That Sunday morning I had the streets of Paris to myself. Neither the steady drizzle from the low clouds nor the cold breeze from the Seine discouraged me. Others could spend the 26th day of September toasting themselves beside the first fire of autumn, nose-deep in Le Temps or snoozing on the divan. Mine would be spent on a quest to find another friend. A real friend, one I could see and touch.
To fully understand, picture those same streets on a fine afternoon, crowded with flâneurs at the café tables who pause over their cards to exchange speculative glances with a giggling flock of opera dancers as they pass by. Watch their eyes narrow at the young woman following the coryphées – blonde, pretty enough, the same theatrical posture – but unaccompanied by friends or family. Alone. Now see the dancers’ elegant protectors watching from the wings of the stage just beyond the place where the opera chorus awaits its entrance cue. Observe how the men inspect the cluster of young singers, measuring with their eyes and noting the girl standing a few steps to the side. Apart. Always alone. Always apart.
Today there were few passersby to notice me as I strode toward Rue Réaumur. Raindrops spotted the long blue apron of a bread delivery woman who wheeled her wicker basket into a café near the Palais de la Bourse. Tourists braving the showers ignored me as they turned up Rue Saint Denis to admire the triumphal arch on the site of an ancient city gate. But outside the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers the coachmen eyed me from their seats atop the parked broughams, likely judging the hour too early and me too well-dressed to be a street walker. I focused my gaze on their carriage horses, drawing from one a friendly whicker as a reward, and made sure to keep my pace brisk.
Searching stares and vulgar asides no longer shocked me. Six years at the Paris opera had finally steeled me to the city’s lusty ways. I had been so innocent when I arrived at Charles Garnier’s lavish new opera house – a country girl of thirteen, newly-orphaned, and already overwhelmed by the city’s tumult. On the front steps that first day I’d been transfixed by the sight of Carpeaux’s naked dancers, voluptuous and joyful and very much alive though imprisoned in stone. Inside the Palais Garnier my astonishment turned to wonder at this strange new world where bare-breasted sirens cavorted across the ceiling of the grand staircase, trumpeted golden horns beneath the auditorium’s glowing chandelier and flanked the box once meant for France’s final emperor. And the music! All I’d known of opera came from a single visit to the theater in Rennes for a Meyerbeer opera, a history pageant with rousing hymns extolling the greatness of God. I had never heard the sorrowful final duet of Aida and Radames in their tomb beneath the temple of Vulcan. Or the heartbreaking aria of mad Lucia di Lammermoor after she murdered her bridegroom. And the ecstasy of Leonore and Florestan – “After great sufferings! Oh, delight past utterance!” – when she rescued him from the deepest dungeon. Such passion thrilled me. And every inch of the opera house fairly throbbed with it. In the private boxes where couples disappeared behind crimson curtains. In the gilded dancers’ foyer where the ballerinas flirted with their callers. In the prima donna’s dressing room where wealthy suitors thronged with their extravagant gifts. In the street beside the stage door where a shabbier crowd of hopefuls waited with empty hands and lovesick hearts. Inside the opera and out, Paris pursued the pleasures of the flesh.
Though I soon ripened into a young woman whose face and figure matched the preference of the day, I remained alone and apart. Sometimes I studied myself in the mirror, leaning close to scrutinize my face and then moving backward to see myself full length, searching for the flaw that must exist. How else to explain my solitude? On the sidewalks of the city I often drew unwanted attention, but in the opera house I was a tribe of one. From the start, the ballet students scorned me as they did all singers. But the other singing students also kept a polite distance. In a pleasure palace overflowing with ardent admirers in the grip of l’amour, I alone remained unclaimed. Even a pudgy contralto with smallpox scars on her face had attracted the attentions of an apprentice carpenter from the set shop.
Still, my heart was light that morning as I neared the Marché St. Martin. Over the past six months my life had been remade. Suddenly a happier destiny beckoned, a future I would affirm by visiting the bird market. This time I didn’t stop to admire the brightly-colored parrots or to check the latest fashion in cages. Instead, I proceeded through a chirping chorus of bird song directly to the stall of Henri Auguste, an opera buff who’d recognized me on my first visit to the Sunday marché aux oiseaux several years before.
Today the old man gave me a smile as I approached. “Mademoiselle Daaé! Come to admire my canaries?”
I grinned back at him. “To admire, and also to buy. I’ve been given my own dressing room.” His smile widened and he cocked his head, inviting me to continue. “And I’m to sing Siebel in Gounod’s Faust!”
“A trouser role, but a good one. Soon you’ll be a brilliant Marguerite.” He pulled the felt hat from his head, leaving white wisps of hair in disarray, and held it over his heart. “I knew this day would come!”
I reached out and touched the shoulder of his blue cotton jacket. “Mine is the smallest dressing room, and the farthest from the stage. In fact, the only thing to recommend it is an enormous mirror. But I am pleased to have a room of my own, and I’m looking for a little friend to share it.”
At that, M. Auguste showed me his birds, moving ceremoniously from cage to cage and explaining the finer points of the Spanish Timbrado. With a wave of his hand he dismissed those with dusty blue feathers – “Only a golden singer will do for you” – and finally settled on a sleek male with lively eyes. As for the cage, the bird seller insisted I take the only one he judged fine enough to adorn even the smallest dressing room at Garnier’s opera house: a tall rectangle of gold-finished wire with a cherub at each corner of the footed base.
He transferred my bird into his new home and set about wrapping the cage with paper and string for our trip to the opera house. “So, Mademoiselle Christine, how do you account for this good fortune?”
“I have a new teacher. A genius, monsieur.” I dipped my head, hiding from the curiosity in his eyes. “I have not sung so well since my father died.”
I busied myself with my change purse, counting out francs and centimes. Hoping to distract him, I came up with a question of my own. “Papageno! Perhaps that’s what I’ll name him. What do you think?”
M. Auguste carefully gathered the strings and knotted them atop the bird cage. “I like it. Mozart’s bird catcher always makes me laugh.”
I poured the coins into his hand. “Me too.”
Before I could grasp the ring he’d left unwrapped at the top of the cage, M. Auguste swept my parcel into his arms. “I’ll help you to a cab.”
As we walked between the market stalls to the cab stand on the corner, his thoughts returned to opera. “What’s this I hear about a ghost at the Palais Garnier? There was another report yesterday in Le Figaro.”
I lifted a hand to signal the first carriage in line and turned back to the bird seller as the fiacre rolled slowly toward us. “Lately the dancers talk of nothing else. Every mishap large or small is blamed on the ghost. When a flat collapses on the stage, the ghost knocked it over. When a hair ribbon goes missing, the ghost carried it off.”
The cab driver climbed down from his seat and opened the door of the carriage. M. Auguste passed Papageno’s wrapped cage to him and then took my hand to help me inside. “Seems to me a theater so new scarcely has enough history to have engendered a phantom.”
He gave my hand a farewell squeeze and then settled the bird cage on the seat beside me. “But, as we know, adding a ghost rarely harms the libretto.”
At the opera house, the Sunday porter showed no surprise at my early-morning appearance. By then all the porters were accustomed to my odd hours and grateful for my generous tips. As he carried Papageno’s cage off to my dressing room, I drifted through the streets of the theater toward the apron of the stage. In a few weeks time, when the season began, backstage would be jammed with props and sets, swarmed by dressers and stage hands, but today I had the space and the time to contemplate the great void in front of the stage. The ghost light glowed from the boards downstage center, a theatrical superstition that provided the practical benefit of allowing me to safely find my way. The lamp wasn’t bright enough to strike gold sparks along the auditorium’s gilded edges or reveal the contrasting crimson on the walls and floor. The cavernous theater swallowed the light, leaving the boxes shadowed and the stalls in gloom.
I stopped before the hood of the prompter’s box and looked out into the dim auditorium. Italian singers call the spot in bocca al luppo – in the mouth of the wolf. And I suppose those rows of boxes did look like devouring teeth to performers who lacked confidence. I’d never seen it that way. Such irony! Since joining the opera, the stage was the only place where I was never alone. Being one singer among many in the chorus had freed me from anxiety about performing. But soon I would take the stage by myself as Siebel, alone in the spotlight with all eyes upon me while I sang of my secret love. I searched my feelings, probing for fear, and found only exhilaration. After my father’s death, the development of my voice had faltered. From sorrow, or adolescence, or loneliness, I never knew. In time I gave up the dream that was his only bequest – to become principal soprano in the greatest opera company in the world – and resigned myself to the chorus. Now, with both my life and my voice remade, I dared to dream again.
My reverie broke when something – a sound? a movement? – drew my attention to the first ring of boxes. The grand tier. A frisson of unease ran through me. “Box 5 belongs to the ghost.” The recollection of Meg Giry’s voice whispered through my mind. “That’s one of my mother’s boxes.” She’d led a pack of dancers down the stairs from the common dressing rooms as I passed alone on my way up. “She hears him in there.” At that, Cecile Jammes’ blue eyes went round as marbles. “And she gives him his program.” I’d swept by the dancers without a word, torn by an inner contradiction. How could I deny the existence of their silly ghost when I myself was personally acquainted with an angel?
That paradox shadowed my steps as I turned my back on the empty auditorium and made my way through the depths of the stage to my new dressing room. The porter had lit the gas lamps that bracketed the mirror above the dressing table and placed Papageno’s cage, still swathed in brown paper and string, on the scratched top. I unpinned my hat and left it beside the birdcage. Then I slipped out of my coat, shook off the raindrops and hung it inside the doorless wardrobe that stood next to a tall wall mirror framed in elaborately-carved mahogany. I didn’t mind the worn and mismatched furniture, or the scuff marks on the bare white walls. Until last week, this room had been used for storage. Now it was mine, and Papageno was the first step toward making it my own.
“Time to come out and see your new home.” I lifted the strings hanging from the top of the cage and started to untie the knot. “There are many fine singers here. That should make you feel welcome.”
I wound the loose string around one hand as I untied the birdcage, quietly singing the comic song of his namesake from the first act of Die Zauberflöte. “A net for maidens I should like to catch the pretty dears by dozens.”
Carefully, so as not to alarm the canary inside, I pulled the paper from the cage and let it drift to the floor. “At home I’d shut them up safely and never from me would they roam.”
From his perch in the middle of the cage, Papageno seemed to study me, his tiny black eyes vivid against his golden feathers. But after a moment, the canary tilted his head and seemed to look past me. A second later, he lost all interest in me and sidestepped down his perch. Just then a thread of stale air brushed my neck.
I turned into it, expecting that the door to my dressing room had swung open. Instead, I found a strange man standing beside the carved mirror. A mirror which now gaped from the wall, revealing a dim passage beyond. For a moment, everything seemed to freeze in place with only the hiss of the gaslight to show me that this wasn’t a waxwork tableau.
He was tall. Broad-shouldered. A silky fringe of dark hair brushed the white wings of his collar. Rain drops sparkled on his finely-tailored cape and the broad-brimmed hat that shadowed his face. Slowly he raised a hand encased in a black leather glove and lifted the hat from his head.
Light fell on his face. At first, I saw only his eyes – dark as pitch but flashing with an emotion I couldn’t name. Before I could solve that mystery, another drew my attention. A crease slanted across the pale skin his face. From the right eye, across the tip of the nose and the plane of the cheek, to the left ear. Then I saw that the crease was really the edge of a mask that fit as snugly as a second skin. And for the first time since discovering the strange man standing in my dressing room, a stab of fear pierced me.
As if sensing my feelings, he held out his free hand in supplication. “Don’t be frightened, Christine. You’re not in danger.”
At the sound of his voice, my fear vanished as quickly as a wave melts into the sand. The man before me was indeed a stranger. But from the day I arrived at the Paris opera, his voice had been my only friend.
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