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Dominic Corelli sat in a balcony box at Teatro alla Scala, brooding. The room was dark, as he had requested. No one in the theater could see him, but he could hear and, when he stood, see everything going on below.
The opera house in Milan, Italy, had undergone several renovations since its opening in 1778 and today was one of the world's most famous theaters. Maybe, Dominic thought, his mind roaming because the singer auditioning for him was performing badly, the architects were too good. Thanks to the wonderful acoustics in the auditorium he could hear every off-key note she was warbling.
"Grazie!" he exclaimed, denoting he'd heard enough.
The mezzo-soprano onstage, a petite Italian woman in her midthirties, realizing her time was up, abruptly stopped singing and smiled in the direction of his voice. "Grazie, Maestro," she said before exiting the stage.
Because her voice had not been up to par, Dominic didn't rise from his seat to get a glimpse of her. When auditioning singers, he preferred them to sing a cappella, and to be hidden from his view. To him the voice was everything. Lately the opera world was becoming as shallow as other forms of theater by showing favoritism to physically attractive performers. He remained true to the art form by hiring gifted singers rather than those who were easy on the eyes but possessed mediocre talent.
True, the role these singers were auditioning for was that of Adama, a woman who was so desirable that she could tempt Satan himself to give up his throne in hell for her. But in the story the devil had first been drawn to her singing, so Dominic was looking for a singer with a truly remarkable voice.
Yet, after three days of auditioning every mezzo-soprano in Europe, it seemed, Dominic hadn't heard that voice.
His cell phone rang. Seeing that the caller was Roberto Ribisi, a La Scala employee who was assisting him during the auditions, he answered, "Roberto?"
"It's nearly lunchtime. Do you want to break now, and continue at one-thirty?"
"How many more have we to go?" Dominic asked.
"Seven," Roberto replied with a tired sigh.
Dominic smiled. He did not envy Roberto the job of keeping a bevy of sopranos happy. Opera singers weren't called divas for nothing. They could be very demanding. Plus, poor Roberto was easily smitten by a pretty face. He imagined the women were trying to twist him around their fingers, hoping for a choice spot in the lineup to go onstage. In actuality, there was no choice spot. Dominic treated them all equally.
He was casting roles for his third opera, Temptation. He had worked with several of the women auditioning for the role of Adama. Still, he had no favorites. The moment the woman who deserved the role began to sing for him, he would recognize her.
He didn't care if she was an established singer or a newcomer. All that mattered was that the purity of his composition be maintained. And for that to happen, he needed someone who was fresh, passionate and had the voice of an angel.
"Let's just get this over with," Dominic decided, not believing they would find whom they were looking for today. "Then I can go home and drown my sorrows in a good bottle of Chianti."
"Very well," said Roberto resignedly.
They rang off, and Dominic heard Roberto ask the next singer to take the stage.
Dominic settled back in his chair in the dark to listen. He closed his eyes and said a silent prayer that this would soon be over.
Three singers later, his prayers were answered. He leaned forward, rapt, his heart beating excitedly. Her voice was pure and clean. It was as if he were in the middle of a primeval forest standing beside a waterfall, listening to the crystal-clear water pour forth.
She was singing an aria from one of his earlier operas. He had never heard it sung with such passion before. The tone of her voice as it dipped and soared brought tears to his eyes. He wanted to get up and watch her as she finished the song but forced himself to sit there until her voice trailed off.
Then he rose and went to get a look at her. He couldn't see her clearly because every soprano in the house had run onto the stage to hug her and congratulate her. Those who had merely clapped for the previous singers had to acknowledge that they were in the presence of an exceptional singer.
This went on for several minutes. He had to phone Roberto to ask him to herd the singers off the stage, save for the last performer.
After everyone was seated again, Dominic looked down at the back of a tall, shapely woman wearing jeans, a T-shirt and athletic shoes. Her black, curly hair fell to the middle of her back and she was wearing a tiny backpack purse that Dominic found ridiculous. He laughed to himself. She was dressed like one of those kids who backpack across Europe for the summer as a graduation present to themselves. Still, she was somehow compelling to look at.
She was talking animatedly to Roberto, who was onstage with her. Even from this distance, Dominic could tell Roberto was taken with her.
She hadn't turned around so that he could get a good look at her. Must I phone him again to get her to turn around? Dominic thought irritably.
Then he realized that it was he who was being foolish. He had been so mesmerized by her voice that he had forgotten that the next move was his: he could either say thank you and send her on her way, or step up and say, "What's your name?"
He did the latter and she turned around, smiled and said, "Elle, Elle Jones."
Dominic smiled. She was an African-American with flawless reddish-brown skin and huge, dark eyes, so dark they looked black from this distance, a nice contrast to her skin tone. And, he noticed, a full, sensually curved mouth, made for kissing.
She continued to smile up at him and Dominic knew that the role of Adama was hers.
He quickly dialed Roberto's cell phone.
"Yes?" Roberto answered.
"She's the one. But we can't insult the last three ladies by refusing to hear their auditions. Ask Signorina Jones to take a seat and, when we're done with the others, bring her to me."
In all the excitement of auditioning for Dominic Corelli, Elle had forgotten to be nervous. However, when Mr. Corelli's assistant asked her to take a seat in the front row, which every singer knew meant that they were interested in her, she felt her legs go slightly weak.
Trembling inside, she sat down.
She was a bundle of nerves. She was so excited it took every ounce of self-control she had to keep from jumping out of her seat and dancing for joy.
She didn't hear the remaining three singers' auditions. Her head was in the clouds, wondering what it would be like to meet Dominic Corelli. She had been following his career for six years now, ever since his first opera, Inferno, had debuted right here at La Scala. With Inferno he had joined the ranks of composers like Verdi, Rossini and Puccini, whose careers had all started here. She'd read that back then, not only had those composers written the operas that premiered here at La Scala, they had also conducted the orchestras during the performances. Dominic Corelli directed his operas, although he hired a professional conductor to lead the orchestra during staging of his operas.
Elle was here due to pure luck. She and her friends Belana and Patrice had been treated to a European tour by Belana's father. Milan was a stop they had to make because Belana was not coming to Europe without a visit to the fashion capital, and Elle not without see ing Teatro alla Scala. When they got to Milan, Elle bought a newspaper. She had learned Italian in school. She wanted to brush up on it by reading a daily paper while she was in Italy. That's when she saw the announcement that Dominic Corelli was holding open auditions for his newest opera, Temptation. This was unheard of. A composer of his stature usually only auditioned established singers, but an open audition meant that anyone could try out for the part of Adama, the heroine in Temptation. Elle could not pass up this opportunity!
She, Belana and Patrice were all graduates of Juilliard, the performing arts school in New York City. She was an opera singer who had understudied several established mezzo-sopranos in major productions and she was a member of the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera. At only twenty-five, she was doing pretty well. However, she wanted the brass ring: a starring role.
She had heard that Dominic Corelli was forward-thinking, a maverick. If he liked her, really liked her, he might take a chance on her and give her the role of Adama.
Even if he didn't give her the role, at least she had fulfilled one of her goals in life: to sing the music of a living composer in his presence. After all, opera houses all over the world today mostly performed works by composers who were long dead.
Elle looked up. Roberto was standing in front of her with his hand stretched out toward her. She took it and rose from her seat. The other singers around them were slowly leaving the auditorium.
Roberto, who was five seven to Elle's five nine, leaned toward her. "Mr. Corelli wants to see you in private. Right this way."
"Okay," Elle whispered. Suddenly, her voice was cracking. Stay calm, she told herself. Don't look all bug-eyed with excitement. You'll scare the man!
Five minutes later she was being led into a private box at the top of the theater. She noticed that the dominant colors at La Scala were red and gold. The chairs and walls were covered with red velvet and the individual opera boxes were painted gold. It was very opulent and very Old World. It was easy to imagine patrons dressed in finery sitting in their private boxes, peering down onto the stage through opera glasses.
She was still admiring her surroundings when Roberto interrupted her thoughts. "Ms. Jones, may I present Dominic Corelli."
Dominic Corelli turned around and Elle forgot to breathe. He had to be the most attractive male she'd ever seen. The son of an African-American opera singer and an Italian clothing manufacturer, he'd inherited the best traits of both races. His skin was a dark golden-brown and he had a day's growth of beard on his square-chinned face. Dark brown, wavy hair was cut close to his scalp and tapered at the back of his neck.
When he smiled at her, dimples appeared in both cheeks and straight white teeth gleamed in his dark face. She was glad Roberto was still holding on to her arm.
"Please leave us, Roberto," he said in lightly accented English.
Elle steeled herself for Roberto to let go of her. She did not swoon, but her legs were definitely giving her signals that she should sit down. In parting, Roberto smiled warmly at her, and that helped somewhat to calm her nerves.
Dominic cleared his throat and gestured to one of the red velvet-upholstered golden chairs. "Buon giorno. Shall we sit?"
Elle blinked, took a deep breath and then sat down. Dominic sat, too, and stretched his long legs out in front of him. His gaze swept over her face for a few moments that were nervous on Elle's part. Then he smiled at her. "You have a good voice."
"Grazie," Elle managed, although the volume was little more than a whisper. She was being childish. She took a deep breath, sat up straighter on her chair and looked him squarely in the eyes.
"Where did you study?" he asked, thick brows rising in interest.
"Juilliard," she said confidently. "I graduated nearly four years ago. I was hired by the Metropolitan Opera and have been in the chorus ever since. I've also been the understudy to Denyce Graves, among others."
"How did you like being an understudy?"
"I'm grateful to those who've allowed me to learn from them," Elle said with sincerity. "They were all gracious ladies."
Dominic fell silent for a few moments, as if he were contemplating what she had said. Elle thought she might melt under his intense scrutiny. Those smoldering, dark eyes seemed to expose every one of her vulnerabilities. She felt naked.
Suddenly, he gave her a warm smile. "As I'm sure you will be to your understudy," he said. "You're going to make a wonderful Adama."
He rose and Elle followed suit, unaware of what was proper to do next: shake his hand or hug him? He bent and kissed her on both cheeks. Elle breathed in the male scent of him. He smelled so good, she wanted to lean in and sniff him like a hound dog on a foxhunt. She resisted. Instead, in her excitement, she thanked him profusely: "Oh, God, thank you. All of those more seasoned singers, I didn't think I had a chance! I can never thank you enough for giving me the opportunity."
Dominic felt her body tremble a bit as he let go of her shoulders and peered into her eyes. His lips curved in a smile. He was plainly amused by her outburst. "You may not be thanking me a few weeks from now. I'm told I'm the devil to work for."
Elle grinned up at him. "I'm sure we'll work well together." She had heard rumors that he was a bear to work for, but she chose not to believe them. In the world of opera he was considered a genius. Dominic Corelli's shows sold out in a matter of hours after the tickets went on sale. Also, opera critics, who were notoriously elitist, raved about his productions. If she kept her wits about her and worked hard, this role could make her a star.
Remembering her promise to phone Patrice and Belana as soon as she knew the results of the audition, she pulled off her backpack purse. Looking at Dominic questioningly, she said, "I have people waiting to hear how the audition went. Is it okay with you if I quickly phone them? When do rehearsals start?"
"Of course, and in two weeks," Dominic answered, smiling. He watched as she rummaged in the purse and retrieved a cell phone. "First things first," he added. "I'll need the number of your agent so that a contract can be negotiated."
Elle stared up at him with wide eyes. "My agent?" she croaked.
"You do have an agent?"
"No, I negotiated my own contract. I got the maximum for a member of the chorus."
Dominic grimaced. Could she possibly be as naive as she appeared to be? Talented, but entirely too trusting. A less scrupulous person would exploit this opportunity to take advantage of her.
He cleared his throat as he glared down at her. "Then who's been looking out for your best interests?"
Elle blushed. "I have."
Dominic laughed. "Then you have a law degree as well as a degree in—what is it you earned a degree in at Juilliard?"
"Music," Elle said irritably.
"Music," he calmly repeated. "That's such a broad subject."
"Voice," Elle provided, eyes narrowed. "I'm also a classically trained pianist."
To this, Dominic smiled. He liked the idea of his lead soprano also being a classically trained pianist. She may have an ear for composition.