SOLACE – THE SECOND ENCOUNTER
After I left the bar I headed back to the hotel and laid down for a quick nap. I had a busy evening planned, starting with dinner at a nearby restaurant and then a concert afterwards. The concert was the main reason I’d come to the Big City; ever since I’d heard the famous Welsh baritone, Owen Daffyes, would be coming to sing I knew I just HAD to get a ticket. It had been pricy – but by brown bagging my lunch for a month I was able to afford it, and the cost was definitely worth the sacrifice. Ever since I’d heard Mr. Daffyes sing as Escamillo in Bizet’s “Carmen” on “Live from the Met”, I’d been a huge fan. He’d become a name in opera, but it wasn’t until he starred as Emile De Becque in a revival of “South Pacific” on Broadway that the rest of the world took notice. Since then, he’d made a name for himself by appearing in “Kiss Me Kate”, “Kismet”, and “Man of La Mancha”, among others. Naturally there were soundtracks of every show he’d been in and he’d also released a couple of albums that had been super-popular. (As you might have guessed, I own copies of everything he’s ever recorded.)
However, his popularity had recently taken a MASSIVE nosedive. About three weeks ago, a viral video had appeared out of the blue, one that didn’t show the Welshman in his most positive light. Though the video was grainy, the audio was clear, and it was definitely his voice.
The video opened to show him standing on a street corner in Chicago (his adopted home town) talking to a group of Japanese tourists. It was obvious that they were sightseers– they were holding a map and a couple of them had cameras around their necks. As the video started focusing in on their faces, Mr. Davies could be heard shouting “You need to go back to where you came from! Go back! Go back where you came from!! Go. Back. To. Where. You. Came. From!!!” The tourists didn’t seem to be paying attention, as they kept talking over him and each other, clearly questioning what he was saying. He kept repeating over and over “Go back to where you came from!” in ever-increasing volume. By the end of the video he was shouting at the top of his voice, while the Japanese tourists grew silent and simply stared at him with a combination of perplexity and growing fear in their eyes. Passersby were also staring at him – some in disgust, some in bewilderment, a few in outright glee at his bad behavior.
And of course, once the video made its appearance on YouTube, the horrid comments started. “You should go back where YOU came from!” “You’re a jerk!!” and, most often: “Owen Daffyes is RACIST!!”
Immediately the next day, he issued a statement apologizing profusely and explaining his side of the story. The tourists had been asking for directions to a particular location – one that was in the opposite direction from where they were standing. He’d been trying to tell them they had to go back to their hotel and start over, turning left instead of right; if they kept on heading in their current direction, they would end up even further from where they wanted to be. Between the language barrier and the fact they’d kept interrupting him, he’d grown more and more frustrated until he finally exploded. Regrettably, some nearby person had decided to whip out their cell phone and capture the moment for all the world to see. Worse still, his justification wasn’t convincing much of anybody. They preferred to see his outburst as blatant bigotry.
I freely admit I found the video disturbing at first, but the “he’s prejudiced!” onslaught had seemed awfully out of character, and once I read his side of the story, it made perfect sense. I knew he’d made a point of performing concerts for the Japanese Tsunami victims, concerts where he performed for free and paid for all of his expenses out of his own pocket. The money he raised went to various charities helping with the survivors and with the cleanup; he’d done a number of similar concerts for the Indonesian Tsunami victims as well. As a result, he was as well known for his charity work as for his singing – but people now preferred to see him as the villain, rather than as a man who had been the victim of a hideous misunderstanding.
Still, it didn’t matter to me what he’d done or not done, I just wanted to hear him sing. After all, I’d been looking forward to the concert for weeks – no, months – and I was bound and determined to enjoy myself. Besides, his personal views had nothing to do with his singing ability so why should I let a less-than-flattering video color my thinking?
That evening I had a quick bite at the restaurant, which was only a block from Symphony Hall, and made sure to arrive there early. I wanted to have a chance to get seated before the rush of people started. (I HATE having people walking over me to get to their seats, which is why I always try to sit in the middle of the row.)
This time I’d truly scored an excellent seat – I was only seven rows back, close enough to the stage to see and hear everything clearly, but not so close that I’d be deafened by the amplifiers. As I headed into the auditorium I glanced at my watch – I knew I was quite early since I hoping to avoid a crowd – but the hall appeared to be very nearly deserted. There couldn’t have been more than five or six people in the entire theater. I found my seat, sat down and looked around. I had a vaguely uneasy feeling, the room was so large and there were so few people that every sound seemed magnified to the nth degree.
I took a deep breath, settled in and began reading the program – I was pleased to see he’d be singing a good selection of opera arias as well as Broadway standards, but it was the Welsh folk songs I was really looking forward to – namely, the music I didn’t know and hadn’t heard before.
Slowly, people began to trickle in. As the time to begin approached, the concert hall was now roughly one-third full – still not nearly as crowded as I’d expected.
And then the lights dimmed – the music swelled – and Owen Daffyes strode onto the stage. He was a lot bigger in person than he’d seemed on film – a large barrel chested man, more than six feet tall, with broad shoulders and strong looking features; I could recognize how frightening he would appear if he was enraged, but somehow I had the impression he was much more of a gentle giant than a monster.
After the first song ended, he stepped forward to the edge of the stage, looked around, and then said to the audience, “There’s plenty of room up front here, why don’t those of you in the back move on down? You’ll be able to hear and see better. Why not get your money’s worth?”
People glanced warily at each other, then a few slowly got to their feet and moved into the front rows. Most everyone followed and soon the front rows were full.
Once everyone was sitting down and quiet, he began his (obviously well-rehearsed) introduction: “Welcome, everyone! I’m so glad you were able to come tonight. I hope you enjoy my music as much as I enjoy singing for you.”
And then the piano struck a few chords, and he began with “This Nearly Was Mine” from “South Pacific”. The voice, ringing through the space, was richer, fuller, and more glorious than any recording I’d ever heard. I felt myself being transported to some other place, a place filled with starlight, wonder, and music.
Time stood still.
All too soon, it was over. He sang his final song – “The Impossible Dream” from “Man of La Mancha” – took his bows, and left the stage. The lights came up, people started gathering their things and leaving the concert hall, and I sat in my seat feeling. . . I wasn’t quite sure what I felt. Overwhelmed by the music, sad the concert was over, happy and thrilled I’d been able to be there, and, perhaps, even a wee bit wistful.
The auditorium was nearly empty, and I headed off to find a Ladies Room. I exited out into the foyer, but couldn’t remember if the restrooms were to my left or my right. I took a guess, turned left, and eventually found myself wandering in a long hallway. I turned another corner, then another, and finally found the room I was looking for.
Coming back out, I quickly got lost. I have a terrible sense of direction anyway, and the labyrinth of corridors only seemed to suck me in further. I did try to retrace my steps, but invariably I ended up deep in the bowels of the theater, in a place I didn’t recognize.
After some time, I eventually stumbled on a hallway that looked more workmanlike than the usual public space. I suspected I’d ended up in the behind-the-scenes areas. I hoped I’d run into someone who worked at the theater, someone who could give me specific directions to the nearest exit.
I walked on a bit further. Suddenly I heard voices coming from down the hall. I headed toward the noise, and ended up in a kitchen area. There were three or four people in caterers’ uniforms finishing up with the intermission refreshments: boxing up sweets, rinsing out coffee pots and washing the plates. There was one woman who was clearly in charge, shouting at the others and directing the entire operation. I started toward her, getting ready to ask for directions, when she looked over at me and quickly barked “There you are!! Mr. Daffyes is waiting for his tea!” She shoved a tray at me, complete with tea cup, assortment of tea bags, sweeteners, creamer, and a large thermos carafe. “Better hurry, that water won’t stay hot forever. And you know he likes his tea nearly scalding!”
Before I could protest, I realized I was holding the tray and I was back in the hall, moving purposefully – as if I knew where I was going. I turned a corner, and there it was – Mr. Daffyes’ dressing room. As I approached the door, all of a sudden my feet just stopped. No amount of effort on my part would get them moving again. It was as if I’d turned to stone.
I could only stand there, paralyzed, and then I heard the voices. One was clearly Mr. Daffyes’ voice, the other one I didn’t recognize.
“Look, Owen, we can’t go on like this. You saw the house tonight – barely one third full.”
“John, I beg to differ. You told me we could ride this out. All we had to do is give it time; it hasn’t been all that long yet. Besides, one-third full is better than nobody coming at all, right?”
“Owen, how long have I been your manager? Going on, what, twelve years now?”
“I’m telling you it’s worse than you think – most of those seats tonight were comped. We ended up giving away the majority of tickets, some to businesses, a few for local contests. Only about 75 of those seats were actual paying customers. I’m sorry, Owen, but I think we should shut down the rest of the tour.”
A gasp. “Is it really that bad?”
“I’m afraid so. We’ve had seven more cities cancel, and ticket sales are roughly 15% of what they should be. There is no way we can break even on this. We could sell all the remaining tickets, and we’ll still be deep in the hole.”
A long pause.
“I see. And you think we really should cancel everything? Couldn’t we just finish out the tour? I’ll be glad to do the remaining shows gratis. I hate to disappoint the fans. . . ”, I heard a rueful chuckle, “. . . at least, the few I have left.”
“Honestly, Owen, I don’t think we can do that. Things are looking pretty dire.” A pause, and then the voice continued, “Tell you what, let’s both sleep on it tonight. We can discuss other options in the morning.”
“Ok, John,” I heard Mr. Daffyes say with a heavy sigh. “Maybe things won’t seem quite so bleak in the AM.”
My feet propelled me to one side, just as a short, heavy-set man charged out of the dressing room. He didn’t seem to see me, he just breezed right by, headed down the hall and disappeared around the corner.
And all of a sudden, once again I was moving toward the dressing room. I felt myself walk through the doorway, and suddenly I was sitting down, still holding the tray, in a straight-backed chair by the door.
Mr. Daffyes was seated at the mirror, wiping off his stage makeup. As I watched, he rubbed cold cream onto his forehead, then scrubbed it off with a towel. His face was expressionless and he seemed to be moving on auto-pilot. And then, he put down the towel and simply stared into the mirror. For the longest time, he sat there, gazing at his reflection.
I didn’t quite know what was going on – why was I there? Was he waiting for his tea, and if so, why wasn’t I taking it to him? Why was I sitting there; WHY couldn’t I stand up?
I found myself gazing at his likeness in the mirror. The two of us didn’t move. There was no sound at all.
Then, as I sat there, I saw a streak of white appear through his makeup, followed by another. Then one came into view on the other side of his face. I recognized what I was seeing was something Mr. Daffyes was hoping to keep very private, something he didn’t want to reveal even to himself. I suddenly understood my reason for being here was not the same as it had been with Carlton Rose – I wasn’t here to comfort, this time my duty was simply to be a witness to what happened.
So I sat and watched as his tears kept falling. His gaze remained stony, expressionless . . . it was almost as if he didn’t even know it was happening.
Then lowered his head into his hands. I could see his shoulders shaking violently, but there was no sound at all. I wanted to put my hand on those shoulders, to let him know he wasn’t alone, that somebody cared, yet I still wasn’t able to move – I could scarcely breathe.
A few minutes later, he sat up, sighed heavily, and began to rub his face with cold cream again. Just as he was about to towel it off, I felt myself stand up and . . . .
I was back in the hallway.
This couldn’t be happening! I KNEW I was supposed to be in that room! Why would I leave when I clearly was meant to stay? After a few steps, I halted.
Then I was turned back around, and walking back toward the dressing room. This time, I stopped in the doorway only to knock on the door frame.
“Mr. Daffyes? I have your tea.” I heard myself say.
He finished wiping the last traces of makeup from his face. At first glance, he appeared perfectly normal – a bit quiet perhaps, but composed, but his eyes were rimmed in red, proof that I hadn’t imagined what I’d seen.
“Where shall I set this?”
He turned and motioned to a nearby table. “Just put it there, thank you.”
I walked over and set the tray down. Then, on impulse, I laid out a napkin, then added the two cookies I’d bought at intermission for a late night snack. “Here you go, sir. Will there be anything else?”
“No. Thank you.”
I turned away, walking back toward the door, when I felt myself turn around once more to face him. “I’m sorry to interrupt, Mr. Daffyes, but I just wanted to say . . . well, to say thank you. The concert . . . it was beyond anything I’d expected – “wonderful” couldn’t begin to describe it. I’m so glad I was able to come hear you tonight!”
He sat watching me, expressionless, but there was a glint of emotion in his eyes.
“I just wanted to let you know how much hearing you sing tonight means to me. It’s a memory I’ll treasure . . . for the rest of my life.”
He nodded somberly. Then, in a husky voice he replied “Thank you. That means . . . quite a lot to me.” In a very soft voice I heard him add, “Especially now.”
I turned once more to go, but turned back one final time. “Oh, and Mr. Daffyes, your car will be here in 20 minutes. Shall I tell them to wait at the door?”
“No. I’ll be ready by then. Thank you again and . . . I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.”
And once again, I felt myself smile as I heard my voice saying “You can call me . . . Solace.”