A story about devilry and opera

No more songs as yet, but another story.

DEVIL TO PAY

“I’d give my soul for a chance to sing Rigoletto,” said the baritone.

He and the rest of the tiny company of singers, supported by an even tinier grant, were touring the country, giving concert performances of those gallant old war-horses, Cavalliera Rusticana and I Pagliacci, in schools and town halls. They had been drinking cheap red wine all evening and it had got to that time of night when the most commonplace remarks take on a curious resonance. It seemed as if everyone stopped talking for a moment as soon as he had spoken. It must have been then that Michael, the young tenor, decided that he would sell his soul to the devil.

He had been touring long enough, he felt. It was time his voice got the recognition he was sure it deserved. It was time, too, to escape from the complications of his relationships with the soprano, the mezzo and the director. Michael was a young man who always favoured quantity over quality, but he was discovering that there were disadvantages attached to travelling with it. Even now his three lovers were neglecting their glasses, waiting to see which of them he would choose to end the evening with. He decided to disappoint them all and go to bed with a book.
Specifically, to go to bed with the book on devil worship and the Satanic pact that he had shoplifted from Foyles’ occult section, for background reading during a student performance of Faust.

Back in his hotel room he stretched out on the bed and studied the chapter on ceremonial magic. He dismissed the more complex ceremonies for raising the devil which demanded virgin parchment, dragon’s blood and other substances equally unlikely to be found in West Bromwich after ten o’clock at night, and finally opted for drawing a pentagram on the hotel carpet with shaving foam and reciting the names of the five Dukes of Hell seven times at each point of the figure. When the echoes had died away (Michael had, naturally, a fine resonant speaking voice) he waited breathlessly.

Nothing happened. He waited for five minutes, then, rather annoyed, he left the pentagram and went back to the book. Perhaps he would have to find some dragon’s blood after all.
He was so immersed in the details of the ceremonies necessary to raise Abaddon, seventh Marquis of Hell, who would appear as a beautiful naked virgin or a fiery dragon, depending, presumably, on your luck, that he did not notice when the door of his room opened. A slight, rather apologetic cough roused him from his studies.

“What in hell do you want?” he demanded.

The nondescript man in the shabby suit who was standing beside his bed coughed again.

“Exactly sir. Hell, sir. I believe you called on Us for assistance?”

Michael was just about to snap that he had given up asking for room service a long time ago when the full meaning of those words got through to him. He sat up and stared at his visitor. As a devil, it was definitely a disappointment. He had been expecting something rather more exotic. A fiery dragon or a beautiful naked virgin would at least have had the charm of novelty; a small man with bad breath and dandruff problem was nothing new at all.

“What kind of devil are you?” he sneered. “No horns, no hooves, not even a forked tail. You wouldn’t have a chance if you auditioned for Mephistopheles.”

“No, sir. But my name is not Mephistopheles. My esteemed colleague of that name is in Our Education Department. I am from our Arts Section. I could have appeared in full, er, costume, but we have found that Our modern clients do not care for it. It adds what I can only describe as a pantomime flavour to what should be a purely business transaction.”

He sat down at the small deal desk that the hotel management regarded as an adequate substitute for a dressing-table. There was a mirror screwed to the wall above it and Michael noticed, with his first slight stirring of fear, that his visitor had no reflection. Nevertheless he drew up a chair and sat opposite him while the Devil produced a sheaf of papers and pen from thin air and looked at Michael with the air of a bank manager who is going to enjoy being really unpleasant about an overdraft.

“Now, sir, how may We help you?” he asked.

Michael set his jaw.

“I am willing to exchange my immortal soul for a career as an international operatic tenor,” he said.

The devil smiled thinly, revealing teeth that suggested a high degree of sanctity amongst the dental profession.

“And so are a great many other young men. I could add your name to Our waiting list, I suppose. But I feel I must warn you that there is no guarantee that we could get to you in your lifetime.”

“What!”

“Oh, bad Hades, yes! I myself process at least half a dozen similar requests from tenors every week and there are twenty personnel in Our Department, so you can work it out for yourself. And, of course, we do give priority to those clients whose souls would not be coming to Us in the normal course of events.”

Michael digested this in silence while the devil sorted fussily through his papers, muttering: “Of course the situation is perfectly hopeless for sopranos. I am simply refusing to take any more names. I just tell my lady clients to think again … Ah …” he found what he was looking for and ran a nicotine-stained finger down a list. “You don’t have any ambitions to be a local councillor, do you? I think we have some immediate vacancies there.”

“No, I do not,” Michael snapped. “Well, forget about the international bit. How about a moderately successful operatic career in England?”

The devil shook his head.

“All right, then,” Michael braced himself for the supreme sacrifice – “a dazzling career on the amateur circuit.”

“Oh, my dear sir,” the devil positively sniggered at such naivety. “That’s even more in demand than the international scene. I have whole choruses on my books. And the light musical field is even worse. If it were not for the fact that my Principal can use as many light operatic societies as we can get, I simply should not take the trouble to sign them up.”

“But what does he want amateur operatic societies for?”

“They have their place in the Great Scheme of Torment,” said the devil, with pious vagueness.

“I’ll bet they do,” said Michael, thinking of one or two he had worked with. “But what can you offer me then?”

“Three wishes,” said the devil, uncapping his pen. “No more, no less, no refunds, no returns, and particularly no nonsense about wishing for three more wishes with the last one. And your soul to revert to Us at the end of your natural life.”

“It’s not a lot,” said Michael.

“On the contrary, it is extremely generous. You are not one of those whom We expect to lose to the – other side. My Principal can reasonably expect to get your soul free, gratis and for nothing eventually, so any payment you do receive is in the nature of a bonus. Besides, you’ll find we run a comprehensive after-sales service. Take it or leave it.”

“I’ll take it,” said Michael.

“Sign here then,” said the devil, offering him a piece of paper and at the same time neatly inserting the pen-nib into Michael’s wrist.

So Michael duly signed the contract in his own blood and the devil vanished. Indeed, when Michael woke up the next morning he was very much inclined to think that the whole thing had been a dream, and he might have gone on thinking so if the niggling ache in his wrist from the devil’s pen-nib had not suddenly swelled to excruciating agony that night during a performance of Cavalliera Rusticana, just as they began the Easter Hymn. He knew then that he had better be very careful about what he wished for. It would be no use, for instance, if he simply applied for an audition with a major opera house, and wished to be accepted as leading tenor. He did not trust the devil an inch, and his problem would be staying on as leading tenor.

The arrival of a letter from London inviting him to come for an audition at the Coliseum suggested a possible solution to his dilemma. He had applied weeks ago, and recent events had put it out of his mind, but now he felt he could use it. Like most performers, Michael was aware that he did not always do himself justice. He had full confidence in his own abilities, but no assurance that they would always operate to his advantage. After a good deal of careful thought he decided to wish that, for the audition, and for ever afterwards, he would simply sing as well as he had it in him to sing. That should fix it.

He was so confident that he arranged to borrow a friend’s flat in London until such time as he could set himself up properly. He took an affecting farewell of the soprano, the mezzo and the director, promising each one separately that he would send for him/her as soon as he was settled. Then he resigned from the company at very short notice with the maximum of unpleasantness on both sides and set off for London in high spirits.

At his audition, with the sounds of his newly assured voice ringing pleasantly in his ears, he was extremely taken aback to hear the dreaded: “Thank you, that will be enough…” before he was quite eight bars into his first aria.

He staggered out into St Martin’s Lane cursing the devil and all his works. He had not merely offered an insultingly rotten bargain, he had gone back even on that. The pubs were open, and he went into the first one he came across, intending to get horribly drunk. A little man, with terrible dandruff, was leaning on the bar, nursing half a bitter. He looked strangely familiar, and, when he turned round and showed his yellowing teeth in a thin smile, Michael knew him at once.

“I’d like a word with you,” he said between clenched teeth. “That – product you sold me isn’t working.”

The devil shrugged. “Hardly my fault, squire.”

Bemused, Michael noticed that both his accent and general appearance had suffered a subtle change. He seemed to have moved down the social scale from insurance agent to used car salesman.

“What do you mean, not your fault? We made an agreement and you have not kept to it.”

“Now, look, mate, it’s not Our responsibility if you make a mistake. How exactly did you word your first wish?”

“I wished to sing as well as I have it in me to sing.””

“Well, there you have it. Believe me, We kept to Our side of the bargain. You did sing the best you have it in you to sing. Trouble is, it wasn’t good enough for the Colly, that’s all.”

Michael wondered briefly if there was any form of assault and battery you could safely commit on the person of a minor devil, and reluctantly dismissed the idea. Later, perhaps.

“What do you suggest?” he demanded coldly.

“Well, you wanta be on the safe side. Use something tried and tested. Ask for a voice like, well, any great tenor you fancy. Dead of course. Gotta be dead or there’d be all kinds of complications.”

Michael thought this over. It sounded foolproof, but he felt there was probably a catch somewhere. However.
“I might just do that,” he said, and found he was talking to an empty bar-stool.

He spent the evening drinking and made his way back to his friend’s flat just before the tubes closed. It was a very pleasant flat, overlooking Holland Park, and Michael’s friend, who was currently on a Mediterranean cruise, owed it all to the wages of sin. Michael had drunk enough to be reckless. He stood on the balcony, looking out into the summer night, and wished to have a voice exactly and in every detail like that of Caruso. Then he loosed one golden note into the darkness.
It was perfect. For a split second he thought he had beaten the devil. Then a paralysing pain spread through his chest. He remembered that Caruso had died of bronchial pneumonia.
Doubled over the balcony rail, gasping and choking, he realised that his wish had been fulfilled with complete accuracy. He had a voice – and so a chest and lungs – just like Caruso’s. For a few ghastly moments he thought he would die then and there, until he felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see a little man with bad teeth gazing down at him. A few flakes of dandruff fluttered on the summer air.

“Take it back,” Michael gasped. “Take it back.”

“Is that a wish?” the devil inquired alertly.

But even in extremis Michael was tough.

“No,” he gasped. “Exchange. Change this voice for …” he could not think clearly enough to think of a particular name … “any singer … any male singer,” he amended hastily, “healthy, long career, acknowledged best … unique sound …”

Then he collapsed.

He woke next morning to find himself lying fully clothed on the bed. Apart from a slight hangover he was feeling fine. Cautiously he sat up. He took a deep breath. His chest was normal. He ran a hand over his face. That was odd. He had surely not shaved last night, but his chin felt very smooth under his fingers. Perhaps the devil ran a valet service. He remembered his last wish and braced himself to try the voice the devil had given him.

Standing up, he tried for a high C. The sound amazed him. He tried again, his voice soaring effortlessly higher and higher.

And then he knew. He did have the voice of a great singer, a man, healthy and with a long life, if not a long career ahead of him.

He was a castrato.

Michael threw himself over the balcony, into Holland Park. Even as his broken body was startling the early morning joggers his soul found itself being hustled into a long queue by a small demon with a bad case of fang decay and scaling horns.

“Just in time, mate,” said the devil. “The Pandaemonium Light Opera Society are auditioning chorus for Bittersweet. Sopranos of course,” he added with an appalling snigger.

Tina Rath
Yellow Advertiser, 1984

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