Venice Adrianaby Ethan Mordden
An American writer sent to Venice to do the autobiography of a famous Greek-American opera singer's scandalous life discovers instead his own passions: men and music.
New York Times Book Review
Lambda Book Report
"Richly detailed, with extravagant emotions cascading like starburtst through the colorful tapestry of Italian life." Kirkus Reviews
- St. Martin's Press
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.42(w) x 9.58(h) x 1.14(d)
Read an Excerpt
The Venice Adriana
By Ethan Mordden
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1998 Ethan Mordden
All rights reserved.
Italian Boys Are Ruthless Flirts
There was a church school on the Zattere that I liked to walk past in the warm half of the year, for through the open windows I could hear children reciting those now inspiriting, now bewildering mottoes that Catholics are raised on. I would catch the nun's wearily officious "The love of the tree," followed by the class's merrily dutiful repetition. "The sorrow that is heaven," the nun would continue, to the kids' echo; and "The mortification of vanity," "The tears of the olive," "All fear what is true," and, the nun's voice rising in the confidence of one made sensible of a great riddle, "Repentance is infinite."
How often, returning across the Accademia Bridge from errands around the Piazza, the Merceria, and American Express, I'd walk a bit out of my way, down the Rio San Trovaso and then east along the Giudecca Canal, to sample once more this inveigling liturgy. These were leisurely, stimulating days, when I lived in the world's loveliest city in the most pleasurable employ of the greatest singer of the age—of all time, some say: Adriana Grafanas.
Many an afternoon did I come home musing on the children's anthems, turning in on Rio Terrà dei Catecumeni, down to number 127, through the ancient door into the courtyard of our many neighbors. There would be a "Ciao, Marco" from whatever kids were around, perhaps a savory bow from il Professore or a brisk "Bondì" from Siora Varin, her eyes on her unpredictable old mother, just then, perhaps, pulling the basket of communication up to their third-floor apartment. In it would be bread, medicine, legal documentations to fuel Siora Varin's explosive relationships with the bureaucrats of the civil service, who—so she swore—spent their entire careers in cafés.
Home and unpacked, I'd take a book into the garden—one of the most secret in all Venice—and sip coffee while listening to the peace of the place. Sometimes Adriana, in the house, would be vocalizing, and I'd come in and play for her while she ran through a solo, always from the toughest roles—Lucia, Norma, Violetta. She insisted. Midphrase, she'd cut out, pensive and hurt, feeling her stomach muscles, her throat, the ridge along the back of her neck, as if, like a doctor in the Middle Ages, she could solve the problem metaphysically, or through leeching or spells. "No," she would say, with profound regret, "così non va bene," though of course she spoke perfect English, my language and, well into her late teens, hers as well, for though she was of Greek family and had lived in Italy for fifteen years, she was a New Yorker, born and raised in Manhattan.
Così non va bene. No, that doesn't work well. Nothing was working well for Adriana in the days when I knew her. The voice with which she had more or less re-created the very mission of opera, from the raising of pretty noises into the bitter generosity of emotional communication, was in shreds. The fierce self-belief that had enabled her to storm the fortress of opera, as an unlovely outcast who relentlessly demanded to be named its queen, was evaporating, dazed, and exhausted. She would consider a hundred projects as if she had her whole life before her, yet in the end she'd sign no more than a contract or two, and usually squirm out of those. She was terrified—yes, of a thousand things, but especially of appearing on stage. The theatre had been her life, but now, with her instrument gone bust and her command put to ridicule, it had become her death.
Let us not stand upon the fraud of ceremony: you know Adriana, knew her. She was, pretty much, the most famous woman in the Western world. Adriana Grafanas of the scandals and the temperament; of the now-you-see-me, now-you-don't cancellations; of the "Yes, tonight she was filth but last week she was heaven, weren't you there?"; of the news flashes and whisper columns. In the 1950s, when a woman made headlines, you knew she was big.
They spoke of her "corporation," of some gala entourage, I suppose to inflame the popular view of her as arrogant and despotic. No: There were no more in that tender little two-story house at number 127—Wally Toscanini's property, in fact, rented to Adriana without lease, con onore—than Adriana and the Actor she loved, the odious International Gossip she tolerated, and me, Mark Trigger, who had come to Venice to ghost Adriana's autobiography.
It was quite an opportunity for an uncredentialed young man working as assistant to an editor in a New York publishing house. I got it, truly, by fluke: my boss, who specialized in tell-all autobiographies of the illiterate famous, had acquired the memoirs of a noted prizefighter, unique for his cultural pretensions—he would embellish locker-room interviews with paeans to Eugene O'Neill and Charles de Gaulle—and for being a white man in a sport that was becoming almost exclusively a black man's field. Three "literary advisers" (so my boss always termed it, in a kind and not cynical way) had worked with the author, one after the other; still, the manuscript was a mess: overlong, grandiose, and drunk on its own mythology.
"Here," said my boss one afternoon, dropping the pages on my desk. "See what you can do with it."
I fixed it, through what you might call "creative cutting": dropping the pompous Theory of Sport passages and the dreary details about who was at a party to concentrate on what this athlete was made of—what drove him first into and then to the top of such perilous work, how friends supported and adversaries assailed him, what it felt like to be, for a time, the absolute of his kind. Finally, I deleted the closing page, on the power of "God's everlasting love, which has always shielded me," because there is no God.
Two weeks I spent on this project, every night and all weekend, because I was ambitious, as any youth from the sticks must be when crashing the cultural capital. My boss liked what I did, and because I had mastered Italian in college and was a trained musician, he sent me off to Venice and Adriana when she, too, signed to write her life for him. I was to spend the summer of 1961 shaping what she had already written and laying down guidelines for her continuation; but it turned out that she had not set a single word on paper, though of course this was the time of her semiretirement from the stage, after she had broken with her poor deluded old thing of a husband and more or less run off with a notoriously romantic actor—Greek, like Adriana—as the reporters and photographers of every discovered country gave chase and told all ... even, sometimes, the truth.
Adriana had plenty of free time for working on her book, but it wasn't easy to get her to concentrate on it. When the Actor was away, she fretted; when he was handy, she fawned upon him like a bride. Finally I placed a call to my boss to tell him that I didn't think we were making sufficient progress and maybe I should—if I had to—come home. I made the call at the post office, feeling like a spy for a foreign power back in the golden age of this rigidly opulent, excruciatingly secretive city; and I cannot tell you how relieved I was when he told me to stay on as long as I had to. "Talk to her friends," he urged me. "Talk to her enemies." Whatever else happened, I was to get that book! Apparently, this liaison with the Actor had made Adriana bigger than ever.
"We'll best-sell easy," said my boss.
So I stayed on in Venice, and became absorbed into Adriana's household as something between a secretary and a fan; and I was absorbed into Venice, too, as I knew I must be from the moment I walked off the rapido, through Santa Lucia Station, and out onto the banks of the Grand Canal and thought, as everyone always does, God, the damn thing really is built on water!
Adriana's house was landlocked, though there was a back entrance on the Rio delle Fornaci that always gave me the shivers, for once you left the canal you walked down a very dead alley past a danger-high-voltage warning skull. Once through the back gate, however, you were safe in Adriana's garden, facing the house. It was a new one, postwar, a cherishable advantage in a city where people generally lived in buildings centuries old. Entering, you were spang in the dining room. To the right, the living room, the kitchen behind it to the left. Upstairs, first on the right was my room, then that of the Gossip, then the sala nobile, a suite of enclosures for Adriana and the Actor.
There was one nonresident I should mention, Deodata the housekeeper, what they call "a gem." I liked to check in with her now and again of a day: singing radio pop (especially "Never on Sunday," which she called simply "Domenica") as she did the laundry in the barren yard behind the house; grumbling over the food grease and crumbs in the Gossip's room; decrusting that strange little Italian white bread, quartering the oranges, scrambling the eggs, and brewing the coffee for my breakfast. The others luxuriated in their beds, but I liked to get up and see how the day might go, get a sense of its evolving patterns. In the kitchen, Deodata would sit with me and help me puzzle out the Gazzetino, the local paper composed in the growly, flowing Venetian dialect. She lived somewhere nearby and had been with Adriana—"la Siora"—almost from the beginning, way back when Adriana had just married Ambarazzi. "No, Signor Trigga," Deodata liked to say, with a conspiratorial smile, "the journalists ask and ask about the Siora. Shocking things, they ask. When she was married, it was always one thing—do they sleep as man and woman? Because el Paron was so much older, of course. But never did I speak to them. Never. I am all the Siora's secrets, dasseno."
It was in the mornings that I would make some assault on the Book, if only to justify the (modest) salary my boss was paying. I had determined not to lay out the typical catalogue (Chapter 1: I Am Born), for Adriana's life was anything but typical, even for an opera singer. A unique life, I told her, needs a unique chronicle. "Bravo," she said. "Ecco l'artistico, l'audace." I wanted to focus on her work—she liked that—and I planned to jump dramatically into the narrative during her early adulthood, when, alone and near penniless, she made her first visit to Italy to sing Aida at the Arena in Verona in 1947. She liked that even better, because she had had a difficult youth and didn't like to speak of it.
"Still," I said, "somewhere in the book we'll have to deal with your family background."
"Certo," she replied, as vaguely as possible.
Or was it hokey to start as the young hopeful enters upon her great trial, full of self-interest yet lacking self-confidence, ungainly and overweight and possessed of a voice so distinctive that it was as evil as it was beautiful? I toyed with the notion of opening the book later in her life, at the terrible era of the scandals in the late 1950s—the "Edinburgh Walkout," when she blithely canceled her last performance of Maria Stuarda, claiming exhaustion, then flew home to reign idolized at the Gossip's Parvenu Ball at the Palazzo Barbaro; then the physical assault on a reporter in New York, from which she escaped in a sympathetic millionaire's private plane, the police, two minutes late, shaking their fists on the tarmac; then the infamous cancellation of I Puritani in Rome at the first intermission, which turned all Italy against her because the country's president, Giovanni Gronchi, was in the audience.
I would then illuminate the legend. Adriana had been announced for that last Edinburgh Maria Stuarda without her permission or even her knowledge, and it was thus not a cancellation. I assure you, she would much rather have been singing Donizetti than heating up the Gossip's ridiculous ball—nothing cheered Adriana more than great music, and nothing dimmed her more than socializing, particularly with idiots. But she owed the Gossip for many a favor, and just as she never stopped coming at those who had hindered her advance, she never—well, hardly ever—stopped thanking those who had assisted it.
As for the New York incident: yes, she did deck the reporter with her handbag, and down he went. It was a case of pure assault. You've seen the photos. But listen: He had made an intolerable pest of himself, insisting on getting a Story while Adriana kept telling him that she had nothing to say. She hated people who won't take no for an answer; so do I. And why did Adriana have to deal with this nuisance herself? Where was good old Ambarazzi when you needed him?
Now Rome. She dropped out of the Puritani because she was in terrible vocal shape. The management had not bothered to hire a substitute, on the idea that no one can substitute for Grafanas. But she warned them, two days before, that she was not in satisfactory voice. Bad throat, inflammations, strenuous high notes. She could not, must not. They were panicked and intransigent. La Grafanas must sing. She can do it—how many times has she concocted a triumph out of the ingredients of certain disaster? She was famous for it: as in the Naples Tosca in 1957, when a restless public began to whistle not only her misfired high notes but, by the middle of Act 2, virtually her every line. It was sport. Then came "Vissi d'arte," which she sang not at Scarpia but at her real tormentor, the audience: "Never did I harm a living soul. ... I gave my songs to the stars in heaven, that they might shine the brighter." Moving to the edge of the stage, with every eye and ear in the house utterly mesmerized, she fell on her knees and begged them, "Why do you repay me thus?"
And of course they screamed for her then. It was love—because once more she had seized the triumph, raped it, really, as a man would. So, foolishly, Adriana let them talk her into going on in that Rome Puritani, but it went so badly that after the first act she left the theatre. Just gathered up her stuff and walked, while the opera-house officials stood about, pleading and wringing their hands. After an interminable wait, the audience was sent home. Now, interminable intermissions are routine in Italy, and performances there are very often canceled, because if the unions aren't manifesting themselves, the chandeliers suddenly need cleaning. Yet on this one night, everyone reacted as if Rome had suffered an unspeakable indignity. In the presence of President Gronchi! As if heads of state have rights more special than those of the rest of the house?
Well, all that began to seem more discouraging than dramatic. I thought of starting the book with a different Adriana, not embattled but ecstatic: Adriana as the Actor's sweetheart. Tosca, in "Vissi d'arte," says, "I lived for art, I lived for love"—but in fact Adriana had been living entirely on art, and now proposed to give it up entirely for love, for the Actor's devotion, and empathy, and beauty, and power. He made her feel, for once in that vexed and rowdy life, that she was worthy, redeemable, blessed. Oh, I know you've heard that he was an opportunist who vaulted onto the world stage by using her prestige and connections, that he gave her fuck and she gave him fame. And that much is true; but there is more than one truth.
I know exactly when to begin: during Adriana's Venice Normas in the spring of 1962, one of the last completed stage performances of her life. This was the day of the third Norma, I believe. As always, Adriana left for the theatre very early in the evening, her face drawn and her body rigidly upright, as if only the most formidable concentration would enable her to peel an onion, much less get through the toughest role in opera. A delegation from the Fenice escorted her to the theatre, though whether as bodyguards and flatterers or simply to make certain she would show up is hard to say.
Neither the Actor nor the Gossip was in sight; I was in the garden, reading. As Adriana and the men left (through the back entrance, to a motorboat waiting in the canal), il Professore came out of his house, approached, and, at my sign of welcome, entered the garden. This was not unusual. He often dropped in for a talk in his dark suits and apologetic ties. But on this day, to my alarmed delight, he had with him the Young Man.
Excerpted from The Venice Adriana by Ethan Mordden. Copyright © 1998 Ethan Mordden. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >
The Venice Adriana by Ethan Mordden Mark Trigger, a young American editor at a big publishing house has just edited the memoir of a famous athlete. The boss is so impressed that he assigns him the task of writing the memoir of Adriana Grafanas-the Greek-American opera singer who reigned in Europe in the 40's and 50's, but now is loosing her voice. As Trigger can speak Italian and play the piano, plus he is a connoisseur of opera, he moves to Venice, Italy to serve as Grafana's assistant and write the memoir. But The diva's eccentricities make it impossible for the young American to get a word out of the diva. Remorseful, he phones his boss about the problem, but the boss insists that Trigger write the book anyway he can. What follows is a series of descriptions of Mr. Trigger's experience in Venice at, number 127 Terra Dei Catecumeni, Adriana's Home. Trying to uncover the truth about the diva, the writer instead discovers his own passions, loves men for the first time, and is constantly searching for the tape "The Venice Adriana"-which he believes to represent the real Diva. This is one of the most boring books I've ever read. The author is so involved in the world of opera that the narrative becomes an exercise of who sang the best aria and when, has it been recorded or not, and all of 1962 Venice's gossip which is as boring as the rest of the narrative. Could not read more than one chapter without falling asleep. If you love opera, you may enjoy this book, but otherwise, you'll be as bored as gay life was in 1962 Venice.
There is a subgroup of homosexuals that thrive on opera. They can match every aria to the opera and the composer. Mordden, author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction on operatic and other theatrical themes, has recreated Callas after her glory years and added a fictional version of himself to the mix which seems to fit this category of homosexual. Any similarities between the heroine of Ethan Mordden's The Venice Adriana, Adriana Grafanas (a Greek American soprano famed equally for her thrillingly dramatic performances on stage and her fits of temper off stage), and the real-life diva Maria Callas (also a Greek American soprano famed equally for her thrillingly dramatic performances on stage and her fits of temper off stage) are obviously intentional. Mark Trigger is a young gay American sent by his employer, a publisher, to Venice in 1961 to help the legendary soprano Adriana Grafanas work on her long-promised, long-overdue autobiography. Grafanas, who has blown out her voice with high living and bad decisions, is a maddening combination of the lovable and the loathsome. Mark, while adoring her as a performer and often as a person, finds her frequently expressed homophobia difficult to take, particularly because many of the people who made her art and success possible, from directors to fans, were gay. The Venice Adriana explores both the realm of the diva and the peculiar world of the pirate tape¿illegally made recordings of live performances¿and its collectors with well-informed wit. Adriana Grafanas is very much Callas, right down to specific anecdotes, but without the humiliation of the Onassis years or the sad end, alone, in Paris in 1977. Note: Mordden deliberately aims his story at a rather narrow readership¿mainly these groups of gay opera aficionados¿so it is not surprising that the book contains graphic scenes of sexual relations that some heterosexuals may find offensive.