Did you know Russian empress Catherine the Great wrote operas? She did, badly, or so goes her history. Anyway, back in my own when came an anthology call for Catherine the Great stories and here she was upon research having tried her imperial hand at librettos. I wrote it, a comic romp. Got a yes. So there I was, 2013, me and a Catherine the Great opera romp. Not everyone can say that’s in their locker, y’all.
I like this one. It’s imperfect in execution but wonderful for its tomfoolery. It appeared only then in Pure Slush‘s Catherine, Refracted. Today, our world is struggling. People could use a breather romp. So, here is that Catherine story. As published, all hindsight editing resisted to preserve its goofball spirit. I hope it brings a needed smile.
FIRST OF A FINE SPECTACLE
Katerina hooded her gaze. “La Harpe told you everything?”
Her footman intoning “Katerina the Second, Empress and Autocrat of All the Russians,” still dizzied me even after it no longer echoed through her salon. My endless bow had me near toppling over, blood pounding in my ears. I, the librettist known for his single glorious failure, had been dragged into a private audience with the Empress herself.
“I’d have us speak plainly.” Katerina said. “Mr. Nowicki, are you quite well?”
I was not. My business in Saint Petersburg, to discuss texts for the soon-to-open Bolshoi opera, had ended badly. Before I could present my tragedy Kristall-Herzen, a fortune teller in love with her destined murderer, La Harpe made clear the true commission: to supervise texts credited to Empress Katerina. We debated the matter, he considering it an honor and I a prison sentence to be shunted into a ghost-writer’s closet. In that sense I won the argument when imperial guardsmen hauled me away.
Katerina stood beside the piano, her face a once-perfect egg now swollen by age, her dark blue eyes still dancing with intelligence. Her white gown glowed in the sunlight surging through the windows. Outside the river flowed oblivious to my plight.
“Mr. Nowicki, I am accustomed to having my questions answered.”
“Pardon me, Empress. Anonymous collaboration, he called it.”
Katerina stared me down like a lioness choosing her supper. “Artur Nowicki. You’re Polish. You’re not hoping to kill me, are you?”
I wondered the same about her. Abduction had that effect on me. Luckily, no one invented narrow escapes quite like a librettist. I would construct a fake demise, one set on a time delay thanks to some obscure and vaguely fatal disease. “I’m not political. Even if I had the strength.”
“Because I won’t apologize. Russia had territorial claims, and I pursued them. It’s why they gave me the job.”
“Again, that’s beyond my depth.”
“Nymphs in a Russian wood.”
I nodded and used the moment to adjust my collar. Nymphs at the Hermitage made no less sense than disgraced librettists. Who knew what the Empress of All the Russians had running about the place?
Katerina swept a hand toward the piano. “An idea I’m toying with. Make me hear nymphs in a wood.”
“Might we discuss my situation?”
I edged onto the piano bench, Katerina stepping in behind me, the unblinking stares of the plasterwork cherubs weighing on my shoulders. Nymphs would caper, and so I started my right hand on a jaunty allegro. I recalled the forests along the ride from Warsaw, the mad growth of summer, lichens and deer and dappled sun, and brought my left hand in to harmonize a dark rhythm.
I drew back from the keys, my shoulders lighter despite Katerina’s hovering shadow. A poor showing could be blamed on my advancing disease.
“I’m not at all certain that wood was Russian,” Katerina said. She settled beside me on the bench. “Artur, I’m Sophie.”
Katerina shot me a grin. “No more Empress, please. Not in session. How do you propose declaring my ideas crap while calling me Empress?”
“Well,” I said, inching away while my tongue found courage, “Sophie, you are perhaps too hard on yourself.”
“That’s what Voltaire said. He never managed a decent libretto, did he? So out with it. The verdict on my nymphs from Artur, the genius of Die Verwunderung.”
My only text ever staged. My blessing, my curse, and not even my best, nothing like Kristall-Herzen. “It flopped.”
“The production flopped. Your writing was brilliant. A true voice, essentially unheard. There it is. Now, when you were playing the nymphs, something held you back. Was it the nymphs or the wood?”
Both, though I found my abduction more distracting.
“Plain speaking, Artur. If you believe nymphs are shit, then say so.”
Surely that truth doomed me as much as the fortune teller in my masterpiece. “Plainly, I am not right for the job. My health is in fast decline, I fear.”
“Here we go again. Please know I’m not sorry.”
I had expected more difficulty faking, and perhaps a morsel of sympathy for, my condition. Regardless the bright prospects of freedom and redemption shimmered around me. “I am grateful for your understanding.”
“I meant about Poland. If you expect me to say it was all Potemkin’s idea, I shall disappoint you. It was mine, and I would do it again without hesitation.” Katerina–Sophie–wheeled to face the keys, the drapes of her gown rustling against me. “Were you in the war?”
With the speedy Russian victory, the closest thing to violence I experienced as an infantryman was mild dysentery. Something like it rumbled in my gut now at freedom’s light flickering. “I was.”
“Good you made it through.” Sophie turned to the keyboard again and played a snippet of my capering theme, her technique precise if flat, but her fingers dwelled over each note as if deliberating it, showing it respect. “Stop putting distance between us, Artur. I’ve done my part setting you straight about Poland. Now let’s have the same from you.”
I wiped sweat off my palms. For my escape, for my masterpiece Kristall-Herzen, I intended a fraught tale of mere weeks to live. Some power in her blue eyes trapped the lie in my chest. “I worry nymphs are not ideal for opera. In my opinion.”
“Hardly. They’re putting on a play. About what I haven’t decided, but only the most beautiful get the plum parts.”
An idea no more operatic than dysentery. Frustration blazed through me, my skin prickling with its sparks. “And yet the dramatic potential seems limited. A text must free the composer and performers to emote.”
“You see it. Exactly what trips me up. I’m always short on conflict.” Sophie continued my caper melody, adding notes for texture, building it until with great flourish she pounded a bass chord that shuddered through the salon. “A satyr.”
At least fate granted my fortune teller the release of death. Sophie chained me and my redemption to nymphs and satyrs. “Such a gift for opera certainly doesn’t require my services.”
“I’m from Pomerania, you know. Originally. Lovely country, practically Poland. So. We’ll need a deliciously evil name for our satyr.”
“Nymphs are shit.” The words burst out before I could catch them. The anger and fear that bubbled out from me kept digging my grave. “And you had me hauled in like a criminal.”
What hung between us seemed the quiet between the drums and the falling axe.
“Ah, plain speaking,” Sophie said. “Watch as I return your volley. Nymphs are beyond shit. I wouldn’t put my name to nymphs if it earned me Sweden. What if we adapted a folk tale? With a dragon?”
I stood and straightened my jacket. “Arrest me if you will,” I heard myself say, “but I must decline your commission. My creations deserve my name.”
Sophie heaved a sigh. “Oh, all right. I’m sorry. Not for the war. But that you and so many had to fight in it. Merciful heavens, see what you’ve won from me?”
I had won nothing but a dragon. My heart buckled, and I crumpled back down on the bench. “I don’t need an apology. I need my work, to have my voice heard. You won’t buy me with money.”
“Of course not.”
“And especially not trying to flatter Die Verwunderung. To be heard once hurts worse than never.”
“I’d call that sentimentalist twaddle coming from anyone other than you. Someone to undo me so easily into apology knows the tragedy is not to be heard at all. What about magic wheat?”
“For our folk opera. We’ll find someone for the score sure to pack a house. Having The Empress and Autocrat of All the Russians involved won’t hurt, either.” Sophie leaned over, filling my nose with the orange-scented powder in her hair. “They’ll hear Artur and Sophie all the way in Vienna.”
Finally I saw the method lurking behind her crooked grin. Sophie–Katerina–wanted us both to be heard, her through me, me through her. She brought me there to make clear my choice: Warsaw or Saint Petersburg, the dream to be heard truly or the certainty to be heard well.
“Dragons are hard to stage,” I said. “What about this? A fortune teller divines her true love will someday murder her.”
“It’s a start.” Katerina rose, drawing me up with her. “You’re a crafty one, Artur. A master of silences and player of long games. Tomorrow you shall not take me by surprise.”
Empress Katerina turned, and I bowed in her wake as she swished out of the salon. The craft on display had not been mine.