"Why, why, WHY did I agree to do this STUPID OPERA!? Didn't exactly have your "Bright Ideas"-hat on when you signed this contract, did you?"
Willow Rosenberg was muttering to herself under her breath, sitting in a taxi headed for The Royal Opera House. Despite the comet-like nature of her career and her sudden fame as a consequence, she was nervous as if she were on her way to her first audition.
Musically, she feared only one thing:
"Madame Goddamn Butterfly!" she mumbled under her breath.
She had been a star at the Royal College of Music opera school. Her teachers had expected great things from her. At her graduation concert, she had done two of Butterfly's arias, because everyone had thought that the role would be so great for Willow Rosenberg. Everyone except Willow Rosenberg, that was...
The rehearsals of the arias had gone badly, and she still remembered her sense of panic... The nights before the concert she had terrible nightmares about losing her voice in the middle of the first act aria Un bel di, vedremo.
The first part of the concert went splendidly, if one didn't count Willow's extremely acidy stomach and feeling of impending doom. Rather like the one she had just now in fact... The second part seemed to go well up until Butterfly. To her own dismay, her voice did indeed crack slightly in the beginning and it was down hill from there. It wasn't terrible, but it was definitely not good. Willow Rosenberg had never been able to handle doing anything badly, least of all when it came to music. The reviews all mentioned it. "A concert that could have been perfect". That headline from Opera magazine still haunted her dreams...
She had vowed to herself that same day never to come near Madame Butterfly again. Unfortunately, her mentor, the great conductor Sir Rupert Giles, had other plans. During a dinner at his house many months ago, he had started to talk about Willow needing "a challenge". Damn it, she never could say no to that man... Giles had originally been Buffy's mentor and the man who had discovered her unusual talent, but he sort of "adopted" Willow gradually during their years at the Royal College of Music. She loved him to bits, and before the evening was over she had agreed to do the part. "You're Willow Rosenberg! There's no Puccini that you can't manage, I refuse to believe it. You've done much more difficult things than that!" he had stated emphatically and Buffy and Sandro had agreed with him. So here she was, feeling like a musical deer caught in the headlights of an operatic lorry. The only light at the end of the tunnel was that she would get to work with the great mezzo soprano Diana Montague, who was "luxury cast" as Butterfly's servant, Suzuki.
'Please make me not embarrass myself in front of Montague!' Willow thought for the umpteenth time.
The taxi arrived at the opera house.
"Time to face the music?" The taxi driver punned annoyingly when Willow paid the fare.
The man might have been the only remaining cockney cab driver in London and had done his best to talk her head to pieces for the first part of the journey.
'God, do I need mocha. Or maybe a large gin and tonic to numb the pain...' she thought to herself as she waved and flashed a smile at the security guard at the entrance to the stage door.
She was just savouring her first sip of sugary caffeine goodness when the second variety of London accent of the day resounded behind her, accompanied by the slight creaking of leather.
"Well, well, if it isn't my Butterfly... Howre ya doin' Red?"
"William Bloodsworth... Annoying as always," she answered tartly.
Bloodsworth was one of the most controversial producers in Europe and very trying to work with, since he demanded blood, sweat and tears and wouldn't take no for an answer. He was also sort of a genius and though Willow hated to admit it, she didn't totally dislike working with him. Buffy did, though. She hated his guts. Willow smiled to herself. When Buffy hated something, or loved something, she did so with a vengeance.
"Love the little lilac number..." he leered and wiggled his eyebrows.
"Thanks," she said spontaneously. She stopped to think.
"Actually, scratch that and stop staring!" She said with equal parts annoyance and amusement and pulled her fuzzy pink cardigan closer around her lilac top.
She made her way into the rehearsal room. The rest of the cast and crew sat gathered to listen to the run through of the production plans by the producer and set designer. On the walls there were pictures of the costume designs by Gloria van Neederwelt. Van Neederwelt was originally a fashion designer and sometimes seemed to have no idea at all that the singers actually had to both move and sing in her costumes. To her, the opera house was just a catwalk. Willow noted with contentment that her somewhat more glamorous and modern version of traditional Japanese garb looked quite nice on the sketched picture. Van Neederwelt's costumes were often, well...kinda skanky, in her opinion.
"Seems you're off the hook this time, costume-wise..." said a polished British voice behind her.
"Giles!" She turned around and hugged her mentor; nearly causing him to drop the big leather bound score he carried under his arm.
"How could I let you talk me into doing this stupid part?" she whispered only half jokingly into his ear.
"Now, now, Willow, it's not stupid," he said with a slight note of reproach in his voice. Music was never stupid, or to be taken lightly, to Rupert Giles.
"Is Montague here yet?" Willow almost jumped with excitement at the prospect of meeting her.
"Eh...actually..." Giles got an iffy look on his face. He put the score down and started to polish his glasses as a sure sign of discomfort.
"Well, actually, erm, Montague has been taken ill and won't be able to do the part..." Giles looked down on his now undoubtedly clean glasses, but kept rubbing them with his handkerchief.
"Nooo... That was the light at the end of my tunnel, Giles," she whined, feeling her last chance to feel good about this project being put in an early grave.
"OK, spill the beans, who's replacing her? Anyone I know?"
"Probably not, actually... She's from the Young Artists program at the Scottish Opera..."
"Young Artists!? Oh, great, they replace Montague with a virtual amateur! Woohooo..." Willow heard how bitter she sounded, but the disappointment was just overwhelming.
"The Scottish Opera is a great ensemble. They would hardly accept an "amateur" into their Young Artists program," Giles berated her.
"I suppose..." Willow said glumly.
"Anyway, we shall all know this afternoon, when she arrives. She wasn't notified until this morning, so she'll be here as soon as she can."
With heavy steps Willow made her way to sit down for the run through. Strong arms enfolded her from behind and lifted her feet of the ground. A big smile formed on her face. Maybe the day was about to get better...
"Sandro! How have you been? Save me from my sucky day!" Willow exclaimed as she turned to hug her old friend, the Italian baritone Alessandro Harroni. The Italian was Willow's best friend since they had been music undergraduates together. Pleased didn't suffice to describe how she felt about him being in this production with her. She knew she should be listening carefully to Bloodsworth's explanation of his artistic visions (Bloodsworth was very large with his "visions", usually focusing on sex and violence) for the production, but her thoughts kept wandering and her discomfort grew. When the glowering set designer Liam Brody had finished his glum analysis of the symbolic meaning of the cherry trees and the blood in the opera, Willow had no idea what he was on about. She felt relieved when lunchtime came.
"Let's find Buffy and take her to lunch," she suggested.
They found her rehearsing the third act of "Die Walküre", with the Swedish soprano Anja Johnsson. Brünnhilde was Buffy's finest role. She made up for being so tiny with a formidable stage presence that made it no wonder that the dead heroes trembled at the sight of the warrior maiden. Anja played her sister Sieglinde. In the guise of Anja Johnsson, it seemed totally believable that this abused housewife would rebel against her violent husband and run off with a stranger after slipping her husband a mickey. She was a brilliant singer, but personally, Willow found the blunt and loud Swede extremely annoying. She and the baritone listened in silence as the gorgeous voices blended and rose to the ceiling. Willow closed her eyes and relaxed.
The singers finished and Buffy came and hugged her friends
"Can we NOT invite Anja to lunch?" Willow whispered into her ear.
"It's tempting, but since I'm trying to be a good colleague I probably should..." Buffy whispered back
Lunch was uneventful, apart from Anja's tendency to swear loudly in several languages and flirting heavily with Sandro, who was equal parts flattered by the attention and terrified by her aggressive come on. Willow suspected that Anja would have her evil way with him, since she usually got what she wanted. Anja her self often attributed her eccentric behaviour to the difference in cultures, claming that the Swedes were more liberal and straight forward but Willow has always suspected that she just plain enjoyed acting outrageous.
'Swedish, yeah, right... More like just rude,' she thought to herself as Anja loudly was telling an anecdote about getting drunk with Richard Wagner's grandson Wolfgang during the Wagner-festival at Bayreuth and streaking her colleague Jane Eaglen outside her hotel room.
Buffy was her own perky and ungrammatical self, but Willow suspected it was mostly a façade. She had seen the harrowed look on Buffy's face when she glanced at her ex-lover Liam Brody. The baggage she carried from that relationship still weighed heavily on Buffy's shoulders, her friend was certain.
After returning to the opera house she was on her way towards her dressing room when she stopped dead in her tracks. Someone was singing. This was to be expected, of course, being in an opera house, but this voice... Someone was singing Mon Coeur s'ouvra a ta Voix from Samson and Dalila. It was a siren call.
She followed the sound to its source on instinct. Normally the main stage wouldn't be used for early rehearsals, but the sound definitely came from there. She entered the theatre and positioned herself out of sight behind a pillar so she wouldn't disturb. Willow closed her eyes and let the sound wash over her like a great wave.
She had heard many great voices in her life, but once in a blue moon there would be someone who took you further; who made you tremble and not being able to breathe. But this... This was possibly the most wonderful voice she had ever heard. The warm, lush sound that travelled towards her took physical form and caressed her skin, wearing velvet gloves. When the mezzo on the stage reached Dalila's plea: respond to my tenderness, she felt the tears start running down her cheek. For a moment she forgot everything about her own fears. This woman sang Dalila's words completely unrestrained like the great seduction they were and, oh man, was she believable.
Pleasedontstopsingingpleasecontinuepleasedontstop her mind screamed when singer had finished the aria. Her heart sank when she realised that the deafening silence didn't go away.
'My heart has opened up like a flower to your voice...' Willow silently translated the opening lines of the aria in her head and sensed how true this was.
She made herself open her moist eyes and look up at the performer. Who was she? She had certainly never heard her before, because she would have remembered, she was sure.
Up on the big stage the "siren" looked small and childlike. Because of the confident, haunting sensuality of the voice she was thrown by the insecurity of the singer's behaviour. She was picking nervously at the hem of her top and hiding half her face behind a curtain of brownish-blonde hair. Suddenly she looked up and seemingly gazed directly at Willow.
'Surely she can't see me here behind this pillar?' Willow thought in surprise, finding it inexplicably difficult to breathe.
"Well it shouldn't matter anyway. With a voice like hers, she should just get used to eavesdroppers," she muttered to herself, slightly embarrassed.
"Eh, erm, that was very good, miss eh..."
"M-Maclay," came the quiet answer from the stage.
'She has a stutter? She sings like that and she has a stutter?'
Willow realised that it was Giles who had been listening in to the girl's performance. She could tell from his sudden slight speech impediment and his body language that her mentor had loved the performance as much as she had. Giles always tried to conceal his passionate nature, but wasn't particularly successful, in Willows opinion. She smiled fondly to herself.
"This will be a very good choice for the concert. Erm, thank you very much then, Miss Maclay, and I'm looking forward to our rehearsals this afternoon."
"I'm really honoured to be working with you, Mr Giles, sir," came the subdued answer from the stage.
"Oh, call me Rupert...See you later then, erm..."
"Tara," the blonde volunteered.
"Right, then, Tara it is..." Giles hurried of and Willow ran after him and caught up.
"Giles! Giles, wait up!" She caught the end of his sleeve, almost knocking him off his feet.
"Willow! Steady on. It's not allowed to kill the conductor until after the performance, you know," he said in a slightly peeved tone of voice.
"Giles, that mezzo, you said this afternoon, is she in with us, what's she doing? Please tell me I get to do it with her!"
Giles looked at her dumbfounded. Willow realised that she had been babbling again, and apparently loosing all semblance of meaning.
She calmed herself and concentrated on breathing.
"OK, right, calm now; Giles, that mezzo who just sang Dalila, that was the most BEAUTIFUL voice I have ever heard, so please, PLEASE tell me that you said "see you this afternoon" because she's rehearsing with us and that she's my Suzuki?"
Giles smiled softly.
"She was rather marvellous, wasn't she? I must say I was a little apprehensive when I first met her that she would be entirely suited to sing Dalila at the benefit concert, but I'd say she was quite ideal, wouldn't you? And the answer to your question is, yes, she is indeed our Suzuki, and I think we should consider ourselves lucky. Still think the Scottish Opera sent us an amateur?"
"Oh, Giles, that's so great!" Willow bounced in her place as a great Cheshire cat-smile spread on her face. "You can mock me all you want, because I was wrong, wrong, wrong!" Willow did a little war dance.
"Eh, I don't want to spoil your fun, but why are you here and not at your own rehearsal?"
She ran down the corridor acutely embarrassed. Willow Rosenberg was a person known for her punctuality. She was never, ever late. Ever. Now she would be, and she wasn't even properly sung up. What would they think of her? Still, she couldn't help the smile returning to her face as she raced to one of the smaller rehearsal rooms.
'She's my Suzuki, she's my Suzuki!' The words repeated themselves in her brain as a mantra.
She almost hit the wall instead of the door from running too fast.
"Hey, where's the fire?" Sandro looked up as she rushed in. "There must at least be a fire if the Wilster is late! Whoa, want us to hose you down?" Sandro had managed to learn a large amount of silly American expressions from socialising with Buffy and Willow.
"Soo sorry I'm late! It won't happen again, it really won't! I was just sidetracked, which was really unprofessional, and I'm not usually this much of a spaz, I just heard this voice, and..."
"Speaking of voices, Miss Rosenberg, would you like to start your rehearsal?" The repetiteur said in rather a condescending voice.
Even though the pianist's tone annoyed her, she sent a smile and a nod in the direction of Simon Keenlyside, who was playing the marriage broker Sharpless. They were rehearsing the scene where Sharpless tries to persuade Butterfly to marry prince Yamadori, who was played by Sandro. Sandro had always been so cavalier about practising and showing up at rehearsals that Willow feared he would never move beyond small supporting roles, despite his good voice. His lax attitude towards work was also the reason he had never made in into the opera school with her and Buffy. Buffy wasn't exactly so large with the hard work either, but she made up for it with instinct and pure talent. Willow walked up the piano and realised to her horror that aside from being late, she had also left her score in her dressing room. This day was quickly reverting to badness again. The insufferable repetiteur gave her an incredibly snooty look when she had to share a score with Sandro. The musical cold shower that was Butterfly poured over her, and she realised that the time had come to face her fears. The rehearsal didn't exactly go badly, but, well, not exactly great either. She felt grumpy and restless.
After a short coffee break of twenty minutes, the schedule had the names Willow Rosenberg/ Tara Maclay written on it under the heading of "Music rehearsal".
Willow stood outside the room chatting idly to Sandro and having her second mocha of the day. She hadn't told Sandro about Tara's audition earlier in the day or her own reaction to it. She didn't know why, but she just had this instinctive feeling that she wanted to keep the experience to herself. She was also worried that Tara might not like her voice as much as she had liked the mezzo's. She wasn't at her best by any means today and the critics had made rather a fuss about her in earlier productions, so maybe she would have really high expectations and then think that Willow was overrated?
"Right, have to go..." Sandro was also rehearsing for another production simultaneously, since he had quite a small part in Butterfly. She had a sudden flash of panic at being left alone with her "Butterfly phobia".
"You'll be fine, Will. You're the talented one, you can do everything..." Sandro gave her a brief hug and sauntered off down the corridor.
Willow went into the rehearsal rooms and opened her score to the right place to avoid getting the snippy from the repetiteur again. She started humming gently to get her voice going again. She decided she needed a glass of water and turned around to go out to the water fountain to get it. When she went out the door something walked right into her. Or someone, rather. Caught totally off her guard, she found herself sitting on the floor without a clue how she got there. She looked up into a pair of big blue eyes and a brow furrowed with worry.
"Oh, I-I'm such a total idiot; I'm so s-sorry, are you ok?" Willow felt a wave of compassion towards the girl's discomfort, even though being knocked of her feet wasn't normally her favourite part of her day. She caught herself staring. Could this girl be the sultry seductress from before?
'Ok, still big with the surprises, today. She's MY age. Yeah, because hello, YOUNG artist's program, not OLD artist's program, but still... No way she's older than 25...'
"Are you Tara Maclay? I'm Willow Rosenberg," she said out loud, stopping her inner monologue.
"I know... I was at your recital in Edinburgh in M-March. It was wonderful... I'm so looking forward to working with you," Tara said, hiding half of her face behind her hair like she had done when Willow saw her talking to Giles earlier.
Willow's brain registered two things at the same time: Tara had a soft musical highland accent and she was very pretty. Or maybe pretty wasn't exactly the word... Willow didn't know what to call it, but she just knew that this girl was special, somehow. They looked at each other.
'How very blue her eyes are...'