Monday, June 2, 2014

The Daffy Duck Syndrome

From the book Interplay: Finding the Keys to Creativity

“As opera singers who are trained to have excellent diction,
we spit a lot on stage while emoting or attempting to
get out those consonants. It’s an interesting thing to
have gotten used to my colleagues spitting on me.”

            --Betany Coffland, opera singer

The Daffy Duck Syndrome

In the novel Operaville, blogger Mickey Siskel finds himself in a budding friendship with his idol, the international diva Maddalena Hart. He’s doubly surprised when Maddalena, suffering from some mysterious malady, asks if she can stay the night at his cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Next to me, something is moving. I squint at the ceiling, pull my arms under me and roll over. It’s Maddie, in striped yellow pajamas.
“Mickey? Are you awake? Are you conscious?”
I’m self-conscious. Because I tend to sleep in the nude. But I notice that she’s lying on top of my comforter, so we still have one degree of separation. A whisper of light seeps through the windows. I’m guessing it’s six, six-thirty.
“Um… Hi.”
“Hi.” She’s wide awake, full of energy. “I owe you an explanation. But I can’t tell you unless you’re fully conscious.” She taps a fingernail against her teeth, perhaps the habit of a reformed chewer.
I rub my eyes, throw out my arms and stretch everything else, gaining an immediate preview of all the aches that will follow me for the rest of the day. I manage to generate one-half of a smile.
“It’s those goddamn minor characters. I’m rushing through costume changes, making my way to the stage, running parts through my head, and I pass the green room, where I see Monsieur Triquet and Olga and they’re playing cards with the techies and laughing, and I’m thinking, Why do I have all this freaking stage time? This is crazy! Why am I doing this impossible thing? I have placed myself in a position where the Sunday afternoons of thousands of people, the day’s wages of a couple hundred musicians, ushers, administrators, et cetera and a notable percentage of the local economy depends on my doing this horribly difficult thing. Stepping onto that stage is like a bungee-jumper stepping off the platform. Every instinct of self-preservation tells you that you are putting your trust in a thin elastic band – your training, your memorization, your rehearsals, your stage skills – to prevent you from becoming a messy smudge on the rocks below. But I do it. I take that leap and these sounds fly from my mouth and I fill the artificial soul and emotions of this fictional character. And I do understand that I’m very good at what I do, but sometimes I don’t really understand how I do what I do. What I’m afraid of is…”
An idea lands on her satellite dish, her eyes widen. She grips my shoulder.
“When I was a kid, I would watch these cartoons where the character, let’s say Daffy Duck, would be thrust out over the edge of the cliff. But he wasn’t aware of it, so he would just hover in mid-air. However, the second he looked down and realized where he was – that’s when he would fall. (Of course, part of the joke was that Daffy kept forgetting that he was a duck, and could fly.) But here’s the lesson: it’s not the gravity that makes you fall, it’s the realization of gravity.
“On Sunday, during the final act, for the briefest of moments, I realized that I didn’t know my next line, and for just a moment I froze. Jesus, bless him, saw my predicament and bought me a second by kissing my hand. Then the conductor, Donald, slowed the tempo just a bit – a grain of sand, but just enough for me to recall the next line and smuggle it into the flow of the music. I’m sure that no one in the audience knew a thing. But for me, for just that one lightning-flash, a chink opened up in my little world, and through that chink I glimpsed the enormous void of gravity and impossibility that underlies everything I do. It scared the hell out of me.”
I fully expect her to break into tears, but this is not a crying thing, it’s something closer to the brain. Anxiety. Fear. She tucks her head into my shoulder, I wrap an arm around her as best a civilized-but-naked man can, and I stroke her hair. I am Mickey, who solves all problems by stroking hair. We lie in pools of faint light for fifteen minutes. Maddie’s breathing slows to a regular pace and she says, “Mickey? Could you make me some breakfast?”

Photo by MJV

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