by Daniel Emlyn-Jones
“She looks like a prostitute, not a singer.” Gabriel Tan liked talking to his Mercedes. The concert programme lay on the dashboard, the reflection of Fontane’s leather bodiced bosom hanging upside down in the windscreen like a diabolical apparition.
“Yes Gabriel, she does.” The pristine upholstery gleamed back at him. “Like a brazen harlot, like a painted trollop. You’re right, you’re always right. Why won’t they listen?”
“She should be pole dancing in that outfit, not singing Brünnhilde’s Immolation! Idiot girl thinking she can sing Wagner at eighteen. She doesn’t have the technique. She doesn’t have the maturity. She can’t possibly communicate such music to an audience.”
“Quite Gabriel. Quite. Why do you bother darling?”
“And the father? Stupid man. Thinks money can buy everything.”
“Stupid, stupid man.”
“And that ignorant cow Debby Ong, charging a fortune to teach Wagner to a teenager?”
“The charlatan. The fraud. She should be ashamed. She should be imprisoned.”
The Mercedes reached the Kallang–Paya Lebar Expressway, and Gabriel let his foot relax onto the accelerator. It purred into open road, the high shining apartment blocks of Sengkang and Punggol steadily receding in the rear-view mirror. Thanks to the Expressway, the Esplanade theatre was only a twenty minute journey away.
“I shouldn’t have thrown that china cat though,” Gabriel said, grinning a little.
“Don’t reproach yourself darling! After everything you’ve done? It was an entirely understandable reaction in the face of such disrespect; in the face of such insolence.”
Gabriel took a sweetie out of the glove compartment, popped it into his mouth, and rattled it around his teeth. The argument had been foul, truly foul, the worst he’d ever had with a student.
“It’s my debut concert, and I should be allowed to sing what I want!” She had shouted at him, actually shouted at him, the one who had nurtured her voice from an infantile squeak to a full-bodied soprano. “Daddy says I should have artistic freedom! I’m eighteen lah!” Her face was screwed up like a discontented toddler’s.
“Your father knows nothing of singing! There are singers ten years older than you who wouldn’t touch Wagner! You’re too young!”
“Why do you always hold me back?”
“Because you’re standing on the edge of a precipice!”
She folded her arms, raised her eyes to the ceiling, and casually slumped her weight onto one leg. “Stupid,” she said, forming the word like a glob of spit.
“You are a spoilt disrespectful little ingrate!”
“And you’re an evil old man! If you’re such a big expert on singing, how come you ruined your own voice!?” She clapped a hand over her mouth, realising she had gone too far.
There was a silence, before Gabriel lifted a giant porcelain cat from its position on the grand piano. One of his old aunties in Kuching had given it to him as a coming of age present, and it had spent decades serenely observing the progress of his students. Now its time had come. He raised it high above his head, then hurled it onto the marble floor at her feet. It shattered with an almighty crash. With a parrot shriek she fled.
The following day, Gabriel had spoken with her father in his Katong mansion.
“She has a fiery spirit, doesn’t she? Just like her mother!” Mr. Fu chuckled and stretched himself out on the leather sofa like a great corpulent lion bored with its own dominance. Gabriel eyed the car-sized crystal chandelier hovering several metres above his head, wondering if he could sever its attachment to the ceiling through willpower.
“When not properly managed, fire can destroy those it possesses,” Gabriel said.
Mr. Fu smiled. “Gabriel. I live in a household with four women, and trust me when I tell you that I do know a little bit about what makes them tick. Things that we men think are stupid – dresses and shoes, makeup and hair – are very important to them. Can you imagine the amount of money my wife spends on shoes every year?”
“I’ve no idea.”
“More than the cost of a Mercedes, let’s put it that way. What I’m saying is, my princess is eighteen now, and it’s natural that she wants to have some independence. Wear a nice dress and show off a bit: be the belle of the ball.”
“Listen Mr. Fu. Unlike Debby Ong, I do know what I’m talking about when it comes to singing. As you may remember, I spent years studying in London with some of the best teachers in the world, and I am telling you that singing such a monumental piece as Brünnhilde’s Immolation at the age of eighteen is vocal suicide. Any singing teacher worth their salt will say the same. Fontane has a fine voice, and in fifteen or twenty years she may be able to do the piece justice, but singing it now is insane.”
Mr. Fu’s eyes twinkled. “You’ve never had any children have you Gabriel.”
“What has that to do with anything?”
“They can be troublesome, especially when they’re teenagers. Telling Fontane that she can’t do the piece for twenty years will not go down very well.” He hooted with laughter.
“Then you must put your foot down. The problem is that she’s spoilt.”
“The problem is that you don’t understand women, and you don’t understand teenagers. I think this Debby Ong will do her good. She came highly recommended, whatever you say about her, and as a woman she’ll understand my princess. This business with the Varkner is just winds and waves in a teacup.”
When Gabriel arrived at the Esplanade theatre, he carefully avoided Fontane, who was standing in the foyer holding court together with her parents and Debby Ong. In the cavernous space there were several large garden displays featuring clumps of timber bamboos and palms, so he easily made his way to the bar unseen. There he found Lionel working his way through a bottle of Krug Brut Vintage 1988 Champagne and a large plate of oysters. He was young, svelte and decidedly good-looking, and Gabriel always found it incredibly difficult losing patience with him.
“So the newspaper gives you a drinks tab now does it Lionel?”
“No lah. A gift from Mr. Fu.”
“Rude not to accept such a generous gesture lah. A wealthy man. Hired the main concert hall and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra: not cheap lah. And your student has an ambitious programme I see: Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner. Brünnhilde’s Immolation! She must be quite something.”
“Now listen, and listen carefully. I disapproved of the whole programme, and she left me for Debby Ong.”
“Aiyah! Gabriel upsetting students, and rich ones too.” He laughed and slurped back another oyster.
“It’s called artistic integrity Lionel. Which reminds me, in your write up, do not for pity’s sake mention me as her teacher. Mention that stupid cow Debby Ong please, but not me!”
“What’s it worth?” Lionel smirked.
“I may be nearly sixty, but Alzheimer’s has not yet struck. I do still remember a certain – how shall I put it – ‘incident’, which could become embarrassing were certain people to hear of it. You do know by the way that you shouldn’t eat too many oysters? They are an aphrodisiac, and we wouldn’t want you to end up in a compromising situation, especially after all that champagne.”
“OK, OK lah.” Lionel put up his hands in surrender. “Your name will not be mentioned.”
“But Gabriel. What if she’s fantastic?”
“She won’t be.”
The instant Fontane started to sing, Gabriel could deduce in forensic detail precisely what she was doing wrong. To try and force a bigger sound, she was tensing the tongue to depress the larynx, adding too much weight to the instrument, which in turn was leading to vocal fatigue and hoarseness. Her natural placement was disrupted, and she was losing the all-important support from the musculature of the abdomen. For some singers it was a matter of months before irreversible damage occurred, for others just a matter of weeks: the lesson had to be learned, and learned quickly. In “O mio babbino caro” she tottered in her stilettos to the edge of the stage, and extended her arms lovingly towards her father sitting in the front row. A warm murmur of approval arose from the audience. “Stupid tart,” Gabriel muttered, convinced that her Caballé-like swooping was just to annoy him.
By the time she started singing Brünnhilde’s Immolation, her floundering was becoming noticeable even to the non-professional ear. The audience cringed as she lunged for high note after high note, each one flatter than the last, each one hoarser. When finally Brünnhilde rode her horse into the flames of Siegfried’s funeral pyre, giving the ring of Nibelung back into the care of the Rhine maidens, the notes ceased to sound at all.
Gabriel remembered a young man cowering in the corner of a London bedsit. Like Icarus he had flown too close to the sun’s heat, and the wax holding his wings together had melted. For weeks he’d visited teacher after teacher, trying reparative exercise after reparative exercise. He’d drunk every concoction in Chinatown, but nothing had helped.
At the final bow, Fontane was already in tears. As soon as she’d left the stage, Gabriel went backstage to her dressing room. There he found her slumped at a table, flowers and makeup bottles strewn everywhere.
“Come to gloat?” she said.
“I assure you it gives me no pleasure.”
“It’s not fair!” She swiped a bottle of nail varnish from the table.
“It’s perfectly fair.”
She burst into paroxysms of tears. “I’ve made a total idiot of myself!”
“Wise is she who knows she is a fool.”
She looked up at Gabriel, her ashen face blotched with mascara.
“Do you want to know how I ruined my voice. I sang the role of Siegfried when I was twenty-three years old, against the advice of my teacher, and against the advice of everyone except the greedy impresario who had no Heldentenor. And this wasn’t just one concert, but during a whole season. I got into trouble early on, of course, but I was too arrogant to admit my mistake and cancel. By the time the season was finished, so was I.”
Fontane fiddled with the three carat pink diamond ring her father had given to her for her birthday. “I’m sorry, Gabriel,” she said.
“Will you leave Debby Ong?”
“Good. Well, you’ll need to look after your voice from now on. No singing and as little talking as possible for the next fortnight. Then you can come for a lesson, and we’ll work on getting your voice back. Patience is the greatest lesson any young singer can learn, and if you have learnt that lesson tonight young lady, then it may prove to have been the most successful concert of your career.” As he looked down at his student, he was surprised to feel tears welling in his eyes.
On the way home, he played ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ on the Mercedes sound system, turning the volume up so high that the car vibrated with it.
Editor’s Note on Brünnhilde’s Immolation:
Brünnhilde’s Immolation is not the first time Daniel Emlyn-Jones has featured in Eastlit.
The following work by Daniel Emlyn-Jones has featured in Eastlit: