by Ethel F. Mussen
Life is always reflected in art.
The San Francisco Opera season of 2006 opened with The Masked Ball and this year it is included in my Sunday series. Just as the last time, the opening reviews were lukewarm for some of the cast, but by Sunday all the singers were in command of their roles. The performance was rousing and robust, and it all seemed fresh. The opening palace set was brightly baroque and darkened in the second scene for the sorcerer’s den. The stage was hung with a wide circle of candelabras around the black walls and more were carried down through the proscenium to the edge of the stage. The ominous scene and array of flickering candles immediately reminded me of the candles lining Raul’s living room for the Day of the Dead celebration at his home. The opera has its own tortured history, but after the Saturday night of November 3, six years ago, it has become for me an on-going tale of death and survival.

Three years have flown by since Jane had called to wish me a cheery “Happy Birthday” and followed all too quickly with the news of Betty’s death. I had answered the phone in my late husband’s study with its sweeping view of San Francisco and the Bay. We commented on the glorious day and, as we spoke, the sun still illuminated the Golden Gate at its reddest, a flaming contrast to an unusually placid blue sea and an equally clear blue April sky. The panorama was a tableau framed by the surrounding bookshelves. While we chatted, I watched the blue waters cut by a large gleaming liner slowly approaching the bridge just past Treasure Island, and a Ferry hastened to Larkspur, churning a white wake behind it. “

“I was just wondering about her—meaning to call. I knew she’d been ill.”

“So you said. I just heard and thought you’d want to know.”

“Well, thanks again. At least we keep in touch!” I hung up. Another instance of failing to contact someone I cared about before she died. As I mused, the cruise liner turned and passed under the bridge on its way out to sea. A life passing, a missed opportunity, all under the bridge. I thought back to the last real contacts we’d had, Betty, Harry and I, in the months after my husband, Paul, had died of cancer.

Betty’s phone call had been unexpected, its effect unanticipated. She spoke in her characteristic rhythm, in fits and starts, pausing at times as if she were unsure of her message or possibly its reception.

“You seem like a spunky person,” she hesitated, then continued. “Harry and I go to the Opera Saturday nights with a group. . . . There’s a really good extra ticket down front in the Orchestra if you’re interested in coming over with some of the others on November 3. It’sVerdi’s Ballo in Maschera.”

Paul and I had been faithful subscribers to the San Francisco Opera for years, advancing from full evening series to half series and then changing to Sunday matinees in order to visit with other friends from Stanford and Berkeley. Now my single subscription Sunday afternoons included November 4, but omitted Ballo. “Lovely, thank you! Who are the others?”

Betty named acquaintances from Berkeley whom I hadn’t seen in a while. “We meet for dinner first near the Opera House, but there is a party afterwards. If you’d like to go I’ll give you Marie’s number and you can arrange it with her.”

I had just seen Betty and Harry at a small dinner given by other friends from my husband’s department—part of the recent widow’s ritual entertainment. I could only guess that I was seen as “spunky” because I was out to dinner and not dissolved in tears. In fact I was delighted to be going out after months of bedside care-taking and the idea of a Saturday night party was enticing. Harry, a psychologist like my husband, was also known as a Verdi scholar, and I looked forward to talking with him.

Marie had charge of the extra ticket. Both she and the ticket owner were widows who usually rode over with Dorothy and Victor, a faculty couple who lived near me so the ride was easily arranged. The whole group dined early at one of the excellent restaurants near the Opera House. Dorothy was sharply stylish, a respected food and wine writer, and she made the dinner reservations. Her suave husband, Victor, had recently retired as chairman and dean from a different department at UC. Years earlier we had shared many humor-filled evenings with their neighbors, an ebullient Viennese psychologist and his wife. He had taught at San Francisco State and died rather suddenly a few years ago. Now I realized that I had not seen his charming widow since then, and that we had only met Dorothy and Victor quite accidentally in Florence one recent summer. Our children had known each other from school but they had all scattered. We were typical of the loosely knit older Bay Area academic community inevitably diminishing by age, illness, and death. As the older faculty had been predominantly male, widows abounded.

Victor gathered up his ladies, complimenting us on our party attire, then chauffeured us expertly across the bridge and into a convenient parking spot on the street. We swept into the restaurant, were greeted warmly by the staff and crowded around tables especially squeezed together for our party. Soon Betty and Harry appeared. Slender and smiling, they crowded in next to me just as Alice arrived, an elegant grand dame. The waiter relieved her of her cape and held her chair. She had muscular dystrophy and walked slowly with the assistance of a fancy but sturdy cane and the arm of an attentive gentleman escort, for she was also widowed.

The dinner was excellent; the wine was selected after a general discussion. Conversation seemed to sparkle, yet managed to include the usual catch-up of old acquaintances and their children’s whereabouts and activities.

“Tonight’s party is a tradition,” Victor explained to me from across the table. “Raul, our host, is an architect who has done work for Alice for a long time, but he’s also an opera regular. He spent years in Mexico and has a fabulous collection of Day of the Dead figures, so every year after the opera performance closest to the Day of the Dead, November 1, he has an elaborate sweet table and displays all of his artifacts. He and his wife used to bake all of the fancy desserts, but she died a few years ago and now his sister helps him. It’s really special.” And I realized that I had lucked in on the one occasion of their season, that parties were not a weekly occurrence. We would be getting home late and since I was returning for the next afternoon’s performance this was obviously going to be one long celebratory musical weekend.

The choice of opera for the Halloween weekend was appropriate: the story of the incognito king who asks the menacing Gypsy seer to tell his fortune in the second scene and then in scene V fulfills her prediction of his death. A work of Verdi’s melodramatic middle period, the drama is both tragic operatic fare and visually exciting, laden with cloaks, costumes, and disguises during the fatal Masked Ball. Imposing sets, truly grand music, suitably foreboding.

Anticipating rich desserts at the party, we truncated our dinner and straggled separately to the Opera House and our respective seats. Marie and I were close to the stage in center orchestra; Betty and Harry had told me they were in the balcony, but I had no idea where the others had gone. At intermission we gathered for “water” on the mezzanine level where Alice had reserved a table. Sipping our iced Pellegrino from tulip champagne glasses, we critiqued the performance and agreed that it seemed superior to the tepid opening reviews. When Betty and Harry did not appear, I realized I would have to wait to discuss more details with the Verdi expert.

After the rousing curtain calls, Marie and I scurried to meet the other two at the car and sped off to an unfamiliar section of the city. Like many older San Francisco residences, the gray clapboard house was perched above the garage and we mounted the stairs to enter directly into the living room. Raul welcomed us at the door and hastened to take drink orders. He was still dressed formally from the opera and perspiring faintly above a rather stiff collar.

Although he gestured toward the sofas, few of us sat. The small parlor-dining area was ablaze with candles and lamplight. The tawny tones of the wooden walls formed a warm backdrop for the colorful display of masks, small statues, grotesque papier-mâché figures, and pious altar pieces standing on every bookshelf and flat surface. Grinning white death-heads peered at us from each arrangement. Raul’s ample sister came and went from the kitchen, gradually filling the candlelit dining table with plates of cakes and pastries. A bowl of punch sat on a sideboard and bottles of champagne chilled in ice buckets. As more guests arrived, Raul greeted them and poured drinks. Some were new to his three-level house and he escorted them on a tour up and down the narrow stairs. I was so intrigued with the comic costumes and frightening details of each set of sculptures that I did not follow him, but I overheard him say something about going to India shortly.

Victor and I sipped champagne as we walked about the room, slowly examining the displays. His charm and professional experience invited the sharing of confidences. “Raul mentioned going to India,” I reported.

“Yes, he’s planning a trip, but I’m surprised that it’s so soon.” He leaned a little closer. “He’s still recovering from an operation for a brain tumor last spring.”

Just at that point, Raul returned from his tour and laid an arm on Victor’s shoulder. “Another year, Vic? How long have we done this?”

“Thirty, I think,” and the two clinked glasses, smiled and nodded in shared reminiscence.

Guests soon hovered about the table balancing their drinks and sampling the array of tarts, cakes and cookies. The loud buzz of conversation turned to softer murmurs of delight and exclamation. Victor joined Dorothy and Marie. I filled my plate and sat beside Raul who was alone on one of the sofas, his head leaning back, his shoulders slumped in fatigue, his forehead damper than before. “You must be exhausted from preparing all these goodies and the marvelous display. Did you work all day? Can I get you something?” I asked.

“No thanks, not yet. My sister did most of it. She comes up from Bakersfield and stays a few days, so that’s a big help. My wife and I used to do it together before she died. We collected the figures over the years in Mexico, but put them away until the holiday. It always brings back the place and the graveside celebrations. It’s a marvelous way to feel alive but in contact with the dead. Pagan and Christian at the same time. I always feel her spirit with us at these parties. I’m sure Vic and Dorothy do, too.”

Thinking how my husband would have enjoyed this evening, a celebration close to our own anniversary, I surveyed the flickering, candlelit scene a few moments, and invoked his presence to share it with me. I lingered on Marie and considered her comment during intermission that I seemed to fit in and perhaps I could change my series next year to join them on Saturday nights instead of going alone on Sundays. Now, in the warm intimacy of the party, I thought this might be a good idea. New life, new schedule, old-new friends. We said our thank-you’s and farewells sometime after midnight and arrived home around 1:00 a.m.

During that Sunday’s intermission, I went from my grand tier seat to the boxes to meet Alberta, a Stanford colleague. We discussed Ballo which she had enjoyed the previous week. I was always intrigued by her devotion to Verdi above all other composers. The dramatic new opera of that Sunday proved less endearing to her, while I welcomed each modern effort, hoping always for greatness to emerge. Today we congratulated ourselves on having been privileged to see and hear all the great singers of the recent Golden Age, and tried to select the younger artists who would replace Sills and Sutherland, Pavarotti and Domingo.

Unfortunately, Alberta had broken her leg the previous summer, and complications made her attendance more difficult and sporadic. Now she was often too ill to attend. Other friends from Berkeley sat in the adjoining box, but the husband was becoming frail and the trip to San Francisco had become burdensome. It was indeed time for a change.

When I returned from the city, it was nearly 6:00 p.m. and the message light was flashing on my answering machine. Betty had called, asking if everything had worked out well, and had I enjoyed myself. When I returned her call, I thanked her for inviting me and reported on the party and Marie’s suggestion for next year. “I’m sorry I didn’t get to talk to you people more; I thought you’d be joining us.”

“We’d like to, but you know I’ve been sick and Harry doesn’t drive now, so I have to get home earlier. And we don’t often come down from the balcony.” More illness, less groupiness, I concluded and was disappointed.

The other call was from Marie. “Did you go to the opera today? Was it good? Did anyone call you about Raul?”

“It was an interesting performance. What about Raul?”

“He died!”

I gasped. “What happened? In his sleep?”

“Not exactly. He came down to breakfast with his sister, and casually mentioned that he felt a little dizzy. She looked at him more closely and told him she was taking him to the emergency room, to sit on the couch while she went to back out the car. By the time she came back upstairs he was gone, not just unconscious, not even breathing. She called 911, but it was too late. Isn’t that horrifying?”

I agreed, but as I recalled the room he sat in, surrounded by all his animated ghostly treasures, I thought it was a perfect ending. Sad as it was for his friends and their tradition, the whole event gleamed like a dark jewel for me.

And so it should have remained. At the very least it should have been an omen. I changed my series, and rode over with Victor and Dorothy sometimes, but conflicts in schedules and other commitments meant that at times I took BART as I had before, while Marie often went with other neighbors. I never shared another evening with Betty and Harry—not at the restaurant, nor at intermission, nor at private dinners. I decided that the social waters I tested for a new life were often murky.

I switched back to afternoons the next year although both Alberta and the husband in the next box had expired. I am nicely centered in the Grand Tier and now go primarily for the music, but often chat with those who have seats next to mine. We discuss the opera and exchange tales of our experiences in the many parts of the world we’ve both visited. The Sunday renewals often place me next to agreeable and knowledgeable opera fans.

One cannot fail to see the grand operatic coincidences, the awareness that by this time of my life, every day can be a day of the dead. All of our opera-going, indeed, all our life over the whole past fifty years could be seen as one Masked Ball, and the prediction of death in the last act as prescient and true as on a crowded stage. Against that gaudy scene, I could place a half-dozen tragic Pagliacci’s in white face, crying brokenly to audiences on stage and in the theater, “La commedia é finitá!”

But it is the work of Verdi that colors these particular memories. I think of frail Betty who must have slipped away hesitantly, slowly and reluctantly as she joined their mournful list. The ear evokes the plaintive soprano strains of Verdi’s consumptive Violetta dying in the arms of her Alfredo.

Now, two years later, it is Dorothy and Victor who command center stage with a different tragic story. It is Dorothy who has fallen and sustained a massive injury that would not kill her, but end her life as she had known it. The details of the plot are different, but as she chose to end her life I hear the heroic Otello deliberately falling on his sword, spinning out the breath to sing his final “un altro baccio.” These arias I recall as pertinent memorials to the demise of three felled souls.

For myself, now on my 85th birthday, I see myself like the cruise liner in the Bay before me, repositioning to another port. Those of us left behind, widows and widowers, have work yet undone, days and years to pass. Instead of accepting that I may be an aging diva with an unsure voice, I pattern myself instead after a weathered Elaine Stritch as she appeared in At Liberty! reprising Sondheim, that most operatic of Broadway composers, hoarsely belting out her famous “Company” toast to The Ladies Who Lunch: “…everybody rise! Everybody dies!” She stands center stage, costumed simply, legs spread, arms outstretched, musically recounting her past fortunes and failures and ending triumphantly with the song from Follies“…And I’m still here!” That’s how I saw myself two years ago; now she has moved on to two more appearances singing other valiant collections. The opera-loving purists might not approve this modern commentary on the life that is a masked ball, but Sondheim’s background music underlines my own existence and fills my ears. With this vision I find myself both saluting all the departed souls and celebrating life and the living—and repositioning.


Ethel Foladare Mussen is a peripatetic octogenarian and retired health care professional whose years of international travel have resulted in a collection of typical arts and crafts, especially ceramics. Over the last twenty years she has been documenting the fortunes, misfortunes, and history of the people and art of Moustiers Ste. Marie in Provence. Her adventures and misadventures have appeared in A Woman’s Europe, Travelers’ Tales Provence, and other anthologies. She lives in Berkeley, California.
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