“Dad, are you sad?”
“Oh, Elliot … no, I’m OK.”
Always the same answer. Ivan knew that Elliot suspected that there was something disturbing him, but he pretended that everything was fine. His son wanted to cheer him up but didn’t get a chance.
Ivan was about to perform at the Royal Opera House in London as he was a tenor and sang in opera houses with lots of people sitting still and silent to listen to him. There was always a magic atmosphere on those evenings with all those people dressed up and the splendour of the halls, the red velvet and the shining lights of the auditorium; afterwards the lights went down and the music unfolded beautifully. Those were the only nights when Ivan let Elliot go to bed late.
Ivan’s ex wife would take Elliot to the theatre on the evenings he was due to perform. Their divorce had been very hard for Elliot, and his parents felt they hadn’t managed to explain to him why it had happened.
Everybody admired Ivan’s elegance but at times something went wrong and people booed him.
It was the opening night of the new production of ‘Un Ballo in Maschera’ by Verdi and there was a lot of tension in the audience. Ivan stepped on stage, but his voice split.
Ivan Gallanti seemed unable to concentrate on his singing and when the performance ended, he could already figure out the day after reviews, Ivan Gallanti: an announced disaster; Gallanti’s voice fell to pieces; Is Gallanti’s career about to collapse? It was as if something was squeezing his heart. He didn’t show up for curtain calls.
After the performance, Ivan asked to see Elliot, and his mother accompanied him to the dressing room. Ivan hugged his son and smiled pretending he was fine.
“I saw Aunt Helena in the audience. She looked so smart.”
“Yes, she told me she would come tonight. Come on, I’ll get changed and then we’ll go.” Nobody had gone to greet the tenor. It was always embarrassing in those circumstances.
That night the tenor kept pacing around his room in the hotel suite. At some point, Elliot got up and went to meet his father.
“What, Elliot, can’t you sleep?”
“No, I heard you were awake.”
“Sorry. Yes, I‘m tired but I can’t sleep.” His eyes were swollen.
“What’s happening, Dad?” Elliot’s eyes were wide-open.
A long silence followed. “Would you like a glass of soymilk?”
“I know you’ve been worrying about me, these days.”
“Yes.” It was almost a relief for Elliot that his father had noticed how concerned he’d been lately.
“I’m fine.” His look betrayed emotion.
“No! You’re not!” It came out as a cry.
“Well, yes, I do have a problem. It is something that concerns my profession.”
Elliot waited with trepidation.
“It is something that gives me nervous apprehension. You know when you tell me you’re afraid of flying?”
“And I tell you that everybody has a phobia, an irrational fear? Well, I have one too, and mine is called stage fright or social phobia and means that when I am scheduled to sing, I start having anxiety problems. I feel afraid I won’t be able to sing, that I won’t be able to stand in front of the audience, that I’ll make mistakes and people will judge me. When you hear the audience boo me it’s because I am unable to focus, and I get everything wrong. My voice seems to belong to somebody else and I have no control over it.”
Throughout his father’s words, Elliot had been mostly unable to maintain eye contact with him. He looked at the floor turning off his gaze, played with a pen, moved about sitting and standing. “Why?”
“Maybe because I lack self-confidence.”
“Why have you never told me that?”
“Because I suffer in silent terror. And because I feel ashamed and try to keep it to myself.”
“But you’re great, Dad.”
“Thanks, Elliot, but you see this problem goes beyond vocal abilities. It’s a mental problem.”
“Is it like when I don’t want to go to school and I get a high temperature, so Mom worries about me and doesn’t send me to school?”
“Yes, more or less. You’re so clever. You see, your father works on stage in front of many people and is afraid of that. I start panicking when I’m the center of attention. I feel as if someone is strangling me. I feel frozen, I feel that I shouldn’t be there.”
“Well, if you’re afraid, don’t do it anymore.”
“It’s difficult. It’s my job. I love it.”
“Can’t you do something different?”
“I don’t know. I’ll have to see. Go to sleep now, it’s really late.”
Ivan was thoughtful. He knew Elliot wanted to help him, but he was only an eight-year-old child. He shouldn’t already have a burden troubling him. Ivan thought with tenderness that he was such a handsome child, with huge dark eyes as sparkly as the sun. He was tall and slim like his father.
Artists often lead a miserable existence, but their personal tragedies don’t cross over the footlights. Ivan had started right at the top at an early stage in his career creating such a sensation. He made his debut at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, his native town, at twenty-four years of age. Considered one of the best tenors ever, Ivan combined a unique voice and a wonderful way of singing and acting.
He’d soon started scoring his first international triumphs. 1999 marked his debut at Covent Garden, where he was regarded as a very promising young artist. Afterwards people seemed to think that fifteen years has gone by and this tenor appeared to be leaving not so great a legacy.
A few years ago, Ivan had suffered from depression and due to cancellation after cancellation, at the age of forty-one he’d almost been forgotten by his audience.
Whether this problem depended on his starting too early or on a nervous disposition, it was difficult to say. Maybe the power of our mind is so immense that we can either make ourselves happy or confine ourselves to intense desolation.
Two days later, the experience in London was over and father and son were back in Milan. Ivan worried because Elliot liked studying though what appealed to him most was playing videogames, soccer with his schoolmates, swimming, reading adventure books and spending time on Facebook.
“When will you be away again, Dad?”
“In three months’, when I’m expected to make two guest appearances in recitals at the Rome Opera House.”
“I’ll have some time to relax.” Ivan and Elliot had been reading that, in order to heal, Ivan had to learn to accept himself and that he shouldn’t think about proving himself to others. Ivan also had to find out natural remedies to reduce symptoms of performance anxiety and do relaxation exercises. It wasn’t easy. He could only relax when he didn’t have close dates of performances.
In the silence that followed, the phone rang.
“Hello Ivan, it’s me, Joubert”. It was the Chief Executive of the Paris Opera House.
“Glad to hear you’re fine. You know we’re about to have Bohème performances with American Italian tenor Rodolfo Gatto. Well, he cancelled with only one week’s notice and the public are very disappointed. They threaten to demand their money back if the Opera House management doesn’t come up with an outstanding tenor to replace him. They don’t want an understudy. Don’t be offended, but we thought of you. Would you help us? You are so popular, and people love you in Paris.
“Well, it didn’t go well in London, you know. And at such short notice…”
“I know. It’s so recent. But please…”
He didn’t know what to do though he was tempted to accept. The role of Rodolfo was one of his favourites.
“People here love the fact that you’re always involved with your character and have never been an applause-seeking artist. Your shiny voice has a quality that goes straight to one’s heart and doesn’t make one think of technique or anything else. Because it wraps you in a lyrical dream. You are the perfect Rodolfo.”
Preparations for Bohème started. After the conversation Elliot had had with his father, he didn’t expect him to accept. But Ivan had already made arrangements with the Music Director of the Paris Opera to start rehearsals. Ivan had decided that Elliot would join him only on the first night so as not to miss school, but after plenty of tears and sobs Ivan gave in, and Elliot would stay with his father all the way to the end.
When they arrived in Paris they were soon met by Mr Joubert and Georges Sartor, the Music Director. At the House they also found Val Maddix, the American soprano who was going to be Ivan’s partner. They had tea altogether in Mr Joubert’s office.
“Well, I am criticized a lot too for my nerves and I get this business of ‘warming up during the performance and that by the end I am this, that and the other.’ Maybe because we get better and better, we become very exciting singers.” Val was attempting to reassure Ivan.
“The last time we sung together in Barcelona in ‘Faust’ I remember that before your entrance on stage the wings were just so full of people from dressers, wig people, stage hands, etc., and it was to listen to Gallanti sing his aria. There was a certain amount of tension around us, ‘how is it going to be’ – type of thing. Then you pulled off those fantastic top notes; we just stood in the place in rapture, for about ten minutes—quarter of an hour. I was thrilled to be part of all that, though I had mixed feelings because at the same time my nerves were playing up and I just wanted to get on and start my singing.”
“Thanks Val, you’re always so supportive, though getting so nervous I believe I can be a very distractive partner.”
The soprano’s jasmine tea was now almost cold. “Well, no, you are a marvellous partner, always courteous and very nice to work with.
“You know I find you have electricity in your voice. Moreover, your ability to sing controlled and beautiful pianissimo notes, with that sort of filigree work, as I call it, is unmatched but you also have quite a beef. To have both those qualities is a wonderful asset. Some tenors can sing the tessitura and can float the high notes, but they haven’t got very much beef behind, while others are beefy but you feel it is an effort when they make the notes.”
“The thing is that you might enjoy a couple of successes that make you feel comfortable but then one performance goes wrong and it takes you so many steps backwards. People who suffer with nerves are only too ready to lurch on to the bad things. Maybe because we always work towards a goal.”
“I know terribly well Ivan,” replied Val.
Sartor knew that Gallanti responded well to him as he knew how to take him. They used to say that he was like a father or even like a doctor to Ivan, ‘doctor Sartor’. “When you manage to relax and sing well and you’re no longer afraid of your shadow, your heroic Italian sound is wonderful.”
To Sartor Ivan was like a beaten dog that had to be stroked and encouraged. The old conductor also loved Ivan’s modesty, which was so pleasant in contrast to some of his colleagues’ megalomania.
He had a genuine sympathy for Ivan because he supposed that when Ivan loved people, he would go through fire for them. “I always repeat to you not to make yourself ill. The mind makes you ill, not the voice. Your voice is in perfect condition, but you want to be ill, therefore you make yourself ill.
“With the mind you can do anything; the mind is everything. You commit a sort of suicide every time you have something important. Here we won’t push you; we’ll leave you in peace and you’ll get over it. I am patient, you know.”
Ivan checked on Elliot. He was playing games on his cell phone. Elliot tried to listen to grown-ups though he didn’t always understand them. He just sensed that his father was like a child who needed help and guidance.
“You have to get in a mental state where your voice is lined up properly.” Mr Joubert, in a heavy French accent, felt like adding his own advice too. “Part of the art of performing is about taking risks and you must have the courage to take a risk and avoid your doubts and fears; it’s your mental blockage that is telling you to be careful. This is an enormous challenge for you. You have now been plunged into something at short notice and this means you won’t get that amount of time to ponder on all the horrors of what you’re about to do.”
Ivan conveyed an expression of gratitude to his comrades. Then Sartor stood up and told them that it was time to get started and they all went onstage to get going with rehearsals.
The four performances of Bohème in Paris were a triumph. There were standing ovations on all four nights and Ivan received his curtain calls looking very attractive in his Rodolfo costumes.
He managed to relax maybe because he had little time to think or maybe because of the good atmosphere in the House and everybody’s support. He’d been tense but when the first huge applause burst he began to cry out of nervousness. He returned to Italy with Elliot happy and relaxed as if they had been on holiday.
Nevertheless, the agony that enveloped Ivan was not over. At some point, Elliot found his father in the sitting-room muttering to himself. Once he heard him say awful words over the phone: “I’ve failed. My career’s a disappointment. I should stop singing. Maybe I could teach young students, hold master classes around the world.” But he felt sorry to leave his career. He had extensively dreamt of it as a young man.
“I’ve let Elliot down. I didn’t even take good care of him because of my profession. I’ve let my ex-wife down by betraying her repeatedly. I’ve disappointed my audience. People have stopped worrying about me. What can I do? It would be better for everyone if I die. But what about Elliot? He loves me. And my parents, my sister Helena…” He started thinking about ending his life. He seemed unable to cope with every day’s life. He felt so tired. He put the phone down.
He didn’t notice Elliot’s presence and with his suicidal thoughts he fell asleep. He soon started having a nightmare. He was agitated. He saw himself hanging from an overhead beam. He could see himself squirming and choking. He could feel the pain. He could feel his heart on fire. He suddenly woke up and saw Elliot next to him.
“Daddy, Daddy, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing, I’ve had a bad dream but I’m so glad to see you.” The dream had frightened him. While holding Elliot in his arms he thought how bad it would have been to end his story there. How cruel it would have been to leave his child who was his life, his heart.
A slight hope began to dawn on his soul. What if he did something else? Maybe Elliot was right. He could retire and start playing on the same ground but without all that distress. He would be helping students with their hopes, their technique, their dreams, just like when he was a young student. Why not? He would see his child grow up. He was born free but at some point, he had become a slave. Now there was a hope for him. He could start a new life.