My name is Harold Granderson, and I’ve been the director of the Cleveland Opera for 39 years. I’m sure that doesn’t sound like much, what with the picture of Cleveland as a post-industrial wasteland deprived of fine culture, but I can assure you we don’t harbor talentless hacks. I make sure of that. Admittedly, it’s difficult to attract equally discerning ears. We live in the shadow of the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame, where the off-key caterwauling of drunken pseudo-poets is worshiped. Even the partly admirable ambition of “progressive” rock is shunned here.
On the talentless hack front, I recently had to fire one of our tenors. My idiot assistant had hired him while I was on sabbatical. Because of our city’s reputation, we are often the last resort for those who can’t crack it in such bastions of civilization as Louisville and Newark, and this fellow was no exception. He left my office crestfallen and I was unsurprised to see his obituary listing unknown causes soon after. Read: suicide. Musicians are not hearty – they are dreamers, romantics. That’s why they get into such a non-lucrative business, and why they are equally shocked when it leaves them destitute.
In other words, I’ve dealt with his type many times over the years, and I’m sure I’ve destroyed their last dreams of reaching a large audience. They move on and teach as adjuncts at community colleges, or feed their egos destroying the competition at open-mic nights and karaoke bars. I’ve known at least three men and four women who have taken their own lives soon after a final meeting in my office. I cannot blame myself for their fragility! I simply elucidate their flaws and tell them how terrible they truly are. It’s an act of respectable honesty. In any case, I’ve always slept well.
Yet, I imagined I woke early this morning to the sound of singing. A melodious voice just a few hundredths out of tune. Then a chorus that, together, sounded nearly perfect. I saw wisps of faces the color of moonlight and the consistency of smoke in this fever-dream. They sang “I called them out to arms/ and they stood at attention/ their withered faces burning/ and sallow with abstention/ the call of life’s pleasures always at arm’s length…” and suddenly the beautiful minor-key melody stopped and repeated the same flourish over and over and over. It never returned to the root. It stayed unfinished, the same moan of the same syllable persisting almost infinitely. Most persons would not be quite as driven to distraction as I, but I needed it to reach a proper conclusion. Instead, it faded out in volume over an interminable length of time.
I woke breathlessly to the sound of birds. Except the birds’ voices all seemed doubled and trebled. Each pitch was out of line with the other, making their sweet warbling cries into morbid cacophonies. Then my dog’s barks were tinged with god-awful screeches of an origin I couldn’t imagine. When I yelled out, “be quiet!” to his wide-eyed stare, I found even my own voice unrecognizable. Every syllable, every intonation was made into a horrible multi-part chorus: grating, nasal, and guttural all at once.
I ran to my car, started it, and turned the speakers down before a sound could emanate from the radio. While the engine’s noise seemed more boring and obtrusive than normal, it left me at relative peace. In anticipation of some new aural horror, I didn’t speak a word to myself the entire time. I even made sure to breathe quietly.
I reached the opera house just in time to hear a recital of “La Boheme”, and shrieked. Every singer, all those I had hand-picked and scolded into excellence, sounded wrong! Flat, sharp, all in different and wrong keys…. and the voices themselves were like stern commands from the very maw of hell. Moreover, the effect produced a volume that was incalculable. If I could stand inches from a giant speaker transmitting the sound of television static, it would have been a great respite compared to this.
I relay all this knowing I am going mad, sitting in the balcony of the opera house, yelling at the players, “Stop! Please God, Stop!” with a voice that must have grown hoarse (if only I could really hear it). The few that remain on stage look on in shock, but I sense no sympathy. In fact, I do not recognize them from among my chosen players. No – I’m now sure of this – underneath the stage make-up their faces are the consistency of smoke… and the red of a harvest moon.