An Operatic Tour of New Jersey, with Raptors

The Apocalypse begins when Diego sings Count Almaviva in The Barber of Seville in Dover, New Jersey.

Night thoughts on life, death and immortality : Young, Edward, 1683, Frontspiece, remixed by Paul Jarvey

The Apocalypse begins when Diego sings Count Almaviva in The Barber of Seville in Dover, New Jersey. He doesn’t notice anything wrong until after the curtain call, when he steps out of the Baker Theater onto West Blackwell Street, struggling to balance the three bouquets of roses in his arms, and walks into a horde of running, screaming people, pursued by a Tyrannosaurus.

For four weeks after that, there are no operas anywhere. Early in the first week, velociraptors eat Diego’s fiancé, Juan. Apocalypse Plague takes most of the rest of the opera company. Diego is too shocked to mourn. The local funeral directors are already booked up, and anyway their churches and mausoleums have been stomped underfoot by sauropods. Businesses and utilities shut down one by one. In the fourth week, Diego takes a grief-weary walk down East McFarlan Street and sees no humans at all, only feathers and scales.

Diego learns quickly how not to be eaten by raptors. Humans are not their natural prey. Never corner them; never wear red; make no sudden movements; never crouch on all fours. Never take their discarded feathers, especially not the huge emerald-green and violet ones from the tip of the tail, which are used in dominance displays. Diego often thinks of taking one anyway and waving it at them, but he cannot quite bring himself to suicide. Starvation is not a problem; the fresh produce is eaten or rotten now, and the bread stale as bricks, but there is enough canned food at the grocery store to keep him nourished for years.

In the fifth week, Diego sits at home and reads trashy novels until he cannot stand it anymore.

Then he goes back to the Baker Theater.

The roof has been torn off in a fight between two Argentinosaurs, leaving the performance hall raked by wind and rain. The balconies are smashed beyond recognition, and raptors curl in nests of seat stuffing in the Argentinosaurs’ huge footprints. But the stage is intact. Diego picks his way down the center aisle. The raptors angle their heads as he passes, very like birds, looking sideways at him through bright slitted eyes. A few hiss soft warnings. He skirts those ones, makes no sudden movements, and climbs the steps to the deserted wings.

Even with only monsters watching, there’s still that hush in his heart when he stands at the edge and looks out. Diego takes a long breath and begins to sing.

“Bravi, bravissimi, fate silenzio;
piano, pianissimo, senza parlar.”

illustration by Kristofer Zetterstrand

At fate silenzio, the raptors fall silent and turn their heads, each fixed on him with one over-bright eye. His voice is scratchy: He hasn’t sung since finding Juan’s body. If there are music critics among the raptors, they’ll kill him. He does not care.

He misses three of the high notes. He does not care. By the end of the first scene he has hit his stride, remembering the way his throat opens up and frees the breath. He struts through the ruined scenery, standing on a pitted and birdshit-stained fountain, addressing fellow singers who are no longer there.

By the end of the first act he is weeping as he sings.

The raptors do not applaud. Diego does not expect them to. After the finale he walks to his apartment, where he packs as much canned food and bottled water as he can stand, a change of clothes, some toiletries, and his dog-eared vocal score to The Barber of Seville.

He has always wished he could sing at every opera house in the country. Well, now, he thinks as he puts on his hiking boots, there is no reason not to.

In Morristown, Diego’s first real stop after Dover, the Mayo Performing Arts Center has been burned. Diego feels like a grave robber, stealing through the ashes backstage. This time he warms up before singing. The smoky air and fallen I-beams are too desolate to hold any attraction even for dinosaurs, but in a way, this is a comfort: He can pretend that there are no dinosaurs, that he’s only rehearsing in an odd place. Any minute now he will leave through the back door and see a beautiful businessman in a hurry to get somewhere.

Any minute.

In Englewood, a triceratops lives under the balconies at the Bergen Performing Arts Center. It opens a wrinkled eye, considers him, then closes it and sleeps through his performance.

From Englewood Diego cannot resist the temptation to nip into New York City and sing at the Met. He’s always dreamed of playing Almaviva on that enormous gilded stage. He has some vague hope for big-city glitz, despite the Apocalypse, but NYC has been flooded. Mosasaurs lurk by the Statue of Liberty. Two inches of brackish water cover the Met stage, and Diego sings Almaviva as a merman.

After that, he begins to experiment. Bivouacking on the I-78 on his way out of Newark, he takes out his vocal score and studies the other parts. Soon he’s doing both sides of the dialogues between Almaviva and Figaro, even though Figaro is a little too low. By Princeton he has all of “Largo al factotum” worked up. “Ah, bravo Figaro! Bravo, bravissimo!” He learns Rosina next, which is a little too high. Heading east to Red Bank, then to the flooded-out Great Auditorium in Ocean Grove, he throws caution to the wind and does Bartolo, transposed up an octave when necessary. He has secretly always wanted a basso buffo voice, flinging out words like a blistering cannon — not instead of his flexible tenor, but in addition, every once in a while, to see what it was like.

In Trenton, by some miracle, the water works. Diego discovers it by accident when he leans against a drinking fountain. There’s a sudden cold wet burst and he leaps away. Then he laughs with joy and runs to each of the bathrooms, turning on all the taps. After performing his perfect one-man Barber of Seville (he even has Basilio, the servants, and the chorus by now), he finds a miraculously intact motel. Roofs, walls, water, mattresses: Everything’s in its place. He strips off his road-filthy clothes and has a sinfully hot shower. He even shampoos his beard. He sings “Largo al factotum” into the showerhead. He hums to himself as he plugs and fills the bathtub to soak his clothes. Then, naked and shining like a sex god from a magazine, he collapses into the musty sheets.

When he wakes up, there is a raptor curled up on his legs like a large, feathered lapdog.

Diego stares, frozen.

The raptor raises its head, fixes an eye on him, and chirrups.

“Yes,” says Diego. “Hi. Nice raptor. Would you mind getting off my legs?”

The raptor clicks its fearsome toe-claws against the comforter.

“Nice raptor. It’s just that I have things to do, you see. I have to get across the country and sing The Barber of Seville in every opera house. Maybe we could just … Um …”

The raptor rises to its feet, concentrating its weight on two small, talon-shaped spots just below Diego’s knees. It picks its way up him until it stands on his chest and peers at him with that sideways raptor glare.

Diego stares back. At last the raptor chitters again and hops to the floor.

“Thank you,” says Diego. “Nice raptor. Now, I’m just going to go over here and put my clothes on.”

He fishes his clothes from the blackened water. They don’t look much cleaner than before, and now they’re soggy, too.

“Or maybe,” he says, “I’ll go to the store.” It feels important to keep this creature apprised of his situation. “I’m sure I saw a store on the way in.”

He takes his pack and walks to the shop in only his hiking boots. He browses for a rugged and highway-ready outfit to replace his fragile city clothes. Then he strikes out onto the I-95. The raptor walks implacably behind him.

After Trenton, Diego isn’t sure where to go. The East Coast is sinking, so they head inland along the Delaware River, which has overrun its banks. Wet sand and crab tracks encroach on the side of the highway. He figures he’ll tour Pennsylvania for a while, then venture into Maryland.

The Academy of Music in Philadelphia looms over him, grand with shadows, though cracks in the ceiling let shafts of light in. The raptor follows him onto the stage.

Diego’s performance in Philadelphia is one of his worst. He can’t concentrate. He screws up even the simplest Italian. Afterward, he sits in a beam of light and leafs through his vocal score, drilling every difficult phrase. “Sconsolata, disperata, in sua camera serrata, dammit. In sua camera serrata. Serrata. Serrata.” The raptor tries to poke its nose into the book. Diego slams it shut.

All the way north to Montgomeryville, the raptor makes noises like it wants something.

“Where’s your pack?” says Diego. “Where’s your family? Why are you obsessed with me?”

The raptor makes a sound remarkably like a reptilian giggle.

“Juan,” Diego says without thinking. “Stop it.”

In Montgomeryville, there’s construction. The stage is littered with fallen ladders, plastic sheeting, and sawdust. A can of paint has been overturned, and colourful dinosaur tracks, big and small, litter the floor beside it. Juan-the-raptor scurries around Diego as he gets his bearings for the opening. Almaviva enters from here, he imagines, and meets Fiorello here

It suddenly occurs to Diego that Juan-the-raptor is exactly where Fiorello ought to be. He’s even holding up a forelimb in a vague impression of a lantern-bearer.

It’s hard to remember that The Barber of Seville wasn’t always a one-man show.

“All right,” says Diego, and then he sings: “Fiorello … Olà!

Juan chirrups. It sounds nothing like “Signor, son qua.

“No, that’s wrong,” says Diego. He motions to the vocal score. “Your line is ‘Signor, son qua.’ Say it with me. ‘Signor, son qua.’

Juan snaps at the pages as if trying to grab them.

Diego is suddenly enraged with this creature for existing, for mocking him, for taking his dead lover’s name. He hugs the page to his chest and backs away. “You can’t have this music. It’s mine! You don’t understand anything about it.”

Juan lowers his head like a bull, and for a moment Diego thinks the raptor brain has finally filed him under prey. But then Juan scampers away.

Diego sings The Barber of Seville in Montgomeryville alone, apart from a single Corythosaurus browsing in the audience. But as soon as he’s out on the I-76, there’s Juan trotting behind him again.

In Lancaster, the Apocalypse seems to have come during a travelling production of The Phantom of the Opera, which Diego finds vaguely offensive. The huge staircase from the Masquerade scene lurks backstage next to the disassembled chandelier. Some set designer has attached statues of revellers to the staircase to supplement the chorus, and some of the statues near the top harbour nests. Not dinosaur nests, but the small nests of spotted brown wood thrushes — though Diego once read that all birds are dinosaurs. Whatever they are, they cuddle together in happy pairs. Diego has a flash of rage seeing them like that, though he can’t remember why.

Juan is at his heels even before he can take out the vocal score. Since Montgomeryville, Diego has been forgetting things — even Almaviva’s own arias. More and more, he has to pause and peer through this book. He has a feeling of pointlessness, as though he has become too small for any opera.

“I am Count Almaviva,” he says. “I am Rosina, Fiorello, and Figaro, Figaro, Figaro! If there is no audience, I still hear myself.”

At the foot of the ridiculous staircase, he digs out the vocal score. Juan rushes in, snapping at it.

“You can’t have it,” he barks, and Juan hops so close that Diego has to scramble backwards. Juan advances, growling.

He’s hungry. He must be. He thinks the score is food.

“It’s just paper,” Diego says, crawling backwards up the steps. “You won’t like it. Eat a thrush. They’re sitting right there.” But Juan swivels his head at the birds, and they fly away in a fluttering cloud.

Diego crouches at the top of the stairs, hiding the score behind him. He is ashamed of himself. Offering up the life of an innocent creature to preserve his worthless paper. That is not what an honourable man, the kind they write operas about, would do. He watches the thrushes as they find perches higher in the rafters, out of Juan’s reach, and lean close to each other.

Juan eyes him. He knows he should put the score down, before Juan kills him for it, but he can’t let go. Then Juan turns and scampers back down the stairs, edges to the far side of the stage, and watches.

Diego takes a while to get his breath back. He sings the beginning of The Barber of Seville in Lancaster, but his heart isn’t in it. He wanders offstage before the first act is halfway done.

Somewhere between Lancaster and Mt. Gretna, Juan and Diego sit in a ditch by an overgrown country road and stare into the campfire.

Going on to Mt. Gretna is pointless. Whatever Diego does on that stage, it will not be opera. Opera is about passion: hunger like Juan’s, fear and love like the thrushes’. Diego’s only passion now is prancing from place to place, listening to his own voice. As if singing could wake the dead.

Gritting his teeth, Diego holds the vocal score out to Juan. There are parts he can no longer imagine at all. What is that aria Figaro sings, again?

“Here, boy,” he says. “Here, Juan-the-raptor. Take it.”

Juan considers him sideways in the usual way, then delicately takes the score with his teeth.

Diego nods. “It’s yours now.”

Juan — Diego could swear to this — nods back.

Then he reaches up with his sickle claw and tears it to shreds.

Diego does not see Juan again. He walks to Mt. Gretna in a daze. He hums, but it is tuneless.

In Mt. Gretna, there is no opera house, only a moderately smashed-up wooden pavilion, open to the air. It is full of dinosaurs. Creatures from bluebirds on up to Tyrannosaurs march around the pavilion, roaring, growling, chittering, stomping. If Diego closes his eyes and forgets Rossini, it begins to sound like music.

He opens his eyes. Maybe that strange procession really does have a cast and a crew. Even an orchestra. He watches their movements, tries to find patterns. As he waits, a new contingent of raptors enter, stage left. They drag a helpless Protoceratops into the centre of the procession. A prisoner, Diego thinks, or a sacrifice. There is blood, and all of those sharp teeth.

This is what opera is for. Pain, beauty, passion.

Bravi!” he calls joyously, mournfully, sincerely. “Bravi!” He rises to his feet, full of applause and grateful to cede the limelight.


Ada Hoffmann finds writing much more satisfying than actually talking to people. Her work has appeared in Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing and AE Micro 2012. Her story, “Feasting Alone,” appeared in AE #11.

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