On Saturday, May 11, 2013, at 8:00 pm EST, Amedea Parker finally got her lifelong wish and played her first-ever show at the Laurel Leaf Theater.
The otherwise tiny venue in Syracuse, NY, a relic of the Silent-era movie palaces and now on several lists of protected landmarks on the state and national level, was built all those decades ago, with the original builders and architects left unawares all along, with impeccable acoustics. When Star Wars was released and all the other movie palaces fell by the wayside to make room for the multiplexes, it was thanks to some wealthy benefactors who were old enough to remember how good the piano accompaniment sounded (often better than the movie was!) that the theater was maintained at first, and later on ready to be opened again to the public for musical recitals. Though the Laurel is perhaps not a good enough reason alone to fly out and make a week out of Syracuse, nonetheless it has been host for full-stop legendary performances of many classically-minded pianists, violinists, cellists, and vocal groups (not wanting to perform at the nearby arena with a much larger capacity for reasons unknown to all but them, it was even the decided-upon venue for a certain late-90s shock-rock act, a dark day that the people of that city still don’t like to talk about). If the answer to the question “how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” is “practice, practice, practice,” then the answer to how one gets a show here is, if you have to ask you don’t. You just have to be a good musician. You have to deserve the Laurel Leaf.
Amedea Parker certainly deserved the Laurel Leaf. Since her first appearance on X-Factor-Sicily, when she was just adorable twelve-year-old Amedea Sartore, where she performed, as per her lifelong usual modus operandi, an outstanding aria in an otherwise mediocre opera spectacularly (“O Mio Babbino Caro” from Gianni Schicchi this time), and she continued her performance without being distracted even when the audience gasped so loud it risked drowning out her voice (a comment on the audience, to be sure, and not any supposed weakness of Amedea’s voice) and the judges did that thing where they get up from their seats and pace around the stage and shake their heads impressed, sure, but also more gobsmacked than anything and hoping someone will pinch them, and when she finished she received a five-minute standing ovation and all the judges gave her a “yes,” Amedea Parker spent every minute of her life and made every decision life put forth to her to prepare for the moment, which she knew was a matter of when and not if, that the Laurel Leaf Theater would beckon to her.
The judges on that talent show voted her in with a caveat: “sure, you’re a good opera singer, but I wonder what will you do with it? Let’s be honest, this day and age the majority of people don’t like opera that much.” Years later Amedea shocked music journalists everywhere by telling them she liked to sing, but she didn’t like opera much either. If anyone liked the opera these days, she argued, it was because they liked the music. She cut away from her act all the fatty parts of the opera that she knew most people only pretended to enjoy and that she was not afraid to admit she didn’t like: the bourgeois apparatus attached to it, the making appearances in opulent opera houses in gowns and tuxedos, the sitting for six hours at a time in high private box seats to sneer at the amateur hoi polloi below, the pretending to appreciate the long overtures and hysterical melodrama in an impenetrable language (and let’s be honest, anyone who might disagree with her need only look at Rent, a show, as much the opposite of Amedea’s philosophy as one can be, that takes La Boheme as an inspiration, excises Puccini’s beautiful music, and keeps its far less interesting plot). All that was gone in an Amedea Parker performance, and all that was left was the arias, the closest thing people in Europe centuries ago had to three-to-five minute solid pop songs. In her words:
“When my mother cooked us pasta for dinner, she spent hours, sometimes the whole day, making sure the sauce and the vegetables were perfect, but never once made her own pasta from scratch, ‘because it took too much time.’ I never understood this about her, until she finally explained it to me one day. ‘It’s the sauce that has to be perfect,’ she said. ‘It’s the pasta’s job to get the sauce to your mouth. In a perfect world the pasta would be perfect too, but it’s not a perfect world, so all the pasta has to do is not be terrible.’ To me, the music is the sauce, and opera is the pasta that gets the sauce to your mouth.”
It took two hours from when the concert was announced for her to sell out the just-under-three-thousand seats of the Laurel, admittedly a half an hour more than it took for that shock-rock band but the 90s were a weird time I suppose. Five months later doors opened at the Laurel at 7:00 pm and Amedea promptly began her set of twenty numbers an hour later, a hodgepodge of arias and tunes from operas and shows over a wide variety of disciplines. For her last number, she sang the famous opening aria from George Frideric Handel’s Serse.
No matter your taste in opera, whether a novice or aficionado, you could absolutely be forgiven, and not dismissed as simply “not getting Handel,” for not thinking very much about Serse. In fact, not even his contemporaries or even Handel himself thought it was very good; it lasted a mere five performances and was lost for almost two hundred years until a couple well-meaning revivals brought it back to the public’s attention. Handel at the time, and contemporary critics now, would have argued that his blending of serious melodrama with comedic moments, in an era when the prevailing taste was pure opera seria, was to blame for its timid reception. But a quick look at its synopsis reveals another problem, a story rather difficult to invest much attention or emotion in: a powerful and spoiled king wants to marry a beautiful woman no matter the cost, which causes a handful of other rich and powerful people around him to mistake identities, pledge undying love to each other, vow to kill themselves if they can’t have that love, and so on if you’ve ever seen an opera or read a Shakespeare play (only without the jokes and wordplay).
The opening aria, however, is a masterpiece, undoubtedly the sole reason why the opera was revived at all. In it, the Persian King Xerxes stands in his garden and sings an ode to his huge plane tree, thanking it for the shade it has provided him all these years:
Never was a shade
Of any plant
Dearer and more lovely,
Or more sweeter.
It’s a pause button on the whole opera before the opera even begins. Here Xerxes shows himself as more human than certainly any other moment in Herodotus he is noted for, ruling the Persian Empire, building the enormous bridge spanning the Hellespont, invading Greece, the Battle of Thermopylae. Here is someone who has every material thing, and if not the power to get it, the ability to order anyone to do something and it will be done, who simply stands before something he possesses and sings about how thankful he is to have it, maybe realizing that the thing he values about it so much is it that it won’t last forever. Or at least that’s a more charitable interpretation; the way Xerxes behaves throughout the rest of the opera, one could easily argue it’s the perfect illustration of his sociopathy, as he can take time to care about a tree but not his brother or the woman he is supposed to marry.
Amedea took all of this into consideration when she made decisions for her performance and made a couple other non-orthodox ones as well. For one, she discarded the traditional baroque arrangement, and the audience at the Laurel Leaf heard no harpsichords, lutes, harps, nothing except a cello and a viola, delivering a skeleton of the original accompaniment (having the sound amplification equipment Handel didn’t have in 1738, she could do that if she wanted). And though she didn’t care much for opera, Amedea still liked to indulge in theatricality for its own sake. Her costume this time (she always had a costume for each number, and she would change to a different one in minutes after accepting the applause for each song) was in the style of an old 19th-Century military leader, a men’s suit with fringes on the shoulder and medals dangling off the chest, and a helmet with a decidedly un-Persian Kaiser spike on top. And standing above her was a model of the old despot’s beloved, gigantic plane tree.
The stripped-down accompaniment began, haunting the audience into an uneasy silence, and while Amedea waited for her cue she simply stared up at the tree, staying in character. The accompaniment finished the prologue, and stopped, as if wrapping up, and then the first note came from Amedea. Quiet at first, as if she wasn’t singing at all, but as she held the note it grew and grew, until it got to such an unbearable intensity it became the cue for the viola and cello to start playing again as she began the aria proper.
As the cello tiptoed its lower register and the viola danced around a suggestion of a melody Amedea sang along with her trademark voice. It’s not enough to say she never sounded like what people sounded like when they imagined a bad opera singer, not the overwrought bombast of, say, Enrico Caruso’s rendition in 1920. No, to hear Amedea sing was to pass a good amount of musical shibboleths: approachable enough for a rock fan who wanted the rawness or intimacy or the grit of a Patti Smith, but also robust and disciplined enough for a discerning ear raised on Maria Callas.
It was around the second time she sang di vegetabile that something remarkable happened: in yet another example of something Amedea in 2013 could do that Handel in the 1700s could not, the tree, an intricate set of animatronics, seemed to slowly shrink before her eyes, and it affected her performance (it was as much a choice made possible by technological advancements as it was one she could make unencumbered by the constraints of opera, the fact that in the original the tree never withered away before Xerxes’s eyes, that even though it was something impermanent and beautiful that moved him, he nonetheless had the privilege to sing to it without fear of it disappearing immediately). Amedea first noticed her beloved tree slipping away, and sang as if the news devastated her, as if her parents passed away, or a lover told her he’s leaving, and tears fell from her eyes, eyes which never left the object of her song, as leaves fell from the tree. It’s important to understand here that she was not acting. This was not her performing a role as an ancient Persian king meditating on the mutability of existence. This was her, Amedea Parker, feeling a real feeling of sorrow, or maybe regret, the specifics of that feeling known only to her, and sharing it along with her audience through a stellar rendition of an aria.
As the tree continued to recede, now to a height that more or less matched her own, she let the pain of it linger and swim around and mix up inside her heart and voice until she felt a sort of contentment. In a perfect world, the pasta would be perfect too, her mother would have said, but it’s not a perfect world, because things as beautiful as this tree can disappear. At the last soave piu, she sat on the ground on her knees and scooped up what was left of the tree, now no more than a foot and a half pile of twigs and leaves. As she held the last note, the last leaves of the tree blew away and the twigs broke down into dust through her fingers.
The Laurel Leaf turned into a church right before mass, utterly quiet. She took a deep breath, rose to her feet, and with tears still in her eyes and a big smile she put her hands to her heart and bowed. The theater erupted into a standing ovation.
On May 11, 2013, Amedea Parker gave the performance of her life at the Laurel Leaf Theater. On May 12, 2013, at 3:00 pm EST, she boarded her plane at the Hancock International Airport to return home. She never got off that plane.
Arthur Parker could look in the cupboards over and over again and mill around the kitchen as long as he wanted, but sooner or later he had to admit to himself that he only had peanut butter left in the house to eat.
Not that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, take care of himself, but lately Cath had been coming by the place and fixing things up and cooking little meals for him, and no matter how much he refused the gestures she always insisted. She always was a girl who found happiness in making other people happy, but in a way it seemed like, now that she was getting to that age, she was trying to emulate her mother when she was the same age, when they met for the first time. Cath took up learning how to cook these elaborate pasta dishes just like how she used to, in other words pasta that wasn’t just red sauce cooked with a big basil leaf and slathered over soft spaghetti. She made this nice number most recently that was a bunch of vegetables diced up into what became an orange creamy sauce with the little bowtie noodles, and she called it pasta strascicati, and he had no idea what that meant but it was good going down all the same. And while long ago he was used to her just serving whatever was in her head, and he liking it no matter what it was or how it came to be, years later here was Cath telling him little snippets of Italian cooking wisdom, perhaps in case he ever wanted to take it up himself one day. “Remember, dad, you can’t buy that stuff in jars in the supermarket. You have to get the real parmigiano. That other stuff, it has wood chips in it. Look at the ingredients, see? Cellulose, to prevent caking. Gross.” Or, “Dad, you have to get that pasta out of the water before it gets mushy. It doesn’t matter if you turned off the stove, if it’s in hot water, it’s still cooking.”
But that was a week ago, and her tour was going to start tonight after a performance on some late-night show he otherwise never watched, and since her last visit the leftovers had long been wolfed down over late-night prestige TV or hard browsing of social media. Arthur had to admit it: he only had peanut butter left.
Not that that was surprising in itself: there was never a point when Arthur Parker was alive that he wasn’t the sole heir to the immense Parker Butter fortune. When Arthur decided he wanted to go to Columbia and major in political science, it was thanks to that fortune that he made this decision with the complete freedom that most parents tell their children they have while knowing full well they probably don’t, that he could literally do anything he wanted to do. And when Arthur met a young, kind of goofy music student with an adorable thick Italian accent who was studying at Juilliard, it was thanks to that fortune that he could be not intimidated by the audacity of asking the world-famous opera virtuoso and X-Factor Sicily winner Amedea Sartore on a date. And when Amedea took him up on that date, it was thanks to Arthur’s fortune that made him treat her like he had nothing to prove to her except how much he liked her, and because of that when Arthur asked her on another date, she said yes again.
It was after school, after leaving Amedea behind for her first few tours around Europe, that the Parker Butter suits inflicted the single torture on him he dreaded his whole life but knew would come sooner or later: they made him CEO of the company. Taking advantage of the Parker surname his whole life, it was now his job to care about the Parker brand that came with it. The most miserable six months of his life were the six months after college, without Amadea, and stuck in a rut as to how he was going to drag the Parker brand out of the rut of irrelevance.
Amedea had a long layover in Newark, so she risked her connecting flight by paying Arthur a short visit (and by that I mean she completely missed the damn thing by visiting Arthur for a few days). With a long embrace and a little bottle of grappa (which Arthur never had before, and which he found was rough like a hard bourbon but also fruity and kind of nice over a good espresso), he unloaded his cares and worries on to her. In the throes of his griping and mixing grain and grappa, he had what those who definitely don’t drink as much as he did that night would call a moment of clarity, when he all of a sudden burst out “it’s just fucking peanut butter!”
That was it. It was how he could get a hit on his hands, and maybe finally get the suits off his back. It’s just peanut butter was his new angle.
He’d never forget the day he screened the first spot for the suits: two regular American housewives make PB and J sandwiches for school lunches for their boys, and one of the moms keeps going about this new organic all-natural organic peanut butter. You wouldn’t believe what they’re putting in that other peanut butter, she says. Partially-hydrogenated oils, saturated fats, extra sodium, corn syrup, Lord only knows what else, she drawls in a homespun flyover-state accent. But not this peanut butter, no sirree Bob, just peanuts and peanut oil. I mean, if I’m going to give my boy peanut butter, I’m going to make sure there’s only peanuts in it right? I mean does that make sense to you, giving your own boy something called ‘peanut butter’ that barely has any peanuts it?
A loud bang goes off, and something tears through the whole ceiling. The moms look up, and a flying saucer hovers overhead. A safety hatch opens and some ugly-in-a-Rick-Baker-way aliens beam down. They announce that they have selected this water-rich planet as their new colony and require two samples of the dominant life form for vivisection. They grab the peanut butter mom in a gravitational beam, screaming in terror. Her son (kind of portly and definitely suggesting that he’s kind of a shitty kid) comes running, sobbing, begging the aliens to put her down, he jumps up and grabs her ankle, and he gets sucked into the gravitational beam with him. They both get sucked in the saucer, the beam dissipates and they are both whisked away to the mothership. The other mother shrugs, finishes spreading Parker butter onto her sandwich, and calls for her own son to come get her lunch. It’s just peanut butter.
In the end the suits came around to the idea, if more for the mere fact that it was something new than anything else, but made Arthur tone down the trauma just a little. But the message was clear. The universe is an unfair place, and if you spend any longer than a second in it worrying about your peanut butter the universe will take swift and merciless action upon you. Against most of their expectations, even Arthur’s a little bit, the spot became what the suits would call in those days a viral sensation. After that initial spot, Arthur had carte blanche to go as dark and depressing as he wanted (his favorite one featured an obnoxious infomercial host going on about this new all-natural 100% organic peanut butter, until his presentation is cut short by a sudden huge meteorite that falls through the ceiling, crushes the host to death and forms a huge crater in the studio, and everyone is shocked except for one man, so absorbed in the act of spreading Parker Butter on his celery sticks he missed the whole thing).
With his newfound success, Arthur parted ways with Parker, stepping down as the CEO. He got to keep his fortune and they kept sending him boxes of free Parker Butter, but aside from that he was finished with them. This gave him plenty of time to marry Amedea and then have two children together. Though Arthur didn’t care much for opera, and Amedea couldn’t keep track of American politics and also thought peanut butter was a mere curiosity and not something so good there should be fifty jars of it in the house at a time, nonetheless they were a good match for each other. They both understood what people wanted, and what to cut away to get at what was really important. For Amedea, the important thing was her music, exactly how she wanted to do it, exactly the way she knew people would like an otherwise polarizing genre. For Arthur, the important thing was figuring out he didn’t care about peanut butter at all, and instead cared about Amedea.
But Amadea was gone, and there was still nothing to eat in the house but peanut butter.
Arthur preferred to do things himself, but only when they absolutely had to be done. He waited until the leftovers ran out and there wasn’t even coffee left, let alone half and half for the coffee, before setting out to the supermarket himself, rather than making a great big order and having someone come to the house to deliver it. Better to be around a hundred thousand strangers in the public, who will hopefully leave you alone while you pick out ripe-enough tomatoes, then send someone who has to come into your home and drop off your order and make small talk when all you want him to do is leave, he always thought.
Imagine his disappointment, then, when just when he was about to leave, someone down at the front door buzzed up to let him in and, looking at the monitor, found a clean-cut man in a black suit and holding a manila envelope waiting. He grumbled and pushed the button to unlock the front gate for him.
It took a moment for the man to reach the seventeenth floor of his apartment, as it usually does. When he finally approached his door and knocked, he didn’t seem much different to Arthur than he did five minutes ago through the monitor.
—My name is Jeffrey Kessler. May I come in?
—Not unless you’re a cop, and you have something that says you don’t need my permission anyway.
—How about the NSA?
Kessler produced a badge and flashed it in front of Arthur, who let out a frown in spite of himself and let the man inside.
— I’d offer you a coffee but I only have peanut butter right now. Then again, I’m sure you know that already, Mr. NSA man.
—Not really, but I suppose I could have guessed. And the brand, too, no doubt…
—Look, when I posted before that the people should overthrow the government, abolish the constitution, and install a philosopher king, I was ah, using hyperbole to make a point. I don’t literally think we should… I mean I guess I do but… look, I just sit here in and spend my days blogging, is that so…
—I’m not here for you, Mr. Parker. It’s about your ex-wife.
Arthur’s thoughts flashed back to the funeral. He didn’t cry then, he had wept plenty when he was alone and he made his peace with Amedea long before the service, but he caught a glance of Cath (god she must have been what, eight, back then?), sobbing her eyes out, burying her face in Ian’s shoulder, Ian with both arms wrapped tight around her, who even then wanted to look like a tough guy, like someone who didn’t cry at funerals, but even if he didn’t outright cry the effort to hold back his tears was straining all his efforts, so much that everyone there could tell. Tried as he might to stop it, he couldn’t help but cry at the sight of that, his little boy and girl, seeing them in pain, learning about death for the first time not through a grandparent or an old aunt or uncle, or even a cat or dog, but their own mother, of them on the open fields near her old home in Syracuse (Italy, that is, not New York), Ian and Cath and he each with a urn with her ashes divided between them, pouring them into the wind, where she wanted to be.
—She’s not my ex-wife. We didn’t get a divorce. You don’t stop being married to someone just because they die in a plane crash.
—Of course. I apologize, Mr. Parker. But I just meant, ah, according to the traditional vow anyway, uh, so the saying goes, till death…
—What can I do for you, Mr. Kessler?
Kessler licked his right index finger before unfastening the envelope. He took out what looked like a heavy black box, the approximate size of a standard red brick, and gave it to Arthur.
—Inside that lockbox is a video recording of Amedea Parker’s last-ever concert in the Laurel Leaf Theater. It includes the concluding number, the Handel aria with the tree.
—Jesus Christ. I asked for this twelve years ago from them. What did you do, walk here from Syracuse with it? And why is it in this… whatever the hell…
—To answer your question, I flew in from Washington. What happened to that initial recording you requested, as well as the others, is classified. There are only two copies of this performance left, and one is in a highly secured vault, and the other is in your hand.
—…what the fuck is going on here?
—Mr. Parker, please. Have a seat.
Kessler led Arthur into his living area and they both sat down on a long couch.
—When your wife gave that performance years ago, she sold out the Laurel Leaf. About twenty-seven hundred people attended that concert. Since then, not a single person who saw that show is still alive.
—What do you…
—A lot of them committed suicide. Most of them up and vanished not long after. They were found months or even years later, barely a shell of who they used to be. And remember, many of these folks were rich, powerful people, to see Amedea Parker in such a small venue.
—We thought it was strange too. What was even stranger is the film crew had it much worse. The camera operator and focus puller for that night offed themselves a mere hour and a half after the show. The first editor they hired to compile the footage fell asleep behind the wheel. And this guy was into performance cars as a hobby.
—What are you trying to say, Mr. Kessler?
—Well, you and I both know there was something special about the way your wife sang. We know there was something special about the acoustics in the Laurel Leaf itself. So those together, plus the subject matter of the aria, and the fact that she tragically died after that performance… all of those converged into a perfect storm, you could call it. Me, I’m no music critic, but from what I’ve heard… that performance can induce a pure cathartic experience. And what you hold in your hand is one of the last surviving records of that performance.
—…is this a joke?
—This is absolutely not a joke, Mr. Parker.
—For your sake I hope not. Because I have a gun in my safe, and the moment I see hidden cameras or a film crew I’m going to murder you on live television.
—I’ve brought extensive files that corroborate what I’ve been saying, if it would help for you to look through them. Though I didn’t bring every person who attended that show, I didn’t think you’d want just under three thousand fat files in your apartment.
—…a pure cathartic experience. What does that mean?
—When someone watches it, it makes them so emotional that they lose the drive to do anything at all, even basic life functions. It’s not just depression, per se… It’s like crying to a sad movie, only you want to cry over it forever. And it’s universal, it affects people of all backgrounds, all cultures, all tastes.
—…even if you don’t like opera?
—So you’ve shown this to others? Test subjects?
—Of course. You must be able to understand the significant political applications here.
—No, Mr. Kessler, I’m not sure I understand the political applications of a recording of my dead wife.
—We could infiltrate copies of this video into an enemy country, their economy and government collapses due to lack of interest. A terrorist organization accidentally sees a copy, maybe doesn’t plot so much terrorism anymore? At the very least we need to make sure no other bad actors have a copy. We also need to make sure it works for everybody.
—You want to know if it’s going to make me cry to death?
—Not just you. Everyone Mrs. Parker was close to. Your kids, Ian and Catherine. Sherwood and Rafaello Williams. Everyone we tried it on so far was a passive observer, or else a fan. We need to see what it does to a person no matter their degrees of separation to her.
—My kids… Sherwood and Rafa… that’s going to be hard.
—I never said it has to be easy, only that it has to be done. Take as long as you need. I’ll be able to track how you’re doing.
Kessler rose from his seat and showed himself to the door.
—A couple other things. Take a look at this.
He took the box and turned it over to show Arthur. There was a smartphone-sized panel on the surface which reflected like a mirror. Arthur took a closer look, and sure enough the familiar green dots started to populate around his face.
—The box is unbreakable and unopenable, army-grade shit. Even harder than the stuff that dumb people say the whole plane should be made of instead of just the black box. It’s coded with a lock that will only open when it receives the facial recognition data of everyone involved, in order of age. Catherine all the way up to you. You understand, until everyone is all together, we can’t risk a single person viewing the recording, if there are indeed any, ah… any negative effects of…
—Yeah, sure whatever. I’ll pop it right in my safe.
—And of course, this is a matter of national security. Other than your family and the Williamses, you are not to divulge any information about this matter. As I said, we’ll be able to tell…
—Gee, I’ll try my very best not to tell everyone I know that the last copy of my wife’s last show has magic suicide powers.
—Well, erm… so long as we understand each other.
—Get out of my apartment, NSA man.
He did, and Arthur slammed the door behind him.
For a long while he just kept telling himself what he told the man, this is going to be hard, over and over again. After some time, he figured he’d at least give a call to the one of them that would be the easiest to find, if also the one he dreaded speaking to the most. Maybe this is what she would have wanted, he told himself as he let the green dots swarm around his face on the screen in the box one more time. Maybe it was all worth it for her.
Continued in Part 2: All the Mountains That You Could Climb