Read an extract

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee


The Queen of the Night
tells the story of Lilliet Berne and her transformation from circus rider to courtesan to legendary soprano. In this extract Lilliet is offerred a role that could secure her reputation - or destroy her...

Act I
The Curse

When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands. He is perhaps a demon or a god in disguise, offering you a chance at either the fulfillment of a dream or a trap for the soul. A comic element — the soprano arrives in the wrong dress— and it decides her fate.

The year was 1882. The palace was the Luxembourg Palace; the ball, the Sénat Bal, held at the beginning of autumn. It was still warm, and so the garden was used as well. I was the soprano.

I was Lilliet Berne.

The dress was a Worth creation of pink taffeta and gold silk, three pink flounces that belled out from a bodice embroidered in a pattern of gold wings. A net of gold-ribbon bows covered the skirt and held the flounces up at the hem. The fichu seemed to clasp me from behind as if alive — how had I not noticed? At home it had not seemed so garish. I nearly tore it off and threw it to the floor.

I’d paid little attention as I’d dressed that evening, unusual for me, and so I now paused as I entered, for the mirror at the entrance showed to me a woman I knew well, but in a hideous dress. As if it had changed as I’d sat in the carriage, transforming from what I had thought I’d put on into this.

In the light of my apartment I had thought the pink was darker; the gold more bronze; the bows smaller, softer; the effect more Italian. It was not, though, and here in the ancient mirrors of the Luxembourg Palace, under the blazing chandeliers, I saw the truth.

There were a few of us who had our own dressmaker’s forms at Worth’s for fitting us when we were not in Paris, and I was one, but perhaps he had forgotten me, confused me with someone else or her daughter. It would have been a very beautiful dress, say, for a very young girl from the Loire. Golden hair and rosy cheeks, pink lipped and fair. Come to Paris and I will get you a dress, her Parisian uncle might have said. And then we will go to a ball. It was that sort of dress.

Everything not of the dress was correct. The woman in the mirror was youthful but not a girl, dark hair parted and combed close to the head, figure good, posture straight, and waist slim. My skin had become very pale during the Siege of Paris some years before and never changed back, but this had become chic somehow, and I always tried to be grateful for it.

My carriage had already driven off to wait for me, the next guests arriving. If I called for my driver, the wait to leave would be as long as the wait to arrive, perhaps longer, and I would be there at the entrance, compelled to greet everyone arriving, which would be an agony. A footman by the door saw my hesitation at the mirror and tilted his head toward me, as if to ask after my trouble. I decided the better, quicker escape for now was to enter and hide in the garden until I could leave, and so I only smiled at him and made my way into the hall as he nodded proudly and shouted my name to announce me.

Lilliet Berne, La Générale!

Cheers rang out and all across the room heads turned; the music stopped and then began again, the orchestra now performing the refrain from the Jewel Song aria from Faust to honor my recent performances in the role of Marguerite. I looked over to see the director salute to me, bowing deeply before turning back to continue. The crowd began to applaud, and so I paused and curtsied to them even as I hoped to move on out of the circle of their agonizing scrutiny.

At any other time, I would have welcomed this. Instead, I nearly groaned into my awful dress.

The applause deepened, and as they began to cheer again, I stayed a moment longer. For I was their creature, Lilliet Berne, La Générale. Newly returned to Paris after a year spent away, the Falcon soprano whose voice was so delicate it was rumored she endangered it even by speaking, her silences as famous as her performances. This voice was said to turn arias into spells, hymns into love songs, simple requests into commands, my suitors driven to despair in every country I visited, but perhaps especially here.

In the Paris press, they wrote stories of me constantly. I was receiving and rejecting gifts of incomprehensible splendor; men were leaving their wives to follow me; princes were arriving bearing ancient family jewels, keys to secret apartments, secret estates. I was unbearably kind or unbelievably cruel, more beautiful than a woman could be or secretly hideous, supernaturally pale or secretly mulatto, or both, the truth hidden under a plaster of powder. I was innocent or I was the devil unleashed, I had nearly caused wars, I had kept them from happening. I was never in love, I had never loved, I was always in love. Each performance could be my last, each performance had been my last, the voice was true, the voice was a fraud.

The voice, at least, was true.

 

'I was their creature . . . the Falcon soprano whose voice was so delicate it was rumored she endangered it even by speaking, her silences as famous as her performances.'

In my year away, the theaters that had once thrilled me — La Scala in Milan, La Monnaie in Brussels, the Mariinsky in Saint Petersburg — no longer excited me as they once did. I stayed always in the apartments given over to the company singers, and soon it seemed as if the rooms were a single place that stretched the length of Europe and opened onto its various capitals.

The details of my roles had become the only details of my life. Onstage, I was the druidic priestess, the Hebrew slave in Egypt, the Parisian courtesan dying of consumption, the beautiful orphan who sang as she walked in her sleep, falling into and out of trouble and never waking up until the end. Offstage, I felt dim, shuttered, a prop, the stick under the puppet. I seemed a stranger to myself, a changeling placed here in my life at some point I couldn’t remember, and the glass of the mirror at the entrance to the palace seemed made from the same amber of the dream that surrounded me, a life that was not life, and which I could not seem to escape no matter where I went or what I sang.

And so their celebration of me that night at the ball, sincere as it was, felt as if it were happening in the life neighboring mine, visible through a glass.

I tell you I was distracted, but it was much more than that. For I was also focused intensely, waiting for one thing and one thing only, my attention turned toward something I couldn’t quite see but was sure was there, coming for me through the days ahead. I’d had a premonition in accepting the role of Marguerite that, in returning to Paris this time, I would be here for a meeting with my destiny. Here I would find what would transform me, what would return me to life and make this life the paradise I was so sure it should be.

I had been back in Paris for a little more than a month now, though, and my hopes for this had not yet come true, and so I waited with an increasingly dull vigilance, still sure my appointed hour was ahead of me, and yet I did not know what it was or where it would be.

It was here, of course.

I rose finally from a third curtsy and was halfway to the doors to the terrace when I noticed a man crossing the floor quickly, dressed in a beautiful new evening suit. He was ruddy against the white of his shirt and tie, if handsomely so. His hair was neatly swept back from his face, his blond moustache and whiskers clean and trim, his eyes clear. I nodded as he came to stand before me. He bowed gravely, even ostentatiously.

Forgive me this intrusion! he said, as he stood upright. The diva who throws her suitors’ diamonds in the trash. The beggars of Paris must salute as you walk by before they carry your garbage shoulder high.

I made to walk past him, though I smiled to think of his greeting. I had, in fact, thrown diamonds in the garbage twice, a feint each time. My maid knew to retrieve them. I did it once to make sure the story would be told in the press, the second time for the story to be believed. I was trying to teach my princes to buy me dresses instead of jewels — jewels had become ostentatious in the new Paris, with many reformed libertines now critical of the Empire’s extravagance, and there was little point to a jewel you couldn’t wear.

I enjoyed your magnificent performance in Faust last night — it was tremendously subtle, very moving, he said.

He waited to see if his flattery would affect me. It did. I also believed that last night’s performance had been my finest night as Marguerite. And as he was very awkward, like someone who had never done what he was about to do, I stopped for him, thinking to be kind.

I made to curtsy to him for the compliment, as I had just previously, and he laughed. No! Please. Let me bend to you, and with that, he knelt as he took my hand. I am Frédéric Simonet, a writer. I’ve longed to meet you, he said, but never more than tonight. I have a proposition for you, if you’ll allow me a moment of your time. There are no loathsome diamonds involved, I promise, unless you insist. Will you hear me out?

I held my hands out and smiled by way of invitation.

Last year I was at a dinner in Rome, recounting a favorite memory, of a girl singer at the Exposition Universelle in 1867. Did you see her? They called her the Settler’s Daughter, and she was said to have been rescued from the savages and able to sing only a single song her mother had taught her — and was entirely unable to speak otherwise. She was performing in a show from the colonies, Canada, I think. Her song moved the Emperor to give her a token of his right there in the hall. A tiny ruby brooch of a rose. Shortly after, the papers reported she’d vanished, escaped into the Paris surroundings. I never saw any sign of her again. In the months after, I wondered what had become of her and eventually even checked with the Conservatoire, as I wanted to see if perhaps she had come to them, perhaps to be made over into one of their mediocre sopranos. They said they had no knowledge of a singer of this kind. Incredible, yes?

I nodded, and he continued.

I then thought nothing of it for years until I bought a property in the Marais, a beautiful hôtel, and as it was prepared for me to occupy, the workers made an extraordinary find. The young singer’s possessions, even the ruby brooch! And what seems to be her diary of her life here in Paris. It is quite plainly hers. She taught herself to speak French — it even contains her practice lessons. She abandoned it and her things, having lived, it would seem, in that hôtel in the Marais. And it was when I saw the brooch that I remembered my search for her. It was all found in what had been the noble family’s chapel, as if she had held some private ceremony there. As if she meant to return for it all and never did — it was there the novel truly came to me. I should think they will fetch a fair price at auction, if I ever sell them. It was such incredible luck. I was completely under her spell that day, and here were her things! Everything but her. It felt like an order from the gods to undertake this work.

Of course, I’m sure she’s some maudlin chimney sweep now, raking out stoves for a living. But a chimney-sweep ending would sell few books, he added. So I wrote my own. The novel is called Le Cirque du Monde Déchu. We follow her into a life of degradation as a fille en carte and her subsequent redemption through love. Like Zola’s Nana, but as an opéra-bouffe-féerie, of sorts. Or it will be.

He paused here dramatically. Which is why I have come to speak with you. Some of the other guests at that now-fateful dinner in Rome recalled her as well, and among them was a composer, recently a winner of the Prix de Rome and something of a protégé of Verdi’s. I believe he is planning to be here tonight. He was likewise moved by her and vowed that evening if I were to write the libretto, he would make an opera of it.

He paused again, summoning his courage.

It is our desire to have you originate the role of the singer. It would be a stupendous coup, we feel, and would ensure the opera’s success. And you, well, who better for the Settler’s Daughter than the singer who does not speak?

Yes, came the thought at last. Who better?

For I had also seen the young singer he spoke of. I had been her. I knew all about her.

The brooch was an imperial trifle, a tiny thing to an emperor, I think, but for me at the time, so much more. Made of rubies, several to each petal, set in either platinum or white gold — I had it before I knew the difference — the stem inlaid with jade. There was even a thorn. At his mention of it, the flower had glowed in the air between us, a tiny phantom, and then was gone.

Here it was, the source of my premonition, the meeting with my destiny.


'For I had also seen the young singer he spoke of. I had been her. I knew all about her.'
 

My little game of not speaking in public came from when I was her. A circus ruse, theatrics done for the audience. Not one of us in that little act had been as we said we were. “Lilliet Berne” was in every way my greatest performance, but almost no one knew this to be true.

The various shocks of this conversation — that it seemed my life had been the basis for this man’s new novel, that it was to be an opera in which they wanted me to create the role, that he had in all likelihood effects I’d long believed lost — all had the result of casting the life I led now as a disguise, assembled in haste, to cover over the one he described. I struggled to consider a reaction, but I felt as if I were misremembering halfway through a performance the role I was playing — on the verge of singing an aria from Norma, say, but within Don Giovanni.

In an opera this moment would be the signal the story had begun, that the heroine’s past had come for her, intent on a review of her sins decreed by the gods. This writer perhaps a god in disguise, like Athena, or a demon, say, as in Faust. If he were either, though, his disguise as a mortal was impeccable. He was for now the picture of a nervous if handsome man, waiting for me to answer, and still I could not move, I found.

When I did not so much as nod to him, he smiled and said nervously, Perhaps . . . you can sing me your answer, yes? Would you at least be interested? He leaned in as he said this.

I managed to offer him my arm, for I still meant to enter the garden. I intended to speak to him, and given my reputation, this also required privacy. He accepted, and I made a gesture toward the terrace. He led me that way. We passed through the doors and down the lawn, and then I released his arm and turned so that I would be in shadow and his face, lit by the chandeliers inside, behind me. I wanted to see him clearly as I spoke to him. I needed to see his reaction in his eyes.

If this was a joke, perhaps, or some strange, unforeseen malice.

He looked at me expectantly, even with fear, as I set a finger on his mouth before he could respond or interrupt. Yes, I said. I will speak to you of this.

His eyes were sincere, I noted, as I began.

The faith you have in my abilities is wonderful, I said. And the origination of a role is the one honor that has eluded me thus far. Thank you. I do admit to being intrigued. I am committed for now to Faust this season, and then Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera next, in London, but I will look into my schedule to see what room there could be in the year ahead. Do you know how far the music has come or what schedule you intend?

Forgive me my earlier impudence, he said, gesturing back inside. I . . . Thank you! You honor me. I do not have these answers. We have neither music nor schedule as yet. Perhaps you will come and meet my new friend? I believe he’s arriving with the Dumas set. When we pass through to dinner, I can bring you to him.

I can see them by the light of their cigars. There, he said. Do you see them, on the balcony above? Come, let’s see if we can find our way.

He gestured to a crowd of gentlemen shadowed by the gaslights of the courtyard, who waved back.

I waved as well.

I return to this moment frequently, for it was when everything that came next in my life was decided. Meeting the composer in this dress was out of the question, though I could not say this. I was eager, also, to leave, or at least be alone, even for a moment, for this offer no longer felt like fate but something disguised as fate, a dangerous ruse meant to draw me into a trap.

The fit of a dress determines the stride of a woman — whether she can bend at the waist, sit, or ride — and so for a woman to change her dress was to change even the way she walked and the speed at which she ran to her fate.

If I had stayed in the terrible dress, or if a better dress had been made and sent over, if I had gone up the stairs, had dinner with the writer and composer, all would have been different.

But I did not stay.

More about the author

The Queen of the Night

Alexander Chee

Recommended by The Observer . . .

'One doesn't so much read it, as one is bewitched by it. Epic, gorgeous, haunting' HANYA YANAGIHARA, author of A Little Life

When it begins, it begins as an opera should begin: in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger, who you discover has your fate in his hands . . .

She is Lilliet Berne. And she is the soprano.

1882. One warm autumn evening in Paris, Lilliet is finally offered an original role, though it comes at a price. The part is based on her deepest secret.

Only four people could have betrayed her: one is dead, one loves her still, one wants only to own her. And one, she hopes, never thinks of her at all.

In taking this role Lilliet is forced to confront her darkest lies but will the truth save Lilliet - or destroy her?

'Brilliantly extravagant' VOGUE

'Terrific' NEW YORKER

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