So recently I saw the film “Black Swan” and loved it. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to know what it feels like to be a performer. However, the point of this post is not to discuss that film, but rather discuss a feeling I received from watching it.
Watching the film made me think of a story I wrote years ago. Almost a decade ago now. In the fall of 2002. I was taking a writing course, and I had attempted to write several stories for the upcoming deadline. None of them worked. Finally, I went to my professor and explained that while I could write a lot, a lot of it was boring. I wanted something that would have a start middle and finish. She asked me to write what I knew about, and at that time, all my head could think about was theatre. So I decided to write about that. I am currently working on another story about theatre, but not one quite so dramatic. Anyway, I felt like I had kind of written the opera version of “Black Swan” and here is what it is.
*It should be noted that I did not change this from the original, so it is not exactly perfect. In addition, I am fully aware the Maria Callas did not die this way, but it was the only way i could give the story the drama it needed.
The Phoenix of Callas
“Alright, settle down. It appears Ms. Kelly will not be with us for a few days. She’s been called back to re-shoot the end of her upcoming movie. That means I’m going to need a stand-in. Does anyone know her part well enough?”
I shot my hand into the air without even thinking about it. This was it! For once, little miss Kelly, the university’s celebrity, wasn’t going to get in my way. I was going to claim what should have been mine from the first day I joined this superficial department. Turning his head away from the sea of hands, my spirit blinded the director to all but me. I felt as though my soul had left my body to coil itself around his impressionable mind. Without saying a word, I told him, “Look at me. I’m the same height, the same build, and I am the only other choice. I know the part better than Diane does. No one else will do.” He parted the seas and walked towards me, judging my body, remembering my talent, allowing himself to see the potential he had ignored before. His eyes did not move from mine, and I refused to look away. Each line of my face telling a story, every angle of my body painting an image for the stage, I was performing without saying a word, without moving. He took his finger, gently lifted my chin, studied my face, and I felt the radiating light Diane Kelly had been keeping to herself.
A finger under the chin was how this started. Everyone at the audition knew that no one could play Callas like I could, and yet I still had competition. Diane Kelly the golden child, the famous one, the clay the theatre department would mold into the Sarah Bernhardt of our time. With only her mediocre talent to work from, it was obvious why the gifts of my colleagues, and of course my own genius, went by unnoticed. At auditions, the director saw every woman, pretending to consider her for the part, and yet we all knew who he really meant to use. Diane was not bad; three years of starring roles and the constant attention of the theatre faculty had not been a total waste. She was an option, like a puzzle piece forced to fit to appease the desire to finish. Diane spoke like an actress, but forgot she was supposed to be Callas.
I left Lydia, the performer, at home that day. From the moment I entered the theatre door, I was Callas. I felt her blood flowing through my veins, and her breath filling my lungs. My voice was haunted by the Callas tremble as I relived the final phone call before her suicide. When I walked off the stage, there was a silence. No one knew that phone call as I knew it. Every word that I said meant so much more than anyone would let themselves recognize. The last word on the phone was the acceptance of death. There were no more words – only a gun shot, the splatter of blood, and my body hitting the floor. I saw the faces of my fellow actors in the dark, questioning the last word they had said. I breathed in their fear as if it might have been their last. For a moment the untouchable idols of the theatre remembered they were mortal.
After the rest of the actors auditioned, we were all called to form a line. It was then he did to Diane what he was doing to me now. He searched her face, imagining what he was going to do to it, fantasizing about what she would do for him. She was the only one to be touched, the chosen one to receive the blessing of the divine.
“Very well. Lydia will take Ms. Kelly’s place,” the director said, and rehearsal was over for the day. I felt perfect then; everything was finally right. I would be Callas, not just for a day or a week. I would be Callas until the final curtain fell.
That night I poured a glass of Martini Rossi and played old recordings of La Traviata and Madama Butterfly as I let my body relax, submerged in a warm bath. The acoustics of the room held Callas’ operatic voice, trapping her sound, and as I imbibed her favorite vintage, her voice became mine. The white Moscato Bianco grapes created a wine that only a Callas could truly treasure. I lifted the golden liquid to my lips, and as I sipped I felt the sensuous nectar fill my throat. As Callas died in La Traviata, she was reborn in me. That night I slept as though dead.
Like the phoenix, I awoke from my deathly slumber with a song filling my body. I entered the theatre, and the walls welcomed me by amplifying my glorious sound. It was then that I ran into Peter and Mark.
“Who is that singing?” Peter asked.
“It’s….Oh my god it’s Lydia!” Mark said.
“Now, now, you two. We are in the theatre, and here I am Callas. Shall we start warming up?” I always enjoyed Peter and Mark. They had both starred opposite Diane, and they both hated her as much as they loved each other. The warm ups worked for the first time since we’d been there. No more having to explain the rules to the blonde bubble head over and over again. For once, all the spine contorting and tribal chanting was taken seriously. The director entered and it was time to begin.
“All right now Lydia, you’ve seen the blocking. We’re going to start from the top of the show,” the director said, putting his arm around me.
“Callas, Mr. Frayn,” I corrected him.
“Right…So anyway, let’s take it from the top.”
And so it began. We worked for days, and the director started and stopped us all. We went over it scene by scene until he was absolutely satisfied. Poor Peter had to enter my room 20 times before Mr. Frayn was content.
“Would you like me to do anything differently?” I asked knowing that my performance was perfect.
“No Lydia, you’re fine,” he dismissed me.
Lydia! He said that name to me again. Couldn’t he see! Lydia was nothing compared to what stood before him now! I was Callas, I had been singing at the MET before this pathetic little urchin had even been born. LYDIA hadn’t been on the stage in years! No. When this body was on stage, it was Maria, or Clytemnestra, or Eva Peron. Lydia was a mere shadow, a vessel for all the characters of plays to borrow for a while, and once we are done we give the frightened little dear her body back.
“Can we start it again then?” the director asked.
“Yes.” My patience had run out.
It was lucky for him that he dared not correct my perfect style. No one can beat the real thing; no mere girl could give this part what was needed to make an audience believe it. It required me, and couldn’t be done without me.
“Lydia, what are you doing? Stop standing there and let’s take it from Peter’s entrance again!” The director demanded.
“Oh…excuse me Mr. Frayn.” Excuse me? What am I saying? This show is nothing without me, and here I am apologizing to this little twit who had the gall to call me Lydia. Lydia! Do I look like Lydia? Does Lydia sound like this? Lydia is lying in the bathroom dead to the world; it is Callas who stands before you.
“Thank you Peter, wonderful work. All right everyone, take ten!”
“Excuse me, Mr. Frayn. I’d like to discuss some things about my final scene. Although I see what you’re trying to portray with the blocking, it’s not very true to life. Callas wasn’t known for being introverted or diffident, but her suicide is the one time in the entire play where the audience actually gets to see her without the mask of performance. She is naked and vulnerable in the few moments before her death, and you have me center stage as if I was the doing the Queen of the Night. That’s not how it was at all.”
“I see…well, Ms. Kelly is returning tomorrow, so we’ll have to see how it looks with her. You did some very nice work, and I plan to use a lot of the changes you suggested in the blocking. Thanks for being such a trooper!” he said, turning his back on me.
My golden glow died away as the stage lights dimmed. The following day the presence of Diane Kelly once again crept into the theatre, and began to reclaim it as her own. Her haunting spirit began to suck out the precious life I had given to the entire space and bottle it for her own narcissistic use. My body shivered as the last of the warm light left me, and I felt weak as my flesh trembled in the darkness. I began to choke as the walls that had once echoed my voice in praise now returned to their former master and closed in around me. I knew then that my time as the Diva was over, and that her life would dwindle away completely. Callas would die again.
“Lydia, thank you so much! I really like what you’ve done with the blocking. It makes so much more sense to me now!” the golden one beamed.
“You’re welcome, Diane. I have a feeling you’ll be doing Callas just as much justice tonight as I did all through rehearsal,” I said.
“Hey, you two! The stage manager said to make sure you guys checked your props,” Mark said as he passed us in the wings.
As usual, I could count on Diane Kelly to be unprofessional and assume her props for the entire show had not moved. I went back and looked for mine. As expected my props had been tossed all around the backstage area, and I placed them all back in order. As I placed my hand mirror back on the prop table, my hands brushed the gun and I picked it up. I held the conqueror of Callas with both hands, stroking the long shaft of the revolver with my fingers, and remembering how I had died on the stage. I wanted to die then, too, rather than see that little bitch get on the stage and flounce about, pretending to be me. No one would ever be able to play Callas but Callas herself. Since she was gone, I saw no reason to let this go on any longer, and resolved this would be the last time I would be forced to watch Diane Kelly wreck the telling of my story. The show must go on. I left the gun there, telling myself that I would return after tonight.
The lights arose on Diane Kelly as she placed the final phone call, and I could relax. Happy to be off stage, I watched Diane Kelly wreck the entire point of the play, as she sobbed without tears into the phone and then hung it up. Diane walked center stage and clumsily held the gun to her throat. I wondered if she even understood the point of it. Callas chose to kill herself by destroying the only part of her that allowed her to feel alive on stage. Her voice. As the lights grew dim, Diane Kelly shimmered, golden, as she pulled the trigger.
The shot rang out against the walls that Diane had enslaved. A thud, then the sound effect of blood splattering across the floor played backstage, followed by a moment of silence in the dark. As the lights rose again, applause thundered throughout the theatre. The walls heralded my victory, and the audience was mine for a single moment – but only a moment, and then they saw it. Diane Kelly, the golden child, lay dead on the stage with a bullet in her throat.