The Oberserver

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This Week

Play On!

Louis Roney

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— original short story —

La Scala, on 54th Street, between 6th and 7th, was a New York restaurant I hardly ever went into without seeing someone to speak to, or to wave at. Of course, Joe DiMaggio was there at his table almost every night.

At lunch, Luciano Pavarotti was often at a round table in a corner, sometimes with Sophia Loren. Luciano, Sophia and I lived close to each other on Central Park South, five blocks away.

One day a few years ago I was looking down at a newly-arrived plate of La Scala's sinfully delicious saltimbocca a la Romana, when I heard a resonant bass voice say my name.

I looked up quickly, and there stood Victor Mackie, a singer I had known well in Germany. Victor, who was 10 years my senior, was born in Glasgow, and, from age 10, raised in South Africa.

He was singing Wagner operas in Germany when World War II broke out. He had been married a long time to a German soprano. They had a couple of daughters whom I got to know when their father and I sang together in Hamburg, where they lived.

How Victor was able to remain in Germany and sing opera in the important theaters during the World War II era was a mystery. He was a citizen of a British Empire nation that was at war with Germany. Most foreigners who tried such a stunt would probably have ended up in a concentration camp.

Of course, Victor had spoken Afrikaans all his life, and his fluent German sounded like German with some kind of bucolic dialect. The fact that he had been married to a German for many years probably shielded him from harm. He once intimated to me that he had spied for England all during the War. I was never sure if it was true.

It's the kind of story any American, Frenchman or Englishman might have made up after the war as an excuse for having been singing on Der Fuhrer's stages all through the Nazi years.

When Victor sat down at my table in La Scala that day, we had a lot of catching up to do about the years since we last sang together, which was in the Hamburg Staatsoper. Victor had read that I was still singing actively in North America, France and Italy. When I asked him about his career, he said he was looking for jobs in North American opera companies.

It was tough going, he said.

You see, Victor had always sung everything in German, and had confined his career to Germany, Austria and Switzerland. He had never sung in France or Italy as I had, and therefore knew nothing in Italian or French, which are the languages most sung in big American opera companies. I finally got around to asking him why he wasn't still singing in Germany.

"That's a weird little story, my friend," he said, taking a swallow of San Pietro Chianti.

"How's that?" I asked.

"You remember a conductor, named Horst Radzo?"

"Yeah," I said.

"I always thought he was a third-rate little Nazi runt. Unpleasant to be around. Even worse to sing with."

"You said it!"

"Well, I'm a very tall guy, and he always seemed to have it in for me. Unluckily, I often had to do the big Wagner operas with the little bastard: 'Meistersinger,' 'Lohengrin,' 'Parsifal,' 'Hollender,' 'Tristan,' 'Tannhäuser,' 'the Ring,' the whole kit and caboodle."

"And?" I asked.

"Well, Radzo had a suspicion I had spied for England during the war. You know he was in the S.S., don't you?"

"I heard that," I said.

"I was ready to call it quits and go somewhere I could buy a little land and become a gentleman farmer."

"Where?"

"South Africa, or perhaps out west here in the States."

"What stopped you, Victor?"

"It was Radzo. The little bastard finagled a way to get the Deutsche Bühnengenossenschaft to tie up my retirement money. Everything I had put away in my account all through the years. I can't lay my hands on a Pfennig."

"How'd he do it?" I asked.

"The singers union is run by a board, a Verwaltung, as you know," he said. "The people on it are fairly powerful bureaucrats who may or may not have been Nazis. The fact is, they balk when it comes to paying out pension money to any foreigner they think was against the Vaterland during the war."

"Victor, were you a spy?" I asked.

"It doesn't really matter anymore," was all he wanted to say.

"Where's your wife now?"

"Hannah — she's in Germany. In the Schwarzwald … Freiburg. She's still a German citizen."

"That Radzo was some Schwein!" I said.

"Well, I must say, I hated the little Kraut. The way he'd slink into the Kantine, wearing his greasy little black toupee, and take his coffee all the way back to his studio, away from us all. Rehearsals with him used to disgust me. He was prone to towering rages. I've heard that comes from insecurity. Anyway, he always had to be right about everything. One thing: He could never ever look me in the eye. Anyone who knows men knows what that means. He knew that the whole Frankfurt Opera was on to him, and hated his guts."

Victor sucked in another Schluck of Chianti.

"There's more to the tale …"

"Oh?"

"Last year I had to go back to Cape Town … my mother died."

"Oh! I'm sorry."

"Yes. Well, she was damn near 90. In Africa I stayed with the very dear old family retainer who raised me from a lad — an ancient and spooky black lady who does fortunes and magic and that sort of thing."

We called the waiter and ordered espressos.

"What about her?"

"Well, she told me that she had once killed a white man who raped her daughter."

"Did she get caught?"

"No. According to her, she killed him simply by saying some voodoo words and aiming them his way. The guy up and died the next day."

"Coincidence maybe," I said.

"We'll find out soon enough."

"How?"

"Simple. I aimed those words of hers at Radzo last night. I'll write them down on this slip of paper for you. Keep it. You never know …"

Next morning, The New York Times reported that conductor Horst Radzo had collapsed and died while rehearsing "Walküre" in the Berlin Städtische Oper.

Did that fact make Victor a murderer?

How could it?

He had only repeated meaningless syllables of gibberish.

Yesterday I found Victor's slip of paper in my wallet.

On it, nine strange sounds are printed out phonetically.

Now I'm in a quandary …

You see, there is a crook I detest — and with more than good reason.

Up to now I've never been able to do anything about it. Legally, that is …