Monday, December 5, 2022

Bringing Murder and Music Together: Guest Post by Erica Miner


Opera can kill you. Literally and figuratively.


That’s what I found out in my 21 years as a violinist at the Metropolitan Opera. In opera, art imitates life. But in real time, the opposite is often the case.


Most opera aficionados have no clue what happens behind the Met’s famous “Golden Curtain.” In that beehive of activity that takes place before, during and after each rehearsal and performance, in the backstage wings and orchestra pit, beneath those Austrian crystal chandeliers that rise to the ceiling every evening, lurks an underworld of clashing egos, intense jealousies and rivalries, and nefarious goings-on. What better place to set a murder mystery?


Et voilà: the Julia Kogan “Opera Mystery” series was born.


The above is not altogether an inaccurate description of the world that is the Met Opera. With approximately 1,000 people working in different jobs simultaneously, conflicts are inevitable. There are international opera stars, comprimario singers (singing minor solo roles), orchestra, chorus, ballet members, stagehands, electricians, wardrobe, wig and makeup people and others, more often than not at odds with each other.


Take the orchestra, for instance: 100 neurotic musicians thrown together in a hole in the ground, with no light and no air, 7 days a week. They see more of each other than their own families. Sooner or later someone, a musician, or any other company member in this Tower of Babel, is going to want to kill someone. 

In Aria for Murder, the first book in the series, young neophyte violinist Julia is about to make her debut in the Met Opera Orchestra. Julia, I admit, is my alter ego. Her experiences reflect my own when I first started out at the Met. Sensitive, talented, an overachiever, she is dedicated to an ideal: proving to her mentor, a famous opera conductor, that she is worthy of his faith in her. 


Then, in the middle of Julia’s opening night, the unimaginable happens—to the conductor. Julia’s world turns upside down and somehow, she becomes entangled in a murder investigation. But when she teams up with the opera-loving NYPD detective on the case to find the killer, Julia is shocked to discover an opera house rife with danger lurking around every dark corner, in every out-of-the-way hallway and hidden stairway. She soon realizes she may be the killer’s next victim, and suddenly the vulnerable young violinist is thrust into survival mode.


This may seem far-fetched, but in reality, numbers of “truth-is-stranger-than fiction” occurrences have taken place at the venerable institution that is the Met:


In the middle of a performance of Verdi’s Macbeth, a man decided to commit suicide by throwing himself off the top balcony. At least he waited until the intermission to do the deed. It likely was the longest intermission in Met history.


In an opening night performance of Janáček’s The Makropoulos Case, a comprimario tenor who had a fear of heights and whom, for some unfathomable reason the director insisted stand at the top of a 20-foot ladder, collapsed—and plunged to his death. It turned out the tenor died of a heart attack. But the kicker was what he sang, in English, just before the fall: “You can only live so long.”


You can’t make this stuff up. 


How could I not write about this place? The call was irresistible. My wicked imagination took over. I chose my characters, many of them based on my own colleagues. I fabricated my plot lines and wove them together. I struggled to find the right perp, the evilest character to be found other than on an opera stage. The dramatic masterpieces of Verdi, Wagner and Puccini provided inspiration for real-life drama, fictionalized in the pages of my murderous fancies. 


In this process, I have discovered that I love telling stories. And happily, my readers have asked for more. Each sequel to Aria for Murder takes place at a different opera house: book two, due out in 2023, at Santa Fe Opera; book three, in 2024, at San Francisco Opera. In doing research for these novels, I was lucky enough to find company members, past and present, who revealed  mounds of enticing ghostly legends and creepiness that originate from the histories of these opera houses. Julia, transformed by her life-threatening experiences at the Met, takes on the difficult task of filling in as concertmaster (the all-important first of the first violinists) of these opera orchestras and, as is her wont, lands herself in heaps of trouble.


Though Julia may be my alter ego, she is an idealized version. I could never be as brave and selfless as I have created her to be. That, to me, is the best thing about fiction: you can fashion characters in any way you want, to act as you want them to do. At least until they take over and tell you how they’re going to run the show.


And at the opera, no matter the circumstances, the show must go on.



Former Metropolitan Opera violinist Erica Miner is an award-wining author, screenwriter, arts journalist, and lecturer. Based in the Pacific Northwest, Erica continues to balance her reviews and interviews of real-world musical artists with her fanciful plot fabrications that reveal the dark side of the fascinating world of opera.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

I wish the greatest success for all of Erica 's novels. I don't think she will remember me but I met her one dark night in San Diego. We were both walking to a perfomance and started talking to each other. I felt an instant soul connection. I am grateful we are fb friends.Love,Lee