die Diva

Tongai (Tom) Paisley hit the OFF button on the tape recorder and yanked the headphones from his ears.

“Enough! I’m ready for the weekend!”

Across the table, Rico Sanchez laid his headset down somewhat more gently. “I don’t know how you stand it, Tom. You take half as many breaks as the rest of us.”

“I think that I just get wrapped up in the flow. You know, it’s like simultaneous interpreting, if you can type fast enough.” He checked his work log, added a final line and signed it. “Anyway, I don’t have duty this weekend, so I want to something more than eat here on base.”

“I’m off, too. Any ideas?”

Der Freischütz at the Pfalztheater. It started last week. Are you up for some opera?”

“Sure. I’m glad you talked me into La Traviata when we first arrived. I did not realize how much I would enjoy it.”

“And this time, you even know the language.”

“I didn’t find the Italian too hard to follow.”

“Let’s do it.”

They turned in their work logs and badges at the platoon sergeant’s desk. The guard buzzed them out, and they made their way to the outer doors and back to the barracks. An hour later, they alighted from the shuttle bus at the Fruchthallstrasse and began walking to the Pfalztheater. This was the third version of the famed opera house to rise on that spot. The first burned down, and Allied bombers leveled the second one with the rest of downtown Kaiserslautern during the Second World War.

The two newly minted US Army Sergeants made a curious pair. Rico’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.

The performing arts center would be easy to recognize by its modern architecture. 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 door, where Tom showed his season pass. On a whim he had purchased a pass for two, but so far only Rico had ever accompanied him. They paused in the lobby to check the posters advertising the seasonal performances of the Städtebundoper.

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 at Fort Dix close to New York, 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. The voice of 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 leaped to his feet at the end of the opera. The crowd rose more slowly, probably for a variety of reasons, but he had eyes only for the tall slender soprano holding a bouquet of roses.

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. 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.” Ebba Mayer liked to use Swedish with her daughter.

Ebba Lindgren had come to Germany after the war to study organ at the conservatory in Hamburg, where she met Dietrich Mayer, a tenor and a student in the choral conducting program. He was from Kaiserslautern and Altakatholische. They settled in Kaiserslautern, where he became the music director and she the organist. Margareta was born in 1949. In 1955, Dietrich was killed in a car crash on the autobahn. Ebba became the music director.

Margareta showed her musical genes early, so at 13, she was accepted in the Conservatory in voice and piano. At just 22, she had a growing following throughout the Rhineland-Palatinate and a salaried position with the State Opera Company, the Städtebundoper.

Margareta turned right and walked up the Fischerstrasse, dodging the piles of materials and the workers renovating storefronts, plastering façades and repairing windows and roofs. With the end of the Marshall Plan and the formation of the European Community, most cities in Germany were exploding with a new prosperity. A wolf whistle from across the street made her turn her head. A half dozen American 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.

During Act I, she noticed 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, she thought, 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, 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 rose 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 rooms.

“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. Willy says that 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. “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 through the door to the men’s side.

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. There were stage exits behind the theater, but they emptied onto a dark street, and she expected to find her mother in the lobby.

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.

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? 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.” She shook their hands.

“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.”

“May I offer you all something?” Tom asked, looking at all four of them. “I’m not sure if 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 expression that this was an unexpected treat. 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 belted 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 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 just got back. 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 pair of very nice 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 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!”

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

Margareta went to bed that night with happy thoughts of seeing 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 bus stop on the Fruchthallstrasse. “Are you some kind of count or something?”

“It felt right, amigo.” Tom stepped over a broken section of sidewalk. “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 green Army bus that shuttled between downtown and the Pulaski Barracks west of the city.

=====

“Come now, little one,” Margareta felt her shoulders shake. She looked into her mother’s smiling face. “Do you want to sleep in?”

“No, Mama.” She threw the covers back and swung out to stretch. The smell of coffee did more to dispel the sleep than anything. “That coffee smells so rich.”

“It’s from the package that your American sergeant gave us.”

“He’s not my sergeant, Mama, much as I like his attention.”

“Well, you did bring him home last week.”

“And you seemed to like him as much as I did.” Margareta slipped on a bathrobe and followed her mother to the kitchen. She pulled her long blonde hair into a loose knot as she walked. “Ouch!”

“Your head again?”

“My elbow. I was tying my hair.” She rubbed her arm where it had hit the lintel, then sat at the kitchen table. Her mother had already poured coffee and put out the bread and jam that comprised their breakfast most mornings.

An hour later, they walked into the Old Catholic church on the Albrechtstrasse. Ebba turned on the organ. As the blowers filled the bellows, she changed her shoes and sat at the console. Margareta took the stack of anthems from the shelf in the choir room and set a copy in each seat of the choir stalls. She checked to see that each stall had a hymnal and a prayer book. As she moved, she warmed up her voice with vocalises and trills. The others in the choir arrived over the next half hour.

During the service, she noticed that the church was fuller than usual. Allied soldiers occupied the two rows in the back. Even in civilian clothes, anyone could recognize American GIs’s by their shoes and haircuts.

This Sunday, she was singing a solo during Communion. She almost choked in her passaggio when she saw Tom Paisley come up from the back with the other soldiers.

For some reason, this Sunday parishioners and soldiers gathered down front to listen to Ebba played the postlude. Sure, the Saint Anne fugue in E-flat was a grandiose piece, but usually the chattering and footsteps of the fleeing faithful matched the volume of the organ. Father Eberhardt was greeting the departing parishioners in the back of the church. When Ebba finished, he turned in surprise as the small crowd broke into applause. Sure enough, Tom was clapping enthusiastically from the back of the group.

“You are full of surprises, Tom.” Margareta took his arm in a natural motion as Ebba, Father Eberhardt and she accompanied Tom to the Turkish restaurant near the Church for lunch. “I’ve never seen you here before.”

“I’m Episcopalian and Anglican, but I only learned about your church this week. I’ve been going to the base chapel at Pulaski Barracks.”

“So, are you responsible for the male chorus singing harmony on the hymns?” asked Ebba. “I heard that.”

“Not really, but the other guys are all Episcopalians or Canadian Anglicans at the base. Half of us are in the choir at the chapel.”

“You know Father Montrose, I take it,” asked Father Eberhardt, referring to the new chaplain at the Pulaski Barracks. “He came here last week and told me that he would pass the word about us.”

“He did.” Tom smiled. “But I don’t think we will decimate the Base Chapel choir. Only a couple of us speak German. My friends very much enjoyed the music.” He tilted his head toward Ebba and Margareta. “But most of them will probably continue to worship on base.”

“Well, you are all more than welcome here.”

“Let me guess,” said Ebba. “Lyric baritone?”

“I don’t know about the lyric part, but I do sing baritone.”

“Come to rehearsal on Wednesday, and I’ll give you a proper audition. Then you’ll know.”

“I have duty every third night. If you can put up with an occasional absence, I’d love to.”

Tom became a regular at the Altakatholische Kirche and sang baritone in the choir. Margareta and he married the following summer. At first nothing changed in living arrangements, but when he was promoted at the end of the year, they rented a small apartment on the Fischerstrasse, two doors from Ebba’s building.…

© 2019, JT Hine. All rights reserved.

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