die Diva

For those who asked for more fiction, a short story in two or three parts. Enjoy!

Tongai (Tom) Paisley and Rico Sanchez picked their way around the rubble on the Theaterstrasse where the old Pfalztheater had stood. Three years after the Allies had levelled the city, construction crews were still struggling to remove the debris throughout the neighborhood. They had walked past the crews dismantling the Film-Palast movie house off the Martin-Lutherstrasse. Below the billboard announcing the construction of a new Pfalztheater, they saw several posters depicting unexploded German and Allied ordnance. The notices warned citizens and children not to touch, but to call the police immediately.

Among the pictures of grenades, bombs and shells was a notice that the seasonal performances of the Städtebundoper had resumed at the Capital Cinema nearby. They walked on.

The two newly minted US Army Sergeants made a curious pair. Rico Sanchez’s head barely reached the lower part of Tom’s shoulder. Rico’s dark, Moorish features had baked in the Southern California sun where he grew up, but he looked pale next to his friend, a full-blooded Bantu, whose parents had emigrated to England from Rhodesia before the war.

“Hey, Tom, I think it’s over there.” Tom looked over Rico’s head in the direction of his friend’s outstretched arm. The Capitol Cinema sign stuck out from a battered building on the right. A growing crowd of civilians in suits and dark dresses, and uniformed soldiers of different nations filed toward the building. They made their way to the box office, where a few pieces of US Military scrip bought them choice seats in the orchestra section down front.

Chica muy linda.” Rico wiggled his eyebrows as they paused in front of the poster for tonight’s performance of Der Freischütz. Tom stared at the picture of Margareta Mayer as the praying Agathe, until Rico tugged on his sleeve. “C’mon, amigo, let’s go see the real thing.”

Slouched in his seat trying not to block the people behind him, Tom lost himself in the vision and sound of the soprano on stage. His parents had taken him often to Covent Garden, and he enjoyed free admission to the Metropolitan Opera for the few weeks he stayed in Manhattan before shipping out to Europe.

But this was very different. He had never had a performer sing to him directly before – or at least, that is how it felt. He thought she was sneaking peeks at him when she was not singing, too. By the time she reached the aria Und ob die Wolke sie verhülle in Act III, he could feel tears welling and a choking in his throat. He had never heard such a smooth and sweet sound, even though her voice carried to the far wall. This Agathe was as innocent and gentle as the tale portrayed, unlike the powerful vibratos of the famous divas in London and New York. He was first up for the standing ovation at the end of the opera. The crowd was probably standing to recognize the first German opera to be performed in the house since the war, but he had eyes only for the tall slender soprano holding a bouquet of sunflowers (roses were hard to find).

She pulled out a flower and tossed it to the towering soldier in the fourth row. Tom caught it in one hand and stood there, dumbfounded. He could not blush, but the embarrassment and elation burned up his neck and ears and made him light-headed. The crowd cheered what they took to be a gesture to the new friends of Germany. Rico slapped him on the arm and applauded, too.

=============

Mama, I’m leaving now. Do you have your ticket?” Margareta checked herself in the mirror in the hall. Her mother came out from the living room and hugged her.

“All set, kära. It’s in my purse. Don’t be late for the cast call.” Frau Mayer liked to switch to Swedish sometimes.

They had spent the war in Sweden with Margareta’s maternal grandparents. Coming home to a demolished Kaiserslautern, Margareta had found a job at the local conservatory teaching voice, and her mother returned to her position as the organist at the Altakatholische Kirche. They had been lucky to find a flat on the Fischerstrasse after the war ended, halfway between the conservatory and the church. They could afford the rent, because the heating system had been destroyed. They had repaired the windows and patched the walls themselves. At first, the conservatory only provided space and a piano; Margareta’s students’ parents gave her what they could (often vegetables or other food). Her mother’s salary provided cash for those things that required money. When the opera company resumed performances at the Capitol Cinema, Margareta auditioned and won a place as a soloist. The first season of Italian operas allowed her to buy a small space heater and heavy curtains for the windows.

Last year, the American Army base outside the city had been expanded, as well as the big Air Force base at Ramstein nearby. The influx of American, Canadian and English soldiers and airmen brought full houses to the opera, students to the conservatory, and regular salaries for Margareta and her mother.

Margareta turned right and walked up the Fischerstrasse, dodging the pile of materials and the workers still patching storefronts, plastering façades and repairing windows and roofs. At this rate, Fischerstrasse will look like the Drottninggatan in Stockholm by next year, she thought. A wolf whistle from across the street made her turn her head. A half dozen soldiers waved and blew kisses at her. She smiled and kept walking. Most of them were shy, she had learned. She towered over half of them, though the farm boys from the American Midwest tended to be long, gangly types. The soldiers never approached her when they were sober. Walking home after the performances was another story, but she usually had her mother or one of the men from the cast with her.

She had warmed up her voice a little in the flat, but she could only do so much, because Herr Rolf on the second floor slept in the afternoons after his midnight-to-eight shift at the train station. In her dressing room, she changed while vocalizing scales and trills. This was the third performance, so the cast and the orchestra were comfortable with the opera and each other. Still, she ran through the highest and lowest parts of her arias to make sure everything would be smooth.

She noticed him during Act I, the American soldier in the front row. He looked so funny slouching crookedly in his chair that she almost laughed. She focused on her part, but during the speech by the bass, she took a quick look over the singer’s shoulder and realized that the soldier was incredibly tall and trying not to block the people behind him. His skin shines in the dark, she thought. She had never seen such a handsome man with such beautiful skin.

As well as she knew her part, it took a Herculean effort to concentrate. He unnerved her a little, because he was staring straight at her anytime her gaze passed his way. Men had stared at her all her life, so why did this one feel different?

During the intermissions, she peeked from the wings. He was a Sergeant, she saw, and friends with the Moorish soldier next to him. They stood in their places to stretch, and she guessed that the African must be at least two meters tall. Margareta herself stood 183 cm. Even in Germany and Sweden, there were few men her height.

At the end, he leapt to his feet, applauding enthusiastically. The crowd joined him, which surprised and delighted the cast. They had enjoyed only a few standing ovations, usually at the premieres of an opera, but never at the third show.

Margareta looked at him as she took her bows. Such deep, intelligent eyes, she thought. This is a cultured man, not an ordinary soldier. When the stage manager brought the customary bouquet to her, she did not even think before she pulled out the largest sunflower and threw it to him. The crowd cheered when he caught it.

“What was that about – with the flower?” Rickard, the tenor, asked her on their way to the dressing room, a large space, which had been the storeroom for the film cans and projector equipment.

“I don’t know. It just felt right. He got us that standing ovation, you know, the way he jumped up at the end.”

Ja, hard to miss that one.” Rickard smiled. “I’ll bet the crowd thought it was something about German-American friendship.”

“Whatever. Until the Americans came, this was a tough house. I’ll take that ovation for any reason.”

“Me, too. Want me to walk back with you?”

Margareta thought for a moment. “I think my mother is planning to come by tonight. Thanks. Say hello to Greta and the children for me.”

“Will do. Good night, ‘reta.” He disappeared to the men’s side behind the curtain.

Margareta wiped off her makeup, changed, and shouldered her purse. At the door to the lobby, she waited to let the crowd finish clearing before going out. When the construction crews finished clearing rubble next to the cinema, the owners intended to restore the exits behind the stage, but for now, everyone shared the same exits from the auditorium.

She spotted the tall sergeant and his friend chatting with some civilians. They may have been the people behind him, she wasn’t sure. She had seen them before. Her mother was not there, so she would be walking home alone tonight.

Normally, she would wait behind the door, because it could take forever to get out of the lobby if the spectators were still there.

But this did not feel like a normal night. She stepped into the lobby.

As she approached the four people outside, she noticed that they were all speaking in German.

Guten Abend,” she looked directly at Tom. “This is a double surprise. Your German is excellent.”

“You are too kind, Fraulein.” He extended his hand. “May I introduce your fan club here? Herr Gunther Schmidt and Fraulein Maria Dressler, my colleague Sergeant Ricardo Sanchez. And I’m Tom Paisley.”

“Margareta Mayer, but you probably all know that.” They shook hands around.

“We were just telling Sergeant Paisley that we enjoyed your gesture with the flower very much,” said Herr Schmidt.

“Well, I have never had a standing ovation on the third show; I think the cast and I owe you at least a share in the bouquet.” She smiled.

“May I offer you all something?” Tom asked, looking at all four of them. “I’m not sure where the nearest place is.”

Schmidt and Dressler led them around the corner to the small beer garden where the theatregoers who could afford it went. Margareta gathered from their clothes and their pleased expressions that this was a unexpected treat for Herr Schmidt and his friend. Tom bought a round of the local pilsner for everyone, and they toasted Margareta.

“Your voice is heavenly,” Tom said. “And you played Agathe exactly as I imagined her in the libretto. Not at all like the belting portrayals I heard elsewhere.”

“Where have you heard Der Freischütz?” Margareta asked.

“Covent Garden, with Lady Olivia MacDonald as Agathe.” Tom shrugged.

“She usually sings Wagner, does she not?”

“Yes, and Brunhilda is her trademark role. Can you imagine Agathe as a Valkyrie?” That brought laughter from everyone.

The two Germans excused themselves after finishing their beers. Margareta glanced at the door briefly.

“May we escort you home?” Tom asked. Ricardo nodded.

“It’s only a few blocks.”

“Excellent. We shall all be home soon then.” He smiled and indicated the door.

Twice they passed beer gardens spilling a noisy crowd of soldiers, but one look at Tom and Ricardo had a sobering effect on them. Tom kissed her hand at the door and thanked her for joining them. They watched her go up the steps and close the outer door.

Inside, Margareta sighed as she put the key in the door to her flat. Her mother was doing dishes.

“Up so late, Mama?” She set the flowers on the sideboard.

“I only got back at nine. Father Eberhardt made changes for Sunday, so I had to pick new hymns and practice a different postlude.” Margareta picked up a towel and began drying the contents of the rack. “I’m sorry you had to walk home alone.”

“I didn’t. A very nice pair of American soldiers escorted me home after the performance.”

“I’m glad, but I can’t tell the nice ones from the not-so-nice.”

“I knew that this one was OK. He caused a standing ovation by jumping to his feet at the end. It made the whole evening a success.”

“That’s amazing.”

“Yes. Then I saw him and his friend in the lobby talking to Herr Schmidt and his friend Maria Dressler. The two soldiers spoke excellent German, and the tall one bought us a drink after the show. He knows opera and had some very nice things to say about our performance.”

“An officer?”

“No. A sergeant, but he is clearly very educated and cultured.”

“You seemed slightly smitten, kära.” Her mother switched to Swedish.

“I would not mind seeing him again, if first impressions mean anything.”

“Kaiserslautern is a small town. It’s hard to hide.”

“Especially a man who is at least two meters tall.”

“You’re kidding! Really?”

“No. I don’t have to look at the top of his head.”

Margareta went to bed that night with happy thoughts of the tall American from London and maybe finding out more about him.

===========

“You kissed her hand!” Ricardo said as they started back to the shuttle station on Fruchthallstrasse. “Are you some kind of count or something?”

“It just felt right, amigo.” Tom smiled and looked down the street. “I mean, she’s so elegant and graceful. You can’t just pump her hand and say ‘see ya’, can you?”

“It also goes with your limey accent.” Ricardo slapped him on the back. “I think that you are smitten, my friend.”

“I would not mind seeing her again. She has eyes of lapis lazuli, did you notice?”

“No. She would have to kneel for me to check that. You two look good together. You should ask her out.”

“I think I will.”

They walked past the bars to the Fruchthallstrasse and caught the olive drab school bus that shuttled between downtown and the Pulaski Barracks west of the city.

==============

[to be continued]

Smooth roads & tailwinds,

Jonathan

4 thoughts on “die Diva

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