He spoke first of her breathing, then of her bearing and strength. He showed her, with lightness and ease, with playful, wry animation, how he breathed, as he had been trained. Such training as he had undergone could not be replicated, he said. But he would do his best, if Anna would try. She said she would.
He exhaled in a hiss from full, strong lungs while she counted out the seconds. Her own exhale she could not sustain long, but it was wonderful failure, failure that might some day be overcome. He demonstrated for her, too, the messa di voce, the placement of the voice, in which he sang a single note from softest to loudest and back again, and touched, along the way, all the gradations of loudness and softness between. She failed here, too, but still he made her feel already taken, already touched, with the fever of aspiration—to learn and master everything. It would be like becoming an acrobat, Rauzzini said. Soon enough one might fly. Already he was pleased with her, already praising her quickness and skill. He said that in time they would begin two-note scales, then three notes, then as many notes as could be contained in the measure of a single breath. She had never in her life felt as dancing and vivid as now. She forgot herself. He did not sing much, but when he did, the sound went all around her and through her body. It was as though her soul became huge with life and joy, and she could not believe that she had been so nervous, nor that she had not been more.
The year was 1776. Her name was Anna Selina Storace. She was eleven years old. She could play harp and guitar and sing anything by sight. Her elder brother, Stephen, was a prodigy on the violin, and had been sent to Naples to study at a conservatory. Her father was Italian, a double-bass player who had lived in London for twenty years and who arranged and translated Italian burlettas for Marylebone Gardens. He was a hopeful man who was always losing money. His unhappy wife, born Elizabeth Trusler, was the daughter of the proprietor at Marylebone, a pleasure resort just outside of London, not as plush or posh as Vauxhall or Ranelagh but characterized by the Truslers’ simple, rustic food: fruit tarts from their own gardens, and cheesecakes, cream, and butter from the sleek dairy cows that lowed and grazed in the lawns behind the theater. There were breakfasts, balls, and fireworks. The patrons were not wealthy but neither were they poor.
Anna had sung and danced in her father’s burlettas at Marylebone for as long as she could remember. She was a lively, clever child who wanted only to be pleasing to everybody. Her eyes were large and dark and mutable and seemed to express more depth of feeling and quickness of mind than were found in many an adult. Her thick, black-brown curls made Mrs. Storace despair that she would be taken for a Gypsy. Her stature was small and neat, and she carried herself gracefully, after her mother, who in times of greater prosperity had had a French dancing master.
The night before her first lesson with Venanzio Rauzzini, Anna had hardly slept. Every quarter of an hour she’d woken to see if it was time to get up, but it was always the depths of night, everyone asleep but herself, her heart fluttering with excitement and her feet too hot. At last the sky had lightened and she’d heard Bridget beginning the morning chores.
“Up already?” Bridget had said.
Anna had looked at the good woman with solemn eyes. “It’s the most important day of my life.”
“Then you’d best get more sleep, my love,” said Bridget, but she gave Anna her bread and butter and let her stay.
The morning had lagged on as the night had done and then suddenly it was time to dress and go with her father to Rauzzini’s house in Covent Garden. When they entered the castrato’s apartment, three small dogs trotted down the hall to greet them. “I never thought he’d have dogs,” she whispered.
“He doesn’t have children,” said her father. He licked his lips and tugged his wig, which was too small. There were mirrors on the walls. Anna was afraid she looked shabby. The servant opened the tall inner doors and the dogs rushed before them into the drawing room, which was decorated richly in red. “Salutations,” said Venanzio Rauzzini, turning with an easy grace to meet them.
He spoke in Italian—a high, sweet, full voice. There were rings on all his fingers, and at his breast, a pin in the shape of a phoenix. He wore a fine blue coat and jeweled buckles on his shoes. His large, heavily lidded eyes had an expression of dreaminess and calm, and his face was as round and as smooth as a boy’s. He possessed an unusually tall frame, with wide, plump shoulders, gangling arms, and ample legs, and yet he carried himself so proudly, and moved with such elegance, that according to his reputation he could not enter a room without drawing every eye upon him to admire.
“You’re very young,” he remarked.
“I’m just small,” Anna exclaimed. “I’m already eleven.”
“Already?” he said. He gave her a warm look. “I’d have taken you for ten at most. Well, then, come with me. We’ll leave your father with my pups. You can play with them later, if you like. They’ve come all the way from Munich.”
She followed him to his music room, which smelled of books and cinnamon, and felt instantly relieved. Here she belonged, here she was home, with this purpose and this teacher. He held in his mind the knowledge she required. She need only convey to him now that she was better and brighter than any little girl on earth.
“She’s a pearl,” said his servant when the Storaces had departed.
Rauzzini looked at the other man and smiled. “Yes.”
He felt unexpectedly lively in the wake of the little girl’s visit, could not suppress his smile. One wanted a purpose, after all. One wanted a project, a pet. He had everything material but no children and no family. To be a castrato singer was to be a man from an alien land—not even a man. And yet even such a man might long to have a child. One could have wealth and favor, one could populate one’s house with trinkets and dogs, yet in the dinginess of London, and the remorseless, accelerating march of time, there was aimless, itching spleen. Each day his own singing—what he lived for, for which his young body had been violated—relieved him of that spleen. But he could not sing forever.
He glanced along the row of mirrors. He had been an orphan in Rome, and until he had been given to the conservatory—gelded and sold, like a piece of cattle—he had never looked closely at his own face. But after that great change, the singing masters had made him stand before a mirror every day so he would not grimace, nor make any sign of strain, while cycling through the musical scales. When he had first looked into the mirror he had been struck at once by the thought that in this unfamiliar face lay the melded images of his unknown parents, their lips and cheeks and eyes. He had thought that if he studied this face long enough, this face that contained theirs, he might someday meet them again, on the streets of Rome, and say, “I am your son. I have become a great singer.” For he believed that he had been born to a poor girl who had given him away.
He had liked to imagine her, his mother, while lying on his cot at night. That was the only time in the conservatory when he was alone and quiet. All the rest of the day and night the young castrati spent singing. They sang psalms as they dressed in the morning, as they washed and walked. They sang in nightly vigils. Figlioli angiolini, they were called—little angel boys. They stood watch over the corpses of dead children. For this service the conservatories were paid high fees. It was on such a vigil that Rauzzini, as a boy little older than Anna, had fallen in love with singing; as he stood in his white cassock, motherless, and comforted the poor dead children, who were far worse off than he, and their veiled, grieving relations. He had loved the ceremonial ritual, the candles, the lateness of the hour; loved the importance of his task, which could be done by no other, and the sweet sounds that released like butterflies from his finely coordinated throat. He had understood then how powerful he could be, and how admired.
His voice could fill the largest hall, be heard from mountaintop to mountaintop, yet it was so beautiful—he was not arrogant, it was simply a fact—that it would not have waked an infant at arm’s length. Not one in a hundred of those figlioli angiolini had grown to have a voice and technique like his. He had been blessed by God, and by his own determination.
He’d had a storied career in Rome, and later in Milan, where the young Wolfgang Mozart had written him an exquisite motet. After Milan he’d gone to Munich, but his mistress there—the exquisite Elizabeth Bauer, just seventeen, with skin like silk and constellations of freckles and moles—had made a mistake with their rendezvous. The old duke had burst in upon them. The duke was a jealous man at best, but there was particular shame in being cuckolded by a castrato. Most people did not know the extent to which a man like Rauzzini might still serve a lady, but Elizabeth knew, the sweet girl. She had a mole on her left buttock that he would carry in his heart forever.
She had sent him a rose the next morning and told him her husband intended to kill him. So to London he had come. He liked the fog. His humors were thick and hot, and made his joints ache, as if the heat of the man he would never be had backed up and poisoned his blood. He liked what cooled and quieted.
He had read a review of the Storace girl in the paper, but had not believed there would be anything interesting about her. He had been happily mistaken. She was a treasure. She would be his student and sing in his own operas, for he wished to compose.
He had been about her age when his life had turned from one thing to another. At the conservatory, the regular boys had mocked the young castrati, who were fed on broth and eggs and meat while they, the instrumentalists, were half starved. They had divided themselves into integri and non integri, whole and not whole. Remembering this, Rauzzini tossed his head in the mirror. None of us were whole, he thought. The fellow who’d done his surgery had been usually employed in extracting teeth. Most castrated boys died from infections. But Rauzzini had lived, had grown brilliant and handsome, and the voice had been good, the voice of a boy in the body of an almost-man, only fuller and more masterful than any boy could muster. But Anna required no injury. She had everything she needed.
One look and he had cherished her. The absurdity did not diminish the feeling. Intelligence, openness, heart—these qualities attracted him, these rang upon his life’s purpose. There was no higher art than music and no purer musical form than song. The voice of such a child must brim the soul. For the preservation of his own childhood voice he had been castrated. Yet now it need not be so. This girl, this pearl, this new daughter, would grow into a fine young woman. She would lose nothing. Neither her heart, nor her joy, nor her confidence. She would be celebrated. She would have everything he had, and everything he had not.
Cupid All Armed
The Royal Opera House glowed with hazy light, its air filled with heat and smoke and rumbling noise. On the ground, there was not room to move and yet movement was constant. Now and then someone lost his supper, and the mess was absorbed with sawdust, and the stink dissolved into the rest of the stink. There were pickpockets and food vendors and three men for every woman, and when these women were groped and squeezed, they whacked the men with whatever implements they had at hand. The crowd on the grounds pressed against a row of spikes set there to keep them from overflowing onto the stage in occasional riots. They threw orange peels upon the stage boards. The set burned above them, a hot apparition. The singers and dancers sweated and strained upon it, in costumes decorated with feathers, baubles, and anything that might catch the light. For ten minutes, twenty, the audience’s attention held, for favorite singers, arias, or intervals of ballet, and the applause then was raucous and long. But soon enough there would be a lull of confusion, and food was thrown, and men stood on benches shouting at one another, and lords in the boxes dallied behind curtains with their mistresses. Anna’s mother said the opera house was full of harlots. Had it not been for the debts, she said, she would not have allowed Anna to sing there, not so young. And because of this, for the first time in her life, Anna was grateful to the debts, and bowed before them, and wanted to kiss their hands, because there was nowhere on earth she would rather be than inside an opera theater.
She was thirteen. The Cupid costume showed her legs from just above the knee. She had not shown her legs since she was a small child. The stockings were white and the breeches gold. Her white legs would catch the light and everyone would look at them. Her mother was not happy about the costume, but Cupid was a boy; he could not have had his legs covered.
Anna had never done anything like this. The audiences at Marylebone had been perhaps one hundred people, the stage small, the music simple and easy. Standing in the wings before her entrance, she breathed deliberately, as Rauzzini had taught her, and straightened her shoulders. “Trust your heart,” he had said. “Wrap your heart in the strongest silk, and don’t let anything tear it, nor burn it away.” From the stage came the sounds she yearned for—the orchestra, the cheers. Upon her cue she stepped onto the boards, noticing in passing a stray orange peel that had not been swept up. She wanted to knock it away with her foot, but that would have been out of her part. So she pretended that it did not exist. There, before her, were the heads of the players in the orchestra, there her hopeful father smiling at his double bass. Everything was as they had rehearsed, but now it was night, and the air was hot and smoky, and in the broad, vaulted space before her, pushed against the spikes, standing on benches, leaning out of balconies, eating, drinking, talking, and embracing, two thousand faces turned to Anna with her bow and arrow, her golden pantaloons, her silver wings, her blazing stockings. Two thousand hearts lived with hers, and she did not know where was the silken armor Rauzzini had meant for her to wrap around her heart. She felt her limbs grow weak and uncertain, felt the two thousand faces begin to turn away.
Excerpted from Vienna Nocturne by Vivien Shotwell. Copyright © 2014 by Vivien Shotwell. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.