Daniel Zahno: Carlotti

translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young

I ONLY MET HIM TWICE, in places where you'd never expect a singer of his stature, the first time in a disco, the second time in jail, and it is true that the second meeting was the happier one, even though it was to be the last. We met for the first time in Planet One, a disco. It was a Friday night, and I was astonished to see him there, although the opera house wasn't far off, but you'd think that, following a performance, a singer would eat and then go home or to a hotel to rest his voice for the next evening, maybe even paste his mouth with a band-aid and have his tummy rubbed by one of his many admirers and then fall asleep in her arms, all silent and blissful. It is after all important for singers not to unduly exert themselves after a performance so that they and their voice remain strong. But it is also true that many don't care whether they smoke or drink or talk in a raised voice, that they don't give a damn about the effects of booze or uppers or cocaine; they only think of their performance when the moment has come and they stand on stage with a thousand ears eagerly waiting for their cue-then, and only then, do they rise to the occasion for about two hours, and nobody knows that soon afterward they'll be hanging out in a shady disco, directing all the ardor they used on stage to woo some Teutonic diva toward someone who is neither German nor operalike.
Carlotti was a celebrity when I encountered him in Planet One, like many of his Italian colleagues gifted with a voice that our singers never possessed and presumably never will, but his star was already waning, for younger singers were asserting themselves forcefully, disputing his position, and trying to get first billing on the posters and program notes of the world's opera houses. But he was still a star, Sergio Carlotti, hounded by press and paparazzi, which is why I was all the more surprised to run into him in this dubious place, with neither bodyguards nor friends to protect him if necessary.
The make-up artist introduced us at the bar; she had done his face a few hours before; I knew her back when I still was eager to go out more and worked less; these days it's the other way around, I turned things around myself, however unintentionally, but it's too late now. Carlotti was sipping his Kir, I think it was a Kir. He kept looking past me at the dance floor as if I were transparent and nonexistent, I was a nobody and he a star, and it is true that there was no connection between us other than Alexia, the make-up artist, who had introduced us but then quickly rushed onto the dance floor to abandon herself to the fast rhythms. We sat next to each other in silence and didn't know what to say. I couldn't think of anything and neither could he, or he didn't say anything because he wasn't interested in conducting an unplanned and unwanted conversation with someone he didn't know and had no desire to know. I drank my beer and pretended not to look at him, although I kept trying to find out whom or what he was looking at, but to no avail, and I scolded myself for being such a bonehead, sitting next to Sergio Carlotti without opening my mouth-how pathetic.
"So you too," he finally said with undisguised anger. He said it with a slight Italian accent, looking straight into my eyes for the first time.
I was taken by surprise. If I hadn't known before what to say, I was even more at a loss now, and even if his remark was a statement rather than a question, it seemed to require a quick response.
"Does it show?"
"No," he said brusquely and clutched his Kir, "I can hear it."
He fell silent, and I asked myself whether he was a cynic out to mock me, for apart from the short greeting, which would have been hard to hear over all the noise, I hadn't uttered a word.
"When?" he then asked in such a straightforward manner that I had the feeling of being interrogated. Carlotti carefully brushed back his wavy black hair, which no longer looked the way it must have used to, so he was trying to compensate for his thinning hair with a thick beard. Overall, he presented a very masculine image, tall and overweight but nonetheless groomed and handsome, certainly not the kind of man you'd want to pick a fight with.
"What do you care?" I said, and although I was very formal, I don't think I sounded very friendly, but then he wasn't being very friendly either, and for safety's sake I quickly glanced around to see whether the exit was clear. You never know, some celebrities were simple and cordial, others had attitudes and could suddenly turn abusive; I didn't want any Kir on my head.
"More than you think," he said darkly and took a sip. He talked to me in an informal manner, maybe from some unconscious feeling of superiority that is bound to develop in people like him, maybe he was informal with everybody, or maybe he was confusing German with English, a language where such a distinction doesn't exist. In any case he didn't let up, only with unbelievable tenacity, I thought, can one remain a star for so long, with tenacity and willpower, but now he drank and smoked and did everything to ruin himself and his voice.
"More than you think," he repeated. It was difficult to hear each other with all the noise, maybe he thought I hadn't understood him, while his index finger pointed at Alexia on the dance floor.
"I like this woman, I like her a lot," he said, "and if I weren't married for fifteen years, I'd marry her on the spot, even though she isn't Italian and doesn't even speak a word of Italian."
He paused and blew a thick cloud of smoke across the bar; these discos are always filled with smoke, as if dancing and smoking were absolutely inseparable, as if there could be no dancing without smoke.
"I have a great time with her despite the age difference, and whenever I come to town for an engagement, when I perform and sing, she devotes all imaginable attention to me-except when she is dancing since women like to dance but I never do: I just watch. By contract I am not allowed to dance, the danger of injury is too great, I don't know what the consequences would be if one of the organizers caught me, it is better to stick to the contract even though it is unlikely that many opera people spend their nights here, but no doubt there are enough people who are just waiting for something to happen to me, if you catch my drift."
I nodded. He sounded friendlier now, still a bit condescending, but now he was talking about himself, and I have to admit that I found it quite interesting.
"They are only waiting for me to break a leg or twist my foot or sprain an ankle, after all, I couldn't do Otello on crutches or Tristan in a cast. I know that my understudy prays to high heaven every night for something to happen to me; it is tough to be a substitute for all your life and always to receive last billing or not to be mentioned at all. Nobody knows Jean-François Conge and nobody ever will; he's destined to be second choice, he lacks the good fortune or the voice or whatever for the great breakthrough. But that's the way it is and will be, even though he neither smokes nor drinks nor hangs out in discos."
He had to grin and with great relish inhaled the smoke of his cigarette.
"Jean-François Conge," I repeated, but he didn't hear or didn't want to hear; instead, he quietly laughed to himself as if highly amused by his thoughts. Then he suddenly turned serious and anxiously looked at me.
"So when?" he asked in a husky voice, and I wondered why he wanted to know, I didn't understand why he insisted on it.
"Is it important?" I asked in order to gain time.
"Yes," he said and fell silent.
"Listen," he said after I didn't respond, "I don't think you understand, but it is important that you do, so let me explain."
He examined his hands, the groomed nails that were perfectly trimmed, with the exception of the one on the right thumb, which seemed a bit short, maybe he had bitten on it during the rehearsal breaks or before the premiere; a singer has to wait a lot, he has to be able to sing as well as wait, just as Carlotti now had to wait for my response.
"Listen carefully," he said and clasped his glass, "ever since I met Alexia we've been together, at least when I'm here. When I am on tour and engaged elsewhere or performing at a charity concert, she can do whatever she wants. She can go out and have fun with women or keep a lover, if she so desires, and I am certain she does; after all, she is young and curious and needs distraction. But for the time that I am here, we have sworn to love each other and be completely faithful, and while I am around, I do not want this love to be endangered or defiled by anything. During this time I belong to her and she belongs to me, that's what we are sworn to, a bond stronger than marriage, for marriage means betrayal and unfaithfulness, but we belong to each other forever, at least in this place and for the time that I am here. That is why I have to know when you were together with her, since it is unacceptable if she had shown any inordinate or improper interest in you while I was here suffering through a boring rehearsal or opening my throat with egg white and rinsing my mouth, just like pornstars do, though for purposes other than singing. I have to know if you screwed her, as I assume you did, and when you screwed her, because only if I know the latter will I know whether she has remained faithful to me the way I have always been faithful to her, just as we promised each other."
I was dumbfounded. I asked myself whether Carlotti could hear what I was not saying, or whether he could hear it precisely because I was not saying it. Looking into his famous blue eyes-they gazed calmly, though still filled with worry-I tried to remember when I had been together with Alexia. I did not want to betray her or cause her any difficulties; I considered telling a lie or pretending to have a lapse of memory, but Carlotti looked at me with such seriousness and sincerity that I decided on the truth, or truth decided on me.
"I think it was a year ago. We hardly knew each other; it was merely a fling, nothing serious, but we remained friends, we didn't avoid each other afterward as so many others do."
"One year ago?" Carlotti said, apparently leafing through an imaginary calendar.
"When exactly?"
I had to pause. I do not tend to keep track of such things.
"I believe it was sometime in spring, maybe toward the end of May. I can't remember the precise date, but I do recall that it remained light outside for a long time."
He was all ears.
"We couldn't go to her place nor mine, and so we drove in her little red Fiat to a parking lot on the outskirts of town and had to wait for nightfall."
"On a parking lot," Carlotti repeated and inspected his near-perfect nails.
"Last year at the end of May," he said and brooded, no doubt running through his engagements. Then, suddenly, he nodded. His face lit up; he had to laugh, and my mood improved as well. I was glad I didn't say anything wrong; I didn't want to cause a rift between the two. Apparently, the fact that I had spent a night with Alexia conferred a certain esteem on me; it seemed to elevate me in his eyes and to forge that strong bond between us that, for the most part unknowingly, unites us men with many other men, that strange relationship that usually fills us with rivalry and disgust and unease or that at the very least prompts us to shake our heads when we become aware of it, depending on whether it is still our turn or a matter of the past, but Carlotti wasn't shaking his head, he was shaking with laughter.
"On a parking lot!" he repeated amused and slapped me on the shoulder. I was no longer a nobody or inferior; I was his equal, almost. While he ordered a whisky, I quickly went to the restroom and then joined the crowd on the dance floor where I bumped into another acquaintance, and when I returned to the bar a few songs later, both Carlotti and Alexia had disappeared. I was surprised and naturally assumed the worst. Carlotti struck me as the manic type, as excessive and unpredictable as his colleague Claudio Furlan, the Bear of Bergamo, whose voice had suddenly given way and who subsequently had murdered his lover for reasons that remained unknown. Who knows what Alexia would tell him and how Carlotti would react, who knows whether he could keep himself under control if she told him something different, but I banished these thoughts. Probably he was just tired and was facing rehearsals the next morning; no doubt he wanted to swallow his egg white, unimaginable that he would lose his voice, even if he drank and smoked and hung out in discos.



Following our first encounter, I saw Carlotti a couple of times on TV, at a grand gala in Munich, a charity performance with the Vienna Boys' Choir, and once at a live broadcast from the Scala in Milan, though it is true that in Milan he did not sing the part of Otello anymore, but only that of Cassio, and it is true that the titles listed the name of Jean-François Conge, though not in third or fourth place like Carlotti's but a bit further down. But it is also true that his voice still had considerable power, and I was truly sorry to see that he had to make do with parts like Trabuco or Dancairo or even Spoletta and that in advertisements and programs his name moved farther and farther to the bottom, with the result that he gradually sank into oblivion, until one day a fit of rage-he trounced a journalist who had called his Trabuco trash-propelled him back into the headlines and, ultimately, for a couple of days into jail, since Carlotti was neither willing to apologize nor pay damages or post bail. I decided to visit him in jail, I owed it to him, I loved his voice.
"The man from the parking lot," he nodded as I entered the visitor's room, and he held out his strong hand; he hadn't forgotten me.
"The man from the parking lot," I repeated and sat down at his table. We sat facing each other in silence, not knowing what to say; I couldn't think of anything and neither could he, or he wasn't talking because there were ears hidden in the room, albeit not the kind that could hear what we weren't saying.
"So you too," I finally said without displeasure or annoyance, not taking my eyes off his.
He was taken by surprise. If he hadn't known before what to say, he was even more at a loss now, and even if my remark was a statement rather than a question, he seemed to be searching for a quick response.
"How do you know?"
"I heard," I said.
His face darkened.
"Look," I said, "I didn't come to rehash this old story."
He remained silent.
"I watched the video of your performance in Verona. Amazing!"
The video was of a staging of Verdi's Otello, during which the vain and arrogant Brambera, who had weaseled his way into the lead part, suddenly lost his voice, and, following a short break in which the disconsolate and broken-hearted Brambera had been ushered backstage, Carlotti sang both parts, Iago, the one he was cast for, as well as Otello, the part he had sung all his life. To be at one and the same time the moor and not the moor, white moor and black villain, both plotter and victim, to replicate himself by singing both parts was an achievement that the audience acknowledged with long ovations after the last curtain, bundles of flowers and letters, and even teddy bears (originally intended for Brambera) flew on stage, and like at a rock concert, people stamped their feet and demanded an encore.
"It's amazing, two parts, and without any preparation!" I said.
He nodded, my praise seemed to have little impact on him. He must have known more passionate admirers; maybe he was embittered, the triumph of Verona was a thing of the past. He looked at me in silence, inspected his hands, the nails that no longer were so manicured and perfectly trimmed. He certainly had to wait longer these days, his rehearsals were shorter and the breaks longer, if he still had any rehearsals at all. If he could no longer sing, then Alexia would be all that is left for him, I thought, or his wife. He looked at me again, serious and full of worries, just as back then in Planet One. My enthusiasm seemed to displease him; I regretted expressing it.
"Listen," he said, dabbing the sweat off his forehead with a handkerchief, "I'm in no mood to discuss the performance in Verona with you be-cause talking about the performance in Verona would mean talking about music, and talking about music is something that has always seemed meaningless to me. I find discussing music or the world of music boring and annoying; you can only do it in a professional way, which is hard work that results in little or nothing, or you can wax sentimental, in which case it is idle chatter and as dubious as any kind of admiration. Unlike most of my colleagues, I do not like talking about a libretto or the conductor or the orchestra, for if you talk about such things, you're cheating not only yourself but especially your listeners-only those who remain silent approach the essence of music. Where language ends, music begins, says Signore Hoffmann. You do not have to understand or explain or even interpret it; you have to listen or play it. Everything else is embarrassing and frustrating and stupid."
I was surprised. What would my friends say who talked and wrote about music every day? But my doubts were no hindrance to Carlotti, he was gathering steam.
"Whenever I want to talk about it, the words crumble in my mouth like moldy mushrooms, and it doesn't make any sense to add more moldy mushrooms to a world that is already full of moldy mushrooms."
He drew a mushroom into the air as if to emphasize what he was saying.
"Basically the same applies to love; nonetheless, we have to talk about it today even if it were better not to do so. But in Planet One we didn't hold our tongue, and now it is too late to remain silent. I have to know what I do not know, if you catch my drift."
I looked at him, puzzled.
"You don't get me?"
I shook my head.
"Let me explain it to you. Is it possible that you were mistaken back then?"
"About what?"
I stopped short.
"I don't think so."
"Think again."
What a maniac, I thought, obsessed with his ideas and ideals, excessive and eccentric, stubborn and obstinate. Reluctantly, I tried to remember when things had happened with Alexia. I wanted no hassle, but suddenly I paused; I realized that I had indeed been mistaken.
"Maybe it was two years ago," I hazarded cautiously; I didn't want to blunder.
"I think it was two years."
"Are you certain?"
I hesitated for a moment; I could not tell from his expression whether this was good or bad news, maybe both, but there was no turning back.
"Yes," I said, "I remember clearly. It was the night Claudio Furlan murdered his mistress; it was all over the papers the next morning, Friday the thirteenth, two years ago in May. I made a note in my diary."
For a moment everything was quiet, so quiet that I could almost hear the silence. Then Carlotti stood up, came toward me, and embraced me. I felt his beard and heard him humming; his humming filled the silence and the room, entered the bugs that had to be planted under the table, the ears that now could hear what we weren't saying. I thought of Jean-François Conge, who now sang Carlotti's parts; of Furlan and Brambera, who had despaired of silence; of the parking lot that we knew all too well; and of the eternal love that he and Alexia had pledged each other. Carlotti was humming to himself, and it seemed to me as if the greatest happiness and the greatest unhappiness lay right next to each other. I didn't know whether I should hum along or remain silent, but maybe it was one and the same and didn't matter. He was humming like someone who is slowly losing his voice, but his humming did not stop, even though it increasingly faded into silence or something else that I could not hear.

(from: Young Swiss Writers, edited by Romey Sabalius and Michael Wutz, Texas 2007, Special Issue of "Dimension2", edited by Ingo Stoehr)