Suzanne to go back to Raoul, at least not in that way (or mostly not in that way, to paraphrase both Charles and Mel in Mask). But I’m very fond of Raoul and I can definitely see that tug between them. As Jeanne adeptly pointed out in last week’s comments, he represents a world in which Mel can practice her talents to the fullest and be herself, whereas in Charles’s world she has to work more behind-the-scenes (though she manages rather a lot of adventure in any case). Raoul ended up much more sympathetic than I had at first envisioned when I wrote Secrets of a Lady, and I think that makes the dynamic among the three of them much more interesting. Not to mention that in addition to the residual romantic tension, there’s a spy dynamic, ideological issues, and a father-son story between Raoul and Charles that takes on more prominence in Mask.

The plot of Vienna Waltz is more or less built on triangles–the triangle of Tatiana, Tsar Alexander, and Metternich which forms the set-up of the murder discovery and investigation; Suzanne/Mel, Malcolm/Charles, and Tatiana (which, whatever else it is or is not, is certainly an emotional tug-of-war); and real life triangles such as both Metternich, the tsar and Wihelmine of Sagan, and Metternich, the tsar, and Princess Catherine Bagration (Metternich and Tsar Alexander definitely carried their rivalry into the boudoir). And then there’s the triangle which is still very much an open question at the end of the book of Dorothée, Count Clam-Martinitz, and Prince Talleyrand. Dorothée isn’t sure at the end of the novel which man she’ll end up with, and that’s certainly a real life triangle in which I can sympathize with all three participants.

What do you think of triangles in books? What are some of your favorite literary triangles? Are there times when you’ve been dissatisfied with the resolution of a triangle?

Laura's parlor. Not unlike rooms that feature in The Mayfair Affair.

Laura’s parlor. Not unlike rooms that feature in The Mayfair Affair.

The discussion inspired by Laura the doll’s dark blue pelisse (which resembles Laura Dudley’s pelisse in The Mayfair Affair) was wonderful. The same day we bought the pelisse and hat at the American Girl doll store at the Stanford Mall, we wandered through the rest of the store, drinking in the exquisite doll worlds. In addition to dolls and doll clothes, there were several rooms or other settings to go with different dolls, including a beautifully detailed Regency era parlor. Before we left, I checked the price, so I’d know if it was possibility for a birthday or Christmas. Only to find it was well over half off. Which meant it was affordable and most likely discontinued.

Needless to say, we left the store with the parlor. I was going to keep it for the next gift occasion. But when we got back from the party we were in the area to attend and Mélanie was asleep, I couldn’t resist setting it up. And then I couldn’t resist keeping it up. Mélanie loves it. It’s better than a doll house because can sit down in it herself and play so that it’s almost like a play house. And I can envision scenes from my books happening within those pale blue walls.

A tea party in Laura's parlor

A tea party in Laura’s parlor

Editing The Mayfair Affair, I realized that several of the rooms in different houses in the book have blue walls (including Suzanne and Malcolm’s “small salon”). I was going to change some to different colors, but then I decided it was a nice commentary that the color runs through the lives of different characters, in different social classes The color, as Laura’s parlor demonstrates, seems to go with the period.
On a different note, we just got the official pictures from Merola Benefit Gala by the wonderful Kristen Loken. I love this picture of Mélanie and me and can’t resist sharing.
Have a wonderful weekend! Happy Mother’s Day to moms and honorary moms!
Cheers,
Trac

photo: Bonnie Glaser

photo: Bonnie Glaser

Happy Friday! I’m in the midst of prep for my annual New Year party. I’ll be back with a longer post next week, but meanwhile, check out a couple of posts I’ve done on other sites. On History Hoydens I’m talking about Georgette Heyer and Warwick House Regencies and on the Merola Opera Program’s blog I’m talking about Don Giovanni and the complexities of desire.

Have a great weekend!!

photo: Bonnie Glaser

photo: Bonnie Glaser

Happy weekend! Last Saturday Mélanie and I had the fun of enjoying another outdoor movie. This time It was Frozen, Mel’s favorite movie and one I love as well. (I’m planning a blog about why for the future). There was a visit from Queen Elsa before the movie started, so Mélanie was in transports. A lot of the kids sang along to “Let It Go” and I confess I was hard pressed not to do so myself. Afterwards we had a fun pizza dinner (pic above). I love sharing movies with her, and she’s getting old enough that we’re starting to be able to enjoy live performances as well.

I’m deep in a second (or third, depending on how one counts) of my WIP, but I’ve been out and about online quite a bit recently as well. I wrote a blog for the Merola Opera Program about the historical facts behind Donizetti’s Anna Bolena that allowed me to combine my love of opera and history. I later reworked the blog for History Hoydens, and I blogged on History Hoydens about what travel would be like for Malcolm and Suzanne and family as opposed to Mélanie and me. And I had the great fun of being interviewed on  The Bubblebath Reader, as part of a celebration of Lauren Willig’s fabulous Pink Carnation books.

Due to length, Ashley had to cut a couple of questions (she asked great questions, and I have a way of talking on :-). So I thought it would be fun to post the outtakes here. Be sure to head over to The Bubblebath Reader and  read the whole interview.

Ashley: Do you have any unique talents or hobbies?
Tracy: I did a lot of acting in high school and college and was an apprentice at the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college. I love opera and was a Board member of the Merola Opera Program, a professional training program for opera singers, coach/pianists, and stage directors, for many years. I now work for Merola part time as Director of Foundation, Corporate, and Government Relations.

Ashley: You’ve created a really fascinating cast of supporting characters for Malcolm and Suzanne.  Do you have a favorite of these characters to write?  If you could give any of these characters their own novel, which one would it be?

Tracy: One of the things I love about writing a series is being able to create a large cast of characters and follow their stories from book to book. It’s hard to pick favorites, but I particularly enjoy writing Harry and Cordelia Davenport. They both came to life very easily from their first appearance in “Imperial Scandal.” David and Simon are also favorites and there’s a lot to their story I haven’t told yet. And Raoul O’Roarke is also wonderfully fun to write. His voice came to me very easily from the first, whereas it takes longer to get the voice for other characters. Raoul feels so central to Malcolm and Suzanne’s story that I didn’t really think of him as a secondary character at first. I also love writing some of the real historical characters, particularly Wilhelmine of Sagan, Dorothée Talleyrand, and Prince Talleyrand himself. It’s difficult to think of any of these characters without Malcolm and Suzanne, but if I wrote a book that focused on another character, it would probably be Harry and Cordy or Raoul or David and Simon. Raoul plays a major role in my WIP and David and Simon will figure prominently in one of the future books, though in both cases Malcolm and Suzanne are still central.

A few weeks ago, thanks to my work at the Merola Opera Program, I had six days in a row of events. This meant a lot of childcare juggling and the fun and challenge of putting together six outfits for events involved a lot of the same people. In days after, catching up on sleep, email, and housework, i thought about characters like Suzanne and Cordelia, whose adventures occur amid a social whirl, whether in London, Vienna, or Paris. I don’t think I’d properly considered how exhausting those events are, quite without the added intrigue and adventures their encounter. Going out every night, choosing gowns and jewelry, and constantly needing to be “on”. Do you ever think about that when reading about characters existing in the whirl of the London (or other city) season?

Here, in pictures, is a look at my week. I managed not to repeat the same dress!

With Mélanie at my talk at Book Passage about the Merola season

With Mélanie at my talk at Book Passage about the Merola season

snuggles after Mummy talked

snuggles after Mummy talked

With Merola participant Casey Candebat at a Merola Signature Event

With Merola participant Casey Candebat at a Merola Signature Event

With Merola alum Quinn Kelsey and my friend Amii at another event

With Merola alum Quinn Kelsey and my friend Amii at another event

Opening night of Merola's production of "A Streetcar Named Desire"

Opening night of Merola’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”

With Merola alumna Maria Valdes at another event

With Merola alumna Maria Valdes at another event

Mélanie needing some mummy time before the Saturday "Streetcar" matinee

Mélanie needing some mummy time before the Saturday “Streetcar” matinee

7.19.14TracyMelIt’s a busy opera month for us! Above are Mélanie and me at Merola’s outdoor Schwabacher Summer Concert this weekend. This month’s teaser combines my WIP with my work for the Merola Opera Program. The talk I recently gave at Book Passage about Merola’s 2014 productions stirred some thoughts about Don Giovanni that made it into a scene I just wrote. It seemed a good time to post it. But please note, this is a first draft!

“I wonder if Don Giovanni would be so infernally attractive if Mozart hadn’t given him such ravishing melodies to sing.” Cordelia rested a gloved hand on the gilded paneling against which Gui Laclos was lounging. “The man doesn’t show a scrap of affection or concern for any of his conquests. Of course I used to pride myself on not taking my love affairs seriously.”
“There’s a difference between being light-hearted and callous, Cordy.” Gui gave a twisted smile. “You couldn’t be callous if you tried.”
It was good to see him smile, but his eyes were still shadowed and his face gaunt. “You may be seeing me through rose-colored glasses, my sweet.”
“No. You I think I’ve always seen clearly, Cordy.” For a moment, she thought he was going to confide in her, but instead he said, “Poor bastard, Don Ottavio. He tells Donna Anna his peace depends on her own and she doesn’t seem particularly interested.”
“And really, what more could a woman want than a man who put one’s happiness first. Unless of course he didn’t seem to understand one’s happiness.” Cordelia unfurled her fan and ran her fingers over the ebony and lace. “Donna Anna says when Don Giovanni broke into her room at first she thought it was Ottavio. I’ve always wondered if things progressed a bit before she realized it wasn’t. And if a part of her doesn’t wish Ottavio were a bit more like Giovanni. And so of course she’s wracked by guilt.”
“That makes  Ottavio’s situation even worse. How the devil is one supposed to know what a woman wants?”
It wasn’t like the usually cheerful Gui to take a love affair so seriously or bitterly. Cordelia turned against the paneling so she was facing him. “Is that the problem, Gui? A woman?”
He gave a bitter laugh. “You’re becoming as much of an investigator as your husband, Cordy.”
“I just hate to see you unhappy.”
“The devilish compassion of those who’ve found happiness who can’t understand why others can’t be as happy as they are. Not everyone can find perfection, Cordy.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Cordelia glimpsed her husband, face set in the sardonic lines that were his habitual company expression. Her heart warmed, in that ridiculous way it did when she looked at him the most seemingly trivial moments. ‘I wouldn’t call it perfection. But I know I’ve been far more fortunate than I have any righ to be. I thought perhaps something had happened with your family.”:
“No, Gabby and Rupert couldn’t be kinder. Unlike—“ He drew a breath, one of those moments that teeter between defense and confidence. “See here, Cordy. You’re a woman.”
“I was always under the impression that you thought so.”
Gui gave an abashed grin. “Sorry. I just need a woman’s perspective. I’m trying to understand— why would a woman suddenly lose interest in a fellow after months of seeming quite the opposite?”
Cordelia considered and as quickly abandoned numerous flippant responses that sprang to her lips. There had always been something endearing about Gui, something quite apart from the brief, diverting, light-hearted passion between them. Something that had endured beyond the end of that passion. “My dear— I’m sorry. But sometimes one does—grow past these things as it were.”
“But this wasn’t a casual fling like the one we had. It—“ Gui broke off and stared at her, eyes suddenly wide and oddly like those a schoolboy. “Oh, damn it,  I’m sorry, Cordy. I didn’t mean it that way.”
“It’s all right, dearest.” She touched his hand. “I think we were always admirably clear about what we meant to each other and what we didn’t mean. It’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to stay friends, which  I wouldn’t give up for anything.” She wondered sometimes why she hadn’t let it become anything deeper. Was it because she’d been afraid of the dangers of falling in love again? Or because a part of her had still been in love with Harry, though at the time she wouldn’t have admitted she’d ever loved her husband?
Gui squeezed her hand. “Nor would I. You’re the best, Cordy. I think I always knew you couldn’t be more than a friend.”
“Because of Harry? At the time I wouldn’t have admitted he’d ever been more than a husband of convenience.”
Gui’s dark gaze grew surprisingly shrewd in that way it sometimes did. “Perhaps I saw some things you missed. In any case, this was different. Not just a fortnight at a house party.” He swallowed, the torment back in his gaze. “But it wasn’t just the time it lasted. It started out casually enough. Some lighthearted flirtation while waltzing, stolen moments in the garden after a bit too much champagne. Sorry, don’t mean to give you too many details. But it soon became clear that it meant more.”
“To you?”
“To me certainly. I’ve always rather made a point of treating love affairs lightly.” He flushed, looked away, looked back at her. “Given that my entire identity was a house of cards, I couldn’t afford to treat them as much else. I don’t know when I realized this was different. When I couldn’t stop thinking about her. When the smallest brush of fingertips was enough to feed me for days. When the thought of life without her was a gnawing void I couldn’t contemplate. When I realized I’d rather hold her hand in the rain than lie on silken sheets with any other woman.” He shook his head. “I sound like a bad novel.”
“You sound like a man in love. Rather more articulate about it than many.”
He turned his head and met her gaze, his own vulnerable as glass. “The thing is I’d swear her feelings were engaged as strongly. We talked round it. She was guarded, protecting her reputation, protecting herself. But I could see it in her eyes. That is, I would have sworn I could see it. Until a fortnight ago. When she told me it was over.”
“In those words?”
“She said it had been very agreeable, but that we’d both always known it had to end, that we’d let it go on too long as it was, and best to cry off as friends before we grew bored. The sort of thing I’ve said a dozen times myself. The sort of thing—“
“That we said to each other. Only we didn’t even really need to say it. We both knew.”
“Quite. But can you imagine Davenport talking to you that way?”
“Not now. Not ever. Harry would be far more caustic.”
“It was as though she’d transformed into another person.”
“Gui—I take it she’s married?”
He hesitated, looked way, drummed his fingers on the paneling behind him, looked back at her.
“It’s not a great leap,” Cordelia said. “I don’t think you’d trifle with an unmarried girl. So unless she’s a widow—“
“She’s married.”
“Could her husband suspect?”
“That’s what I feared. Not that he had any right to judge, given his own behavior. But if she’s in trouble, why won’t she talk to me?”
“My dear—“ Cordelia touched his arm. “It is possible her feelings weren’t as deeply engaged as your own. Or that her feelings have changed.”
“I know. Damnation—“
“But it also sounds as though she called it off very quickly. That makes me think it’s more likely she’s trying to protect you.”
Gui stared at her.
“My darling idiot, one doesn’t like the idea of exposing the man one loves to the wrath of a jealous husband.”
“Oh, for God’s sake.” Gui straightened his shoulders, as though about to charge off to defend his lady’s honor. “I could protect myself in a duel.”
“I daresay you could, but she’d be pardoned for not wanting to see you try.”
Gui scraped a hand through his hair. “All right, that makes a bit of sense. But— her husband’s rather out of the picture now. And she still won’t even see me when all I want to do is comfort her–”
Cordelia stared at him, mind racing. “Who—“
“No questions, Cordy, please.”
“Gui—“ Cordelia twisted her bracelet round her wrist, wondering how far she could venture. Her own past hung before her as she stared at the harlequin diamond links. A gift from Harry before their life had fallen apart. “There’s one danger a woman engaged in a love affair particularly fears. Is is possible she could be with child?”
Gui’s eyes went wide. “No. That is— we were careful—“
“One can’t be completely careful.”
He pushed himself away from the wall. “My God. I’m an idiot. How could I have left her alone in this? How could she not have told me? She must have known I’d protect her—“ He broke off. “I sound like an idiot. There’s little I could do.”
“If she’s pregnant could it be her husband’s?”
“No. Not the way she tells it. Not based on everything I know. Christ, I shouldn’t be glad about that. It makes her situation worse. But— I have to see her.”
“Gui, you can’t be sure any of this is true.”
“Putting together the clues and arriving at a theory. Isn’t that precisely what Charles and Mélanie do?”
“They’re careful before they voice the theory.”
“I need to know, Cordy.”

photo: Bonnie Glaser

photo: Bonnie Glaser

Last Monday I was back at Book Passage, but this time to talk about the two operas the Merola Opera Program is presenting this summer. I had a lot of fun working on my talk, so I thought it would be fun to post it here. Unfortunately, I can’t post the musical excerpts, but you can seek them out online.

It’s great to be back at Book Passage. I’ve been here before as a novelist, most recently last March. I was going to say  I’m here today for the other important part  of my life, but actually it’s the third of three important parts. There’s being a novelist, being a mom to my two-and-a-half-year-old Mélanie who is here today, and then my work with the Merola Opera Program. I was a Merola Board member for 13 years, and I’m now Director of Foundation, Corporate, and Government Relations.

The Merola Opera Program was founded in 1957 by Kurt Herbert Adler, the second General Director of San Francisco Opera, in honor of the first General Director, Gaietano Merola, who was a great champion of young singers. Merola is a summer training program for young opera artists at the start of their careers. Nearly all have already finished college and many have completed graduate school. We typically get applications from over 800 young artists from around the world. Our artistic staff auditions 600 to 650 of these in San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, and New York. Twenty-three singers, five pianist coaches, and one stage director are chosen to come to San Francisco for eleven weeks. All their expenses are paid, including travel, housing, and a weekly stipend. They have intensive training in vocal technique, acting, languages, stage combat, professional development, and a host of other subjects that will help hone their talents and forge their careers. A vital component of training is performance, so they put their skills into practice in two operas as well as our Schwabacher Summer Concert of opera scenes and our Merola Grand Finale concert at the end of the program.

I’m here today to talk about the two operas Merola will present this summer, A Streetcar Named Desire by André Previn and Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Both operas are based on literary works. Don Giovanni, with a libretto by Mozart’s frequent collaborator Lorenzo da Ponte, is based on the early 17th century Spanish play El Buriador de Sevilla by Tirso de Molina. Streetcar, obviously, is based on the Tennessee Williams play, which the libretto by Philip Littell closely follows. When I heard these were the two operas for this summer, I was very intrigued because though they are very different stories, from different eras, set to different music, there are some strong thematic parallels.  When I wrote about the two operas for our recent newsletter, I called the article “A Season of Desire.” Not only do the characters in both operas grapple with their desires, for Don Giovanni and Stanley Kowalski, sex is definitely  a way of expressing power. For the women in both operas, desire is a more complicated thing, largely due to the double-standard that existed both in the 18th century and the 1940s – and has not entirely vanished today. I thought I would frame my look at these two operas by playing excerpts from each that have thematic connections, My friend Merola Board member Patrick Wilken who has just about every opera recording ever made kindly made me a CD of the excerpts I chose.

We begin with Don Giovanni in his element – bent on seduction. He is flirting with the peasant girl Zerlina. Don Giovanni and Zerlina just met at Zerlina’s wedding to her true love Masetto, but that merely makes things more interesting for Don Giovanni He begins in elegant 18th century fashion by asking her to give him her hand. In this recording Merola alumnus Thomas Hampson plays Don Giovanni and Barbara Bonney plays Zerlina.

[recording 1- La ci darem la mano]

Don Giovanni’s approach to Zerlina is that of a courtly 18th century aristocrat. Not that he cavils at cruder methods as he shows earlier in the opera with Donna Anna and later with Zerlina. But he is very much in the mold of the Vicomte de Valmont is Dangerous Liaisons. The conquest is all. There’s no evidence in DaPonte’s libretto that he has an emotional connection to any of his conquests.

Our next excerpt is an iconic scene from Streetcar. The setting and circumstances are very different, but at the center we again have a baritone whose objective is to get a soprano into bed. The scene is a poker game at which Stanley loses his temper and hits his pregnant wife Stella. Stella and her sister Blanche flee upstairs to the apartment of their neighbor Eunice. Stanley then pleads with Stella to come back to him.This recording features the cast who premiered the opera at San Francisco Opera – Renée Fleming as Blanche, Elizabeth Futral as Stella, Rodney Gilfrey as Stanley, Anthony Dean Griffey as Mitch, Judith Forst as Eunice, and Matthew Lord as Steve.

[recording 2 – poker scene/Stella]

Sex is at the heart of both these scenes, but unlike Don Giovanni, Stanley has an emotional connection to Stella, which Previn brings out in the lush underscoring that is both passionate and unexpectedly lyrical. Both Don Giovanni and Stanley equate sex with conquest, but while for  Giovanni the goal is to add more names to his catalogue for Stanley it’s more complicated. A lot of Stanley’s hostility to Blanche comes from the fact that he sees Blanche as trying to take Stella away from him (as Blanche literally does in this scene when she urges Stella to leave the apartment). There’s also a social class dynamic in both scenes. Stanley is very aware that Stella and Blanche came from a different world, symbolized by the lost plantation Belle Reve. He talks in another scene about pulling Stella down off those columns. Giovanni on the other hand is an aristocrat, which gives him power over Zerlina and also adds to his glamour in her eyes. Again, a house becomes a symbol of power and position in the world, as Giovanni talks about spiriting Zerlina off to his castle.

Both Giovanni and Stanley are baritones. In both operas, a tenor character offers a foil to each of these men. The next excerpt features Don Ottavio, singing of his love for his betrothed Donna Anna. At the beginning of the opera Don Giovanni breaks into Anna’s bedchamber. Exactly how far things go is unclear. In some productions, it is even implied that Anna perhaps was willing, at least at the start. What is clear, because we see it on stage, is that Giovanni then fights and kills Anna’s father. Anna makes Ottavio swear vengeance on the man who killed her father. Ottavio is reluctant to act until he knows for a certainty who the attacker was. In this aria, he explains that his peace of mind depends on that of his beloved. Hans Peter Blochwitz as Don Ottavio.

[recording 3 – Dalla sua pace]

For all Ottavio’s pretty words, Anna is reluctant to go ahead with their marriage. Her hesitation could stem from guilt over her father’s death, trauma from the assault. or potentially even because she has feelings for Don Giovanni herself.

In Streetcar, Mitch offers a gentler alternative to Stanley. And if Anna holds Ottavio at arms’ length, Blanche is eager, desperate even, to latch on to the security Mitch offers. Here, Mitch tells Blanche his mother wants to meet her, a prelude it seems to a proposal. Like Ottavio’s, his music is lyrical and fluid expressing a softer approach that speaks of love and yearning more than passion. Anthony Dean Griffey as Mitch.

[recording 4 – Mitch aria, “I’m not getting any younger”]

Desire also motivates the women in both these operas, but they find it more difficult to express. When Anna tells Ottavio about the masked man who broke into her room she says at first she thought it was him. The implication is that she would not have been unhappy if it was, despite the fact that a tryst with a man who was not yet her husband would be seen as scandalous behavior for a gently bred 18th century lady. Donna Elvira, the third of Don Giovanni’s conquests in the opera, apparently has had a longer term relationship with him. In fact, she sees herself as his wife. He abandons her before the start of the opera, but throughout the story she is torn between a desire for vengeance and a desire for Don Giovanni himself. In this aria, she sees his downfall coming and yet confesses that she feels pity for him and that while her heart speaks of vengeance, her heart also still beats for him. The music pulses with emotions stronger than pity. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Donna Elvira.

[recording 5 – Mi tradi]

If Elvira is torn between her desire for vengeance and her desire for Don Giovanni, Blanche is torn between her desire to cast a romantic glow over stark reality and her personal experience of the harsh nature of life and the raw power of desire. In this scene Mitch has learned that Blanche is older than he believed and that she is not the prim woman she appeared to be. In the town she came from, she had a reputation for sleeping with the soldiers from the nearby camp, and she lost her teaching position for an affair with a student. As Blanche describes how the soldiers would stand on the lawn and call to her to come down to them – much as Stanley called to Stella in the earlier scene – a woman passes by selling flowers for the dead. Renée Fleming as Blanche, Anthony Dean Griffey as Mitch, and Josepha Gayer as the flower seller.

[recording 6 – Blanche/Mitch]

What drives Don Giovanni to his conquests is never spelled out in the opera. For Blanche on the other hand, desire is an escape from the death and destruction around her as she saw her parents die and her home lost. “Death the opposite is desire,” she tells Mitch. Interestingly the woman selling flowers for the dead mentions flames and fire at the end of the excerpt, foreshadowing Blanche’s destruction. Flame also signals Giovanni’s destruction, when the statue of Anna’s father comes to life and drags the unrepentant Giovanni down to hell. Though Stanley and Giovanni both equate desire with conquest, it is Blanche and Giovanni who are destroyed. And yet when Stanley uses sexual violence to win his struggle with Blanche, he may sew the seeds that will unravel his relationship with Stella.

There’s so much more to explore in both these operas. I hope you’ll consider coming to see them. And I’d love to answer questions about one or both operas or about Merola. My colleague Dan Meagher has information about the operas and tickets. Thank you.