Our excerpt comes from The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee, published this week by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This dazzling story begins as Paris Opera soprano Lilliet Berne is being offered the opportunity to originate a role, every diva’s chance at immortality. But with horror she realizes that the libretto she has been offered follows her shadowy trail from orphan on the American frontier, bareback hippodrome rider, courtesan in the pleasure houses of Second Empire Paris and, finally, “falcon” soprano. As she tries to divine who wants to reveal her background, we get to follow her through the extravagant society that has given her power and fame—and threatens to take them away. Our excerpt covers her first glimpse of musical theater, taken there by the gentleman who has “bought” her to be his mistress and protegée. The Queen of the Night is available online and at major booksellers.
AND SO IT WAS I went to see the legendary courtesan Cora Pearl perform during her infamous two-week run as Cupid in Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers. And began my education as a singer.
We arrived that night to join a long line of carriages for the theater, each disembarking guests who practically bounded up the steps of the Gaîté. The tenor had boasted of having these tickets, for the evening had sold out, as had the entire run. This meant little to me. I arrived largely ignorant as to Cora’s legend, the scarcity of tickets, or sold-out runs. Nothing in the cirque had prepared me. This was my introduction.
As I sat in the box with my new friend, I could not help but be fascinated by the fevered anticipation in the crowd. To the audience that night, the opera had a single star, despite her slight role. She did not appear until the second act. The opera began, but the murmurs continued—they would remain until Cora appeared.
I had exited the carriage self-consciously, dressed dutifully in what Odile and I could muster for my opera finery, which, I knew from the scene around me, was not quite fine enough, but there had been no time to order better—it was a navy velvet, and the opera bodice had a white lace collar at the neck and machine-embroidered white roses spreading across the front that I hoped made it look better than it was. It was the finest dress I had ever owned, and yet I was not quite proud of it.
I had no jewelry then except a new choker I liked, a pale gray-green enamel perfume locket worn on a black ribbon. I liked it as it looked like something from the sea, almost a natural pearl, and I knew these ribbon chokers were very chic then—the Empress Eugénie wore them, sometimes as many as ten or more, each with a different locket, though she would never have worn them to the opera.
The locket carried a few drops of Eau de Lubin,* a gift from this man—he liked it very much and I knew to reapply it at least once before the evening ended. The scent was rose, musk, and oranges; and the richness of it at my throat was, to me, a little like wearing a gem, if secretly—like a ring turned toward your palm. In the short time I’d worn it, I’d learned to recognize it on others and to notice when it acted as a signal as you passed by someone on the stairs of the opera house or as you handed your cloak to the cloakroom; if you wore it, the person encountering you simply understood you to belong.
It was the atmosphere of wealth and security I did not know I had longed for, not just to surround me, but to belong to me; and I enjoyed it, too.
Orphée aux Enfers, the opera we saw that evening, is an opéra-bouffe-féerie, a comic farce on the myth of Orpheus—the bereft singer of myth enters the underworld to retrieve his wife only out of a sense of obligation. He finds she has fallen in love with the King of Death. She does not want to return. Gradually, despite the lack of interest in the other performers, the jokes won over the audience, and I nearly forgot, as the first act closed, why we were there.
The roar began from below and above before I could see her. Her hair was a mass of blond curls; her legs at first looked bare in their stockings, shapely, almost stark in their erotic intensity. She carried a bow and wore the most incredible high-heeled boots; as she walked, you could see the soles were made from diamonds. Pearls and diamonds covered her neck, in a sort of ridiculous collar, and the rest of her was a figure made of diamonds also. She glowed and flashed in the gaslight. As she turned so the audience could see all of her and walked toward the back of the stage, little wings, I noticed as she turned, dangled from her back comically. A bow rested against her thigh.
She glanced up into the boxes, as if to take attendance; and noticing my companion, she offered him a sly wink and a wave that made the audience laugh. He smiled back at her and blew her a kiss. And then she sang her song, looking directly at him for the first bars and notching her bow before turning to regard the crowd.
The crowd was silent as she sang, as if speaking might obstruct the view; and her plaintive, off-key voice struggled through its few bars.
She was dreadful, but not one of them laughed. She was the most powerful woman in Paris in that instant.
Paris, which, when I looked close, was a vast opéra-bouffe-féerie—and you did not know your role, I think, until it was too late, and the crowd was laughing at the joke you had uttered in all innocence. Which is to say there was another part of the evening I remembered for a very long time, and it began like this.
We will go to pay a visit to her after, the tenor said, as we stood. She is receiving friends.
She threw open her own door and kissed me twice as I entered, smirking as if I had told her a joke. Even without her diamond suit, she dazzled. She wore an evening gown of a loose pink silk toile and her golden stage curls were gone—a shocking red mass of hair had replaced them. Up close, I could see she had the pale eyebrows of a blond, painted over to match her hair.
Eau de Lubin, I bathe in it! she shouted past my shoulder, as she drew her head back and looked me over. She had a loud Cockney accent and spoke English and French mixed together. Un plaisir! She took my hand and began to pull me up her grand staircase, littered as it was with celebrants. Our mutual friend dragged along behind. Chérie, she said to me then, dropping her voice, tell me, how much do you charge? You can tell me, whisper it here, and she pointed to her delicate ear.
Our audience on the stairs smiled drunkenly from below. You can’t afford her! she shouted down at one as he reached up. You still owe me! Look down! Look away from us. He looked down.
Again she asked, How much?
I lied to her, and said, Two thousand francs.
Chérie, it’s good that you are that price. Because then he can afford us both, and we can be friends! With that, she pulled me into her dining room.
I turned to see my friend behind me following along, a somewhat hurt expression on his face. Cora turned back with a grin. You see? You bring her here to flaunt her to me and now she’s more expensive, just like that. I do believe it’s all your fault. Cora pulled me back to her side. You’re so pretty, not in the ordinary way at all. You must allow nothing, and I mean nothing, to happen with our friend here until he can bring you to the opera with better than an enamel locket. He can afford it. Come with me. You! There! Give this petit ange something; are we still in champagne?
She did this constantly, turning to people you weren’t sure were there or in her sight, and she would yell to them directly as if she’d been speaking to them all along.
A cool glass of champagne came into my hand.
This way! she shouted, I understood, at me.
So, we will be like sisters, or first wife and second wife, or who knows? Who knows how many he has? she said airily, as she continued our procession. Three, five, a thousand.
Her dressing room was sumptuous with gowns thrown this way and that, as if it had been the scene of a fight. I dressed quickly, I always do, she said. She reached down to the floor. Here! This is what I wanted. Something for you, she shouted as she raised a small bag from Boucheron into the air. The gentleman who gave me this was unworthy, she said. I threw it at him and it landed here, but my maid still has not picked up. I must beat her. But you are a jeune fille still, you can wear this, it will look beautiful and it will be a sign of our good friendship, yes?
I pulled the velvet back until the box came into view and opened it.
Inside was a small emerald pendant, perfectly beautiful, but something of a pebble, it was easy to see, a poor companion to the dazzling collar, bracelets, and earrings she wore. I held my hand to my mouth and laughed. You didn’t give this to someone who had diamonds on the soles of her boots. You gave it to a woman who said her prayers before bed.
This was meant for his wife, I said finally.
Good eye, she said. Never trust a man who gives you something he was going to give his wife, she said. And with that, she pulled the necklace from the box and draped it around my neck and turned us to look into her mirrors.
The sight of her against my neck, like some terrifying devil come to tempt me, the beautiful small matrimonial emerald glinting in the candlelight. I knew it was more than I’d ever had. She smiled. He’s very handsome, isn’t he? she said. I nodded.
I will warn you of two things, she said then. He will try to make you a singer. Do you have a good voice?
I do, I said.
Good, she said. I didn’t, and I never will. See where I am now! If I had a voice, I could conquer. Now. Do you love him?
No, I said. I wasn’t sure, so it was easier to say no. Too easy, and I saw her catch it.
Never love, she said. Do you understand? Not him, not any of them. That is the secret to all of this around me.
Outside in her halls, the party in celebration of her debut raged. I waited silently, finally reaching up to touch the little gem at my throat.
Never love, she said. For if you do, that is all you’ll get, if you’re lucky. And nothing else.
I returned to the party in my necklace, Cora now behind me. My tenor friend smiled up at me and I knew instantly from his expression as he looked to my throat, while Cora’s laughter caroled against my neck, that he had given it to her.
Excerpted from The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee. Copyright © 2016 by Alexander Chee. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
- Fragrances from the Lubin, the second-oldest Parisian parfumeur, are still very much alive, and several are available at Patrick’s Fine Linens & Home Decor in Alexandria, Virginia.