He had told all of his dull cares to be gone. He had contemplated the way that worrying too much could turn a young man’s hair silver, or an old man’s heart to clay. Peter Matthew Barrie, eleven years old, dark-haired, suited, and wobbling on the slight heels of his new dress shoes, brought Benjamin Britten’s ‘Begone, dull care!’ to a close—brightly bidding adieu in fortissimo, mentally tapping out two-four time in quavers rather than crotchets. The end came. And then there was silence, as there always was with these sorts of things. They had given him three minutes and he had used just under two. The piece was very short. But then the silence lifted, polite applause filled the theatre.
They sat before him: St Cecelia’s Co-Ed Specialist Secondary School’s headmaster, choirmaster, and lead conductor. Peter had forgotten who was who. Their names were lost to him.
‘Thank you for your performance, Peter,’ said one of them—the blond, clean-shaven … headmaster, perhaps? ‘I think I can say on behalf of all of us that we really enjoyed your piece.’
Although it was still a month until the end of first term, secondary school auditions were already underway. That Friday lunchtime, Peter’s father had picked him up from school and they had made the trip to St Cecelia’s.
Now, the skirt-suited lead conductor—or maybe she was the headmaster—was ushering Peter’s father through the double doors from the foyer and into the auditorium.
‘So, how did it go?’ Peter couldn’t tell whom dad was directing his question at.
The maybe-conductor responded, giving nothing away: ‘Peter is a fine singer.’
Peter took the stairs down the side of the stage and joined his father, the two of them sitting at a table opposite his examiners. He watched them—his father and his examiners—talk about school policy, classes, dress codes, the school’s Christian mission and moral code. Peter watched his father and his assessors talk—didn’t quite hear them. The buzzing of too much post-performance exhaustion deafened him, played at the back of his eyes. He knew how to look engaged, to murmur agreement now and then, to occasionally repeat something that one of his examiners said, to give the impression that he was paying attention. To nod. Soon he would be home, listening to practice tracks in preparation for Saturday’s singing lesson. Soon, it would be 8 pm, and he would be curled up on the couch, watching The Voice. At intervals, Peter caught snatches of conversation, caught the frizzy-haired woman—the choirmaster, he presumed—saying: ‘… and, of course, Peter, there’s the reality that we won’t know what sort of voice you’ll have until you get a little older. But with the right training you’ll remain a strong singer no matter how your voice changes. Who knows, you might end up a tenor, a bass, perhaps. Or even a baritone.’
The buzzing vanished. Peter tried to rewind and replay, tried to recall how the choirmaster had got to talking about tenors and basses. The conversation went on without him. It had to. Because in the three years that he had been singing—in all the time that he had sat with his dad at the piano, gone to Iris’s house every Saturday morning, sung at family weddings and birthdays, been a part of the church and school choirs—this was the first time anyone had proposed that he might someday perform a bass or tenor role; that he might someday be identified as anything other than a soprano.
Then they were shaking hands, offering thankyous and goodbyes. And, because Peter was still lost in the idea of opening his mouth and having a very different sound pour out, of some dreaded day being identified as a bass rather than a soprano, he missed the exact moment that it happened—the very second the supposed choirmaster said what Peter thought she said.
‘It’ll be a shame when he loses that lovely soprano voice.’
On the way home, Peter’s father talked excitedly. What a great interview, they seem really keen, don’t they? A round-two interview was a real possibility! Amazing theatre, 454 seats, did you know? Peter mentally added his examiners to the not-quite-enemy-just-dumb list he was constructing. Surely they didn’t know what they were talking about. Losing his soprano voice?
One thing Peter did know was that there were unwritten rules when it came to asking his parents certain questions. There was an art to phrasing questions. He’d done it hundreds of times before. If he could ask a question in just the right way—especially if it was a potentially embarrassing question—it meant that he would get the most direct answer while avoiding nosiness and red faces. But this was slightly trickier. He already knew the answer to the question that he was formulating. But the need to ask it anyway was overwhelming.
‘When they said I might end up singing bass or tenor parts, what did they mean? Why would my voice change? Why would I sing those parts?’
‘I guess because it’s good to try a variety of roles.’ His father cleared his throat, the sound somewhere between nervous and impatient. Gravelly, choked, off-key. ‘And, uh, also because your voice isn’t going to stay the same forever. When you get older, it changes. It gets deeper.’
‘Yeah, I heard about that in school.’
Silence. Numb, thinking about his breathing. Hoped he wasn’t breathing too loudly. Peter clicked the radio on, turned it up. Dad, the good sport, turned it down.
‘You know, if you have any questions about anything, you can always ask me.’
Peter didn’t want to hear it. ‘Yeah, I know, Dad.’ Radio back up.
That evening Peter sat in his parents’ bedroom, cast in the glow of his mother’s laptop. He had spent the afternoon trying to ice the wound of the memory of that day’s audition. The audition, so much like every other audition or exam he had ever taken—the sight-reading, the general-knowledge quiz, the performance piece, the interview. He’d done it all before. But still, this audition was something else altogether. Now sequestered at his mother’s desk, hunched between books with titles such as Essentials of Audiology and stacks of crumpled, printed journal articles about the inner ear, Peter trawled through endless streams of YouTube recommendations. He was looking for different versions of the alleluia solo motet from Mozart’s Exsultate, jubilate. His singing teacher, Iris, had invited him to an Easter recital, a couple of weeks away. She would be performing the solo motet. But in confidence, Iris had told him that she didn’t really like the piece. ‘If you had been forced to sing this at your local church every Easter Monday and every Christmas, throughout your entire childhood, you’d be pretty sick of it too,’ she said. They were all there on YouTube—recitations by the sopranos and mezzo-sopranos he loved: Karina Gauvin, Lucia Popp, Cecelia Bartoli. Scrolling through the recommendations list, Peter noticed a version called ‘Carlo Maria Luscinia sings Mozart’s “Alleluia”’. A man singing the ‘Alleluia’? He supposed that it was possible. He clicked the link. The video, it appeared, was just a still image from the film Farinelli.
Peter had heard the ‘Alleluia’ dozens of times. The only word in the entire piece was ‘alleluia’. He knew the violins, the bright start to the motet. But then, the voice. The voice cancelled everything. The voice’s timbre was sweeter than a celesta, than carillon bells or chimes, than any sort of crystallophone. It didn’t lack an ounce of power, despite its liquid-glass consistency. It was commanding, but not warm and rich. This voice, which shifted without hesitation between vocal breaks—didn’t seem to possess breaks—effortlessly hit the high-F.
The sound of the TV in the next room brought him back. There he was, sitting at his mother’s desk. It was dark outside. The ‘Alleluia’ silenced. Ended.
Peter read the YouTube comments. Praises in Italian and English, all commenting on this ‘nightingale’, this ‘natural wonder’ that was Carlo Maria Luscinia’s voice. Carlo? An adult’s voice, and yet … not possibly a man’s voice. This was not the voice of a countertenor. This was not falsetto but soprano. And men, Peter knew, couldn’t really be sopranos. Their high range wasn’t the same as women’s. The choirmaster’s condolences came back to Peter momentarily and then were drowned out by his aural memory—of a voice so perfect that it could hardly belong to a woman, let alone a man. Peter clicked on the video’s ‘About’ section, but the only information was a link to ‘buy it now on iTunes’. Buy it? Peter clicked the link, looked over his shoulder to make sure that his mother or father weren’t at the door watching him. The iTunes Store window popped up. There it was: Carlo Maria Luscinia Sings Mozart, $18.99. The solo motet, one piece among 26 other solo pieces. Peter’s mother had let him buy albums on iTunes before, but he’d never bought one without her permission. For some reason—he couldn’t quite say why—he didn’t feel that he could ask her to buy this album. It was expensive, yes, but there was something more. It was something about her knowing what this voice did to him. But to buy it without asking? He knew his mother’s iTunes password—always the same, always some variation of his name, his father’s name and her birth year. He hovered the cursor over the ‘Purchase’ button.
Instead, he minimised the iTunes window and gingerly plugged the supposed soprano’s name into Google. And then there it was, a Wikipedia page.
Carlo Maria Luscinia. No image available. Opera singer. Born Forli, Italy, 1977. Possesses pure soprano voice. C4 to C6. Baroque opera singer. First came to prominence in 1990. Venice Festival of Opera.
… natural castrato … never went through puberty … Kallmann syndrome … unusually high voice.
Peter clicked the ‘castrato’ link. There were the sounds of his parents moving about in the lounge room. He knew that they would be up and preparing dinner, looking for him. Waiting, now, for the page to load, Peter hovered the cursor over the ‘x’ in the red box, ready to close everything if he heard them approaching. ‘… man with a singing voice equivalent to that of a soprano …voice produced by castration before puberty,’ he read.
Faster, then, before he was caught. He punched ‘castration’ into the search bar. There was his mother, calling him from the lounge room. Be prepared to shut it all down.
… sexual organs modified … surgical or chemical process … male loses function of the testicles …
‘Peter?’ Calling from the lounge again.
Hurry, before they find you. Back in the iTunes Store. Buy now? What else could he possibly do? ‘Purchase.’ ‘Are you sure you want to buy this album?’ For the love of God, yes.
‘Peter?’ At the door to their bedroom now.
Peter, stabbing the little red ‘x’ boxes of the iTunes Store, of the Wiki page on castration. The page froze on the screen. He wondered if his mother was watching the back of his head, could see the tension creep up his shoulders, if she knew that he knew she was there in the doorway. And then, blessedly, the page vanished. Peter swivelled around on the chair. There she was, in the doorway, arms crossed.
‘Be careful with my computer, please. I know it’s slow but hitting it won’t make it work any faster.’
He wondered if his parents had a habit of looking at his search history. He always looked at theirs. Their searches, always boring: ASX, Rio Tinto, gluten-free pumpkin scone recipes. He knew that he would have to sort out a time to delete his search history before his mother next used her computer.
‘Dinner will be ready soon.’
Over dinner he told his mother and father about the audition. Sometimes, Peter had decided, it was better to beat his parents to their questions than to let them have the upper hand, than to let them draw it out. Proscenium arch stage. And 454 seats, isn’t that right, Dad? More potatoes? Yes please! The sight-reading was easy. Can you believe they picked ‘Eia, Mater, fons amoris’? Thank God Iris has always been such a fan of Pergolesi! Do you think anyone else auditioning knew how to sing in Latin? Could you pass me the pepper, please? Met the school’s headmaster, choirmaster and lead conductor … all really nice people. Really nice.
Loading the dishwasher with his dad, Peter tried, again, with the finely crafted questions—did he have any medical conditions that he didn’t know about? His dad frowned and smiled and frowned. No. Why? Was something wrong? No. Nothing’s wrong. Just thinking about … school camp next term. Medical forms and all that. There was that frowning smile again. No, nothing that I know of. This clearly wasn’t working. Indirection could sometimes be the same as misdirection. Peter tried a different tactic.
‘Dad, can I ask you something?’
‘Anything at all.’ Peter didn’t like his father’s newfound mellow optimism. It seemed like his dad thought that they had shared some sort of secret. Like that not-quite-conversation in the car that afternoon had changed everything.
‘Does anyone ever … not go through puberty?’ The look on his father’s face was tender joy, like he was about to help his son grow up, or something equally ridiculous.
‘Aaaw, Peter,’ crap, here it came. ‘I’m sure that there are some people who don’t, but most people do. And you know, everyone’s different. Everyone changes at different times in different ways …’
Peter knew that he’d have to suffer through his parents’ own sheer embarrassment at some point, but this still wasn’t getting him anywhere. Something about his father’s expression changed, as if he’d finally clicked with what Peter had been getting at. Medical conditions? Of course! Like he could see through it all. Bless the man.
‘Look, why don’t we sit down and talk about this?’ His father said, pointing to the kitchen table. Things were getting out of hand.
‘Uh, could we talk about it some other time?’
Strange and sudden helplessness—hurt, even—in his father’s face. ‘Okay. Yeah, sure. Sure we can. Whenever you want.’
They did it just after Anja Nissen had won over her audience and her judges. Peter was curled up on the couch watching The Voice. Will.i.am had stamped his buzzer with his foot, all four of Nissen’s adjudicators had turned to face her. And so too, Peter’s parents were facing him, standing sheepishly on the other side of the lounge room, awkwardly too close to one another as if they were trying to achieve safety in numbers.
‘We’ve got something for you,’ his mother said, over the sound of the applause. She was holding out a book. The cover was a colourful, child’s scribble-drawing of a boy playing soccer. The title, in Comic Sans, was What’s Happening to Me? The Boy’s Guide to Growing Up.
‘We know you’ve been doing sex-ed in health class, so we thought we’d get you a bit of extra reading material,’ his dad said.
‘And, you know, Peter, you don’t have to wait for health class to talk about growing up. We’re here to talk to you about anything—boys or girls or anything,’ his mum again.
‘Sure.’ Peter tried to look interested in the book. He flipped through to the contents page, looked over the chapters, which had titles such as ‘Puberty Blues’ and ‘Zits are the Pits’. He turned to chapter five, ‘So long, Soprano’. How oddly fitting, he thought.
In the last 200 years, the age at which people hit puberty has lowered. In the 1700s, most boys’ voices broke around the age of 18. These days, some boys’ voices break as early as 11.
The book was doing nothing to calm his fears.
Peter closed the book. Watched Nissen negotiate which mentor she wanted to work with. All the willpower in the world couldn’t stop what he knew was coming—the body’s ceaseless destruction of the soul’s progress. And yet the body wasn’t even in control of its own faculties—it didn’t mean to destroy. Being identified as a bass, as a tenor, or losing his voice were not options. Not when you know yourself as a soprano. Will.i.am, she said. Will.i.am. Peter had read that Mozart had written the Exsultate, jubilate motet for his favourite castrato, Venanzio Rauzzini. He had heard of castrati before, but he also knew it was impossible to have any idea what their voices had been like—with the exception of someone like Alessandro Moreschi, and Peter didn’t feel that Moreschi was a qualified singer by any account. But Luscinia was also a castrato … of sorts. And that voice, Luscinia’s voice, like breaking glass, like perfection.
The Wikipedia article on castration had said something about the testicles being modified through … what was it? Surgery or chemicals? Peter didn’t know about any pills that would get rid of his testicles, but he knew what surgery was. And Ricky Martin and Kylie Minogue and Joel Madden grinned and applauded and cheered.
La gazza ladra. Quite possibly his favourite Rossini opera. And just like the thieving magpie from the libretto, just like asking his parents questions, Peter knew that there were rules to stealing things. The first rule is to steal things when your parents are at home, but occupied. They will never suspect that you would steal anything when they’re around. Just make sure that you don’t get caught.
The Voice’s credits were rolling. Peter’s mum was in her bedroom working at her dissertation, his dad was sealed off in the music room, working on a composition. Do it now. The next rule is to take only a few things at a time. Never take one big thing, but a few little things—little things that no-one will miss. He popped four paracetamol tablets from the pack, wrapped them in aluminium foil. From the first aid box in the bathroom, Peter stole a couple of bandages, some plastic-wrapped gauze pads, antiseptic wipes and some skin closure strips. From the kitchen, he stole two bin-liners. Another rule is to make sure that you’re smart about what you steal. Steal the knife that never gets used—the one in the drawer—not the one on the knife board that mum and dad use every day. The selection of the right instruments is important too. Peter wasn’t sure what sort of knife would do the job. He had selected a thin boning knife over a serrated steak knife, for a clean and smooth cut. Lastly, he stole a needle and a spool of black cotton thread from the sewing box in the spare room. There is also a rule about hiding things. Don’t put everything in a box under your bed. No, that’s too obvious. Parents know where to look. Instead, get one of those big beige envelopes from the study. Wrap everything in the garbage bags and then put it all in the envelope. Put the envelope at the bottom of your desk drawer, put all of your books and pencils on top of it. Forget that it is there.
Perhaps the most important element of thievery is preparation. Steal everything in the heat of the moment of wanting to steal it. Steal everything well ahead of time—well in advance of doing anything. There is no such thing as being too prepared. There is no need to do anything just yet. But at least they are there—all of your materials. All of the tools and equipment for the task. When you need them. Should you need them.
If it ever happens that your parents ask about these missing items, get them to repeat their questions. This makes them think that whatever they’re thinking is so preposterous that they have to clarify themselves because there’s no way that you’d have anything to do with a missing knife or Panadol or anything. Seem puzzled by their questions, make them feel dumb. Make them feel bad for suspecting you. This is the thief’s code.
Bedtime, and Luscinia’s voice, courtesy of his mother’s iPod, served as lullaby. Peter usually fell asleep in silence. He found it distracting to listen to music, he found himself overthinking the piece, the singer’s technique, the conductor’s interpretation. But recently a family of magpies that lived in one of the trees outside his window had taken to carolling during the night. Peter’s parents had said that this was strange—apparently it was out of season for magpies to be having babies or protecting their territory. Peter loved the sound of magpies carolling, he loved watching a group of them sneak up to the food scraps his parents emptied onto the compost heap each morning and then sing about it. The problem was that Peter associated their voices so absolutely with the morning, that no matter how deep his sleep, their song instantly woke him. There was just something about waking in the middle of the night when the sun was still so far away, waking to their carol—no matter that it was beautiful—that made him impossibly sad.
Luscinia’s voice smothered the magpies’ song. That voice without a body. Image unavailable. Peter figured that it wasn’t just that Luscinia’s voice was good, it was that it was unique. Luscinia didn’t rely on vibrato like other singers, he used vibrato sparingly, as ornamentation. Peter focused on the sound of the voice, on forgetting everything else but the voice. And that’s when he let the night creep in. Let the sad sea of sleep overcome him, pull him into its depths. Oceanic and forgetful, but soaked with memories. Luscinia’s voice, now becoming the ocean, the world. The sensation of falling asleep to music. It was a sensation that Peter could only describe as suffocating. The gentle separation between his thinking brain and something else, something dividing itself from him, cutting itself from him. Falling asleep to music, the sensation of something being pulled away from him, his thoughts dissolving into sound. Losing himself, lovingly, into that darkness. The gentle tearing to bits of whatever remained of his waking mind, the scattering of his thoughts. The ocean ahead, a liquid-glass voice. And then his body let him go, shuddering and dying, into that single voice that sung of glory. The end came.