This week’s Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction Challenge was called Space Operatics. Space opera is a sub-genre of science fiction that has given us Star Trek, Star Wars, Flash Gordon, and many other wonderful stories. In honor of Star Wars Day (May the Fourth), Chuck gave us 1,500 words to use in interpreting “space opera” however we wanted to. As usual, I had to try and find a way to subvert the trope. I used all 1,500 words and think I found a new way to look at it. Please to enjoy and feel free to comment at the end. I’d love to know what you think.
“Who wrote this?” Gianni held the pages out in front of him and shook them. “Who sits down and puts this on paper and says, ‘Yes, this will be good.’? Who has the cruel heart and weak mind to inflict this on me?”
Estelle snorted. “On you? You’re not the only one in this production. We’re all in the same boat you are.”
“Except,” said Thom, holding up a finger, “Signore Gianni is performing the role of the Count. Read the libretto again, and this time pay special attention to the Count. I believe you will quickly spot the genesis of our primo uomo’s discontent.”
Gianni bowed grandly to Thom. “Grazie, signore.” Thom smiled, demurring with a gesture. Gianni looked at the others. “Thom is correct, of course. The rest of you have my sympathy, of course, but there is no way—no way!—that you can have complaint with this production equal to my own!”
Estelle snorted again. “God, Gianni, you really must be distraught. You’re even speaking dramatically.” She looked at the others. “That’s what I’ve always heard about Italian men: if they begin speaking con dramatismo, get out of the way. No good can come of it.” She took three steps backwards. “This is me getting out of the way.”
Gianni laughed along with the others. His eyes were still haunted, though, and his smile did not brighten them.
Forty-eight hours later, rehearsals were done and it was almost time for the performance to begin. The orchestra was tuning under the baton of the conductor. Discordant notes were being struck by brass, woodwinds, and strings alike as they corrected tone and pitch and sought the proper tunings. It filled the air with a sound not unlike the idle buzz of chatter coming from a theater as the crowd filed in.
Gianni sat, more disconsolate than ever, on a chair left over from a play that had been produced in the theater the week before. It looked like a prop from a library scene. His left elbow was propped on the arm of the chair and his chin rested in the cup of his left hand. He sighed dramatically. When there was no reaction he looked around. Seeing that none of his friends and co-stars were to be seen, he sighed again, less dramatically this time, and heaved himself to his feet to go looking for them.
He found them gathered in a far corner, tuning themselves as the orchestra was doing. They were singing scales, arpeggios, whatever warmup exercises they preferred. They had to be in top voice when the baton dropped. Estelle saw him coming and, smiling, held out a hand. He took it, and joined their circle, adding his own sonorous tones to theirs.
After a few minutes of preparation, Viktor, one of the supporting tenors, held up a hand. “We’re in this together,” he said, doing a passable imitation of Gianni’s quavering dramatismo. “It may be ridiculous, nay, it may be shit, nay again, it is shit, but da Dio, at least we’re getting paid to be here!”
They all laughed, none louder than Gianni himself. “I’m getting paid, yes,” he said, his voice growing more serious, “but am I getting paid enough to offset the damage to my self-esteem and professional reputation that this performance will engender?”
“Seriously, Gianni,” asked Estelle, “do you really think it’s that bad? For what it is, I mean. It’s not like we’re going onstage at the Met.”
“That’s just it, though, cara,” said Gianni. “I’ve been onstage at the Met. I’ve performed in Vienna, Milan, Paris, New York. I’ve never sung the big roles, to be sure, but I’ve been there. People know me. They’re going to see this and they’re going to wonder why I was part of it.”
Thom shook his head. “Maybe the rest of us don’t have your résumé, Gianni, but we have our pride and reputations as well. We know who you are. Having you here raises our profile because we can say we sang with you. Even if it’s a shit libretto we can still say that.”
“It’s like Estelle said,” said Viktor, “we’re not at the Met. It’s a small, local theater. We’re being recorded. We’re never going to do this live in front of an audience.”
“That’s not the point,” said Gianni.
“Then what is?” asked Estelle. “You’re starting to sound like you don’t want to go through with this. That’s not like you, at least from what I’ve heard of you.”
“It’s not,” he said, “but I almost—almost, mind you—wish that I could leave. Knowing that I am going to be recoding it somehow makes it worse. A live performance is just that—a performance. It is quickly over and the memory can fade. This is a recoding. It will be preserved. There will be a permanent reminder that I—we,” the others were rolling their eyes again, “that we had to sing these songs that are not even worthy of a community theater musical.”
“No one is making you stay,” said Viktor, and now he was sounding irritated. “If you’re too good to sing the part, go. I’ll gladly take your place.” One by one, the others moved to stand beside Viktor. Estelle looped her arm through his. They all stood silently and stared at Gianni, waiting for his response. The tension grew, the still-tuning orchestra in the background providing a dissonant soundtrack.
Finally, Gianni hung his head. “I am sorry, my friends. I have allowed my ego to color my reactions. No, it’s not grand opera. It’s not even commedia dell’arte. It doesn’t have to be, though. It isn’t meant to be. These recordings have a purpose and I should be proud to be a part of that. Please, forgive a foolish old man his follies.”
He looked up at them and spread his arms. Estelle was the first to come to him but soon they all had, and they shared a common embrace, the entire cast drawn together by the crisis. When they separated from each other there were smiles on every face and nearly every eye was wet. “Let’s go do this thing,” said Gianni, “and make the best we can from it.”
A violin held a high, single, delicate note, ethereal and wavering. As it faded into nothingness the conductor brought the baton slashing down and percussion thundered into the void, filling the air with booms and crashes. Strings came back in, cellos, leading the charge, and trumpets and French horns met them with fanfares ringing.
Gianni strutted out to the middle of the stage, hitting his mark precisely, directly under the boom mic set to capture his every note. The rest of the cast had sung him a glorious introduction, more enthusiastic than skilled, but that may have just been the limitations of the libretto. It didn’t matter. He bestrode the stage like he was front and center at La Scala. He would show them what a true professional was.
Just as he hit his mark, a gong sounded. It was Estelle’s cue. She stepped forward to stand in front of him, her mark a foot from his own. She looked up into his eyes.
“Tell me, Count, if you please,” she sang, her voice sweet and innocent. He knew she had a future, as long as the stink of this production washed off of her. He thought it would; she was still young and beautiful and sweet. There was a place waiting for her in the larger world. He’d ensure she found it. She continued her line:
Tell me what has changed
In the last few years
Things haven’t stayed the same…
The last note was a high C, strong and pure. Gianni smiled and shook his head. It was lovely. He answered her, his own voice clear and firm despite his age.
At one time everyone
Used two spaces after a period
It was because
Of the printing press, you see
But now we have the Internet
And changes have occurred
Where once there were two
We oft’ see one…
They harmonized now, her voice coloring in the high spaces around his, diving and swirling in a sound that transcended the material it was describing.
Not everyone agrees
That one space is the way to go
Some people, older mostly,
still use two.
But do whate’er you please
Because everybody knows
There is no right or wrong way
Their voices blended seamlessly around the ridiculous lyric, the orchestra swelling, cymbals crashing and timpani booming as the music reached its climax. With a final sweep of his baton the conductor brought the music to a halt, the final chord ringing in the air, then fading.
Thom spoke, his broadcaster’s voice breaking the silence as he read his only line in the script. “This message was brought to you by Grammarians Supporting Preservation of Choice in Spacing.”
Off-stage, a voice called out, “And… we’re clear! Great job, everyone!”