Karina sang the final notes of the duet with tears in her eyes. The blue spotlight pooled onto her pretty white face and bare shoulders, which presently lifted up from their cradle of pillows. Her singing partner knelt awkwardly by the side of the bed on which she lay, clasping her hands to his heart. As the final, gently undulating notes of the orchestra died down she broke them free and pulled him into a passionate kiss, the tears coursing even thicker down her cheeks.Her husband, Robin, shuffled in his seat in the stalls. He was sweating profusely as he watched and tried to contain his jealousy. A heavy, incredulous hush descended upon the audience; nobody coughed and everybody fought to keep their own tears from flowing. Then, spurred on by one intrepid clap from the front row they burst into rapturous applause, several people whooping and trying to instigate a standing ovation. Robin didn’t applaud himself, keeping his eyes focused on Karina through the small, circular window of his binoculars.
At the sound of clapping, Karina jolted and ended the kiss, the startled tenor falling back onto his haunches. Her eyes widened and she began to tremble, jumping up from the bed and staring into the audience as if she had only just noticed its existence. She looked minute against the gaping vastness of the stage, standing terrified in a loose white slip, the gold-gilt opulence of the theatre bearing down on her with all the weight of the heavens. She erupted with a long, shrill and oddly tuneful scream which descended into a fit of coughing before she clutched her skirt and ran offstage. Robin sprung to his feet. Those who knew the story of La Traviata shared in his panic; she was supposed to be on stage for another fifteen minutes, until her death by consumption. The tenor started forward in shock, the audience’s applause turned to a concerned muttering, and the young journalist beside Robin dropped his notepad to stand and crane his neck towards the wings. Amongst his scrawled observations several phrases had been fervently underlined: ‘The newcomer, Karina Marinovic, might just be the perfect Violetta….incredible passion….flawless acting….vocal dexterity.’
Nobody had doubted such a positive reception. Karina had been cultivating her voice for a lifetime, and it was beautiful. She had already won competitions in Paris, Moscow, Milan and Salzburg. It was over a year ago when she phoned her husband to tell him giddily, in her soft Serbian accent, “I got it, darling, I got it! I’m going to be Violetta!” He had shared her excitement and left work immediately to take her out and celebrate. “You know,” she said over a tall, fizzing glass of champagne, “this is everything I’ve ever dreamed of. It’ll be a lot of pressure, mind you, for both of us.” He’d clinked glasses with her and winked, admiring her beauty in the flickering candlelight. “You’re going to bring them all to their knees, Karina.”
He barged passed the tired-looking employee guarding the backstage entrance and ran straight to his wife’s dressing room. The door was ajar, but there was no sound from inside. He made his entrance cautiously, and there she was, sitting with elegant poise before a mirror, brushing her dark hair. She’d changed into an sprawling ivory-coloured dress from earlier on in the opera, when Violetta is still throwing parties and laughing. The small room was practically bursting with floral bouquets which had been piled high on every available surface and then laid onto the floor when there was no space left. It was lit only by the humming fluorescent strip-light above the mirror which threw a greenish hue onto everything, and, in Robin’s flustered state, gave him the impression that he was hallucinating. He wondered if he’d stumbled upon some secret garden in the bowels of the building, one which held his wife in its eerie thrall until all she could do was sit expressionless in the twilight, brushing and brushing her hair.
He said her name several times, but she didn’t respond. She only rose silently to lock the door, anticipating the moment seconds later when, as she resumed her seat, someone began to knock and call her name. Somebody else spat urgently: “Quick, send on the understudy. Send her on. God, these fucking divas.”
The time leading up to the opera’s opening night had been stressful, as promised, but Robin had never predicted just how consuming that stress would be. He helped Karina practise her lines for the first few weeks, reading the Italian parts of various characters without understanding a word they said; first he was Alfredo, then Germont, and occasionally Flora or the Chorus. There was hardly time to be Robin. Once she had learned her lines Karina began working long hours at the opera house, rehearsing. She was exhausted by the time she got home, eating a meagre dinner and going to bed well before her husband, to whom, on the pretence of resting her voice, she barely spoke. He saw her less and less, and when he did she looked at him with increasingly suspicious eyes and a pout of vexation. Sometimes, when it was necessary to speak, she would burst into Italian, and then clutch at her mouth as if trying to keep a wild animal escaping from it. It often took her several minutes to regain composure and repeat herself in English. Her silent desperation only worsened, but Robin ignored all of its indicators: her sobs and nonsensical mutterings during their sexless nights, her diminishing appetite, her listlessness. He endured her company with burly stoicism, reminding himself how much he loved her, and of the happiness that had characterised their prior five years of marriage.
Shortly before the premiere Karina had been suffering from a cough, which set her into a frenzy of despair. She would rush aimlessly about the house, gesturing silently at her throat and clutching at her hair. Damaging her voice was her greatest fear; it was her entire livelihood. She attended a parade of doctors, at increasing cost, but they all said the same thing; there was nothing wrong with her body at all, as far as they could tell. Her singing voice lost none of its lustre, so she obeyed their simple instruction of avoiding caffeine and drinking plenty of water, and took to writing down anything she needed to say to her husband.
A week before opening nightshe came home in Violetta’s ivory ball gown, her face painted a chalky white and her hair pinned up in a complex arrangement of plaits. Her coughing came in protracted fits, that evening. Robin tried to comfort and question her, but all she would write to him was “I’m fine,” in tall, assured letters. She fell asleep on the sofa with the dress billowing around her like an enormous wilted flower. Robin worried to the point of insomnia, and when he used the toilet during a sleepless night he saw her silk handkerchief folded up by the sink. It was part of the costume, emblazoned with the initials ‘V.V.’ for Violetta Valéry. Following his first instinct he lifted it by its lace-trimmed edge and allowed it to fall open, free of its folds. It was spotted with blood.
Now, in the cruel green light of the mirror, Robin stepped forward and touched Karina’s shoulder. She twitched, but nothing more. He tried a different name.
She found his eyes in the mirror and put down her brush. He sighed, relieved. “Are you okay?”
Again there was the detached vexation, two eyes opened wide with suspicion, a sigh. Her words were quick and quiet.
“If I finish the opera, I’ll die.”
They were silent for some time, their eyes locked together in the mirror. A new voice came from behind the door, breathless and excited.
It was the journalist. Robin recognised his voice from the excited phone calls which he’d made during the interval. He rapped on the door and said again, “Mrs. Marinovic?”
“Mrs. Marinovic, they’re waiting for you. They booed the poor understudy off.”
She stood up and twisted to face her husband, who held her gently by the shoulders.
“I am Robin, and you are Karina. Violetta isn’t real; you know that.”
“Please, Mrs. Marinovic.”
“Now, if you’d just calm down–.”
“I’m perfectly calm, Robin,” she hissed, squirming out of his grasp and backing into the corner of the room. Her voice adopted a deep, uncharacteristic husk. “I’m a free woman. I don’t know what you want from me, and I don’t want to see you ever again.”
She began to clutch at the flowers and throw them at him; roses, camellias, lilies; repeating “never, ever again!” with a sharp crescendo. Robin batted the flowers away and began to shout: “You’re Karina–”
“And I’m Robin–”
“And Violetta is a character on a stage!”
A thorn caught on his cheek and drew blood. Karina doubled over in another fit of coughing, falling back and knocking a bunch of roses into her lap. Robin ran to her side, and this time she fell into his arms sobbing, clutching at the lapels of his jacket, her cheek dusting it with white powder. He kissed her forehead and prayed that his wife would be happy again. The tears spotting her cheeks and the crystals on her bodice flickered like expiring stars, and allowing her eyes to shut Karina half-sung and half-spoke the words: “I’m so confused, Robin.”
“Karina Marinovic might just be the perfect Violetta. On the opening and only night of the Royal Opera House’s triumphant new staging of Verdi’s masterpiece, La Traviata, the Serbian-born newcomer dazzled and moved her audience, myself included, to tears. The role of ill-fated Violetta Valéry is a daunting one for any soprano, but Marinovic handled her character with remarkable emotional sensitivity without any impairment of her vocal dexterity. As is well-reported, she was taken ill shortly before the end of the performance, in a fittingly melodramatic episode. When we extended our sympathies to the ailing star, St. Thomas’ Hospital confirms that she is on her way to a full recovery, and fortunately, in dodging Violetta’s tragic death, Marinovic also dodges the death of her career, which this reporter predicts will be a thing of enduring, illustrious strength. It seems that the opera world has found exactly the woman that it needed; the one who will bring in the younger audiences, flood the world’s best houses to their brims, inspire a generation of composers, and bring us all to our knees.”