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Death by Opera
cover art © Tamian Wood

 

 

Julia Kogan, a brilliant young violinist from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, takes on new artistic challenges at the Santa Fe Opera, where she becomes entangled in a web of jealousies, backstage intrigues, and murder.

 

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Death by Opera

mystery

Erica Miner

 

 

Prologue

At the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Santa Fe in the summer of 1610, on the site of an ancient Pueblo Indian ruin called a place of shell beads near the water, Governor Don Pedro de Peralta and his band of kinsmen assembled the plan for a city that was to be called, La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís-The Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi.

This night, hundreds of years later, the high desert terrain of the mountains resembled a moonscape: dark, unforgiving, barren and desolate.

Silent, a shadowy figure broke from the stillness, dragging a shovel. Next to a scrubby chaparral, the figure dug a deep hole, heaving aside the dry desert dirt; then walked away, leaving the hollow void gleaming in the eerie light of a moon that loomed exceedingly large; one that Millennials know as a Super Moon.

 

 

Chapter 1

Mia Tosca idolatrata, Ogni cosa in te mi piace

You are my idol Tosca, All things in you delight me

~ Puccini, Tosca, Act 1

Beams of early summer sunlight spilled over the white duvet tucked around Julia Kogan's bare feet as she kept her nose buried in the Santa Fe Opera brochure that had occupied her thoughts for days. Her emotions fluctuated between wild excitement and utter panic. Tomorrow she would be heading for New Mexico's "Land of Enchantment" to begin a stint as the concertmaster of the opera's orchestra, starting right off with Lulu, one of the most difficult operas in the repertoire.

That was the exciting part. But she wasn't at all sure she was ready for the pressure of performing, not only in a whole new milieu, but under the vigilant eye of one of the opera world's most demanding conductors, who recently had been elevated from the position of chief conductor to the more prestigious post of actual music director, the company's first in its history.

At the moment, however, she tried to focus on the more beguiling aspects of her prospective new environment.

"What's a 'high desert?'" she asked Larry.

Julia's boyfriend, Larry Somers, buried in the blankets beside her, stirred, blinking. "It's the opposite of 'low desert,' I guess. Why?" He reached over and gently stroked the smoothness of her calf.

Julia read aloud from the brochure for his benefit. '"The Santa Fe Opera shines in the high desert, mystical and magical, taking you to a timeless place where the experience is unlike any other.' Huh. You know what this makes me feel like? A New Yorker."

She stretched out her hand for her latte cup, Dean and DeLuca emblazoned in a small, tasteful white font on the black porcelain, and took a sip. The familiar, blissful taste always gave her spirits a lift. She had heard the coffee in Santa Fe was outstanding, but somehow she doubted it would compare with the flavor of the blends made with New York's unique-tasting water.

Outside the window of her fourth-floor walk-up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, traffic sounds made a dissonant music that she rarely heard consciously. She tried to imagine creating music in the silence of a southwestern desert surrounded by mountains.

"You are a New Yorker. We both are." Larry sat up a little, appropriated the cup, took a sip, and handed it back, frowning. He preferred less sugar than she did.

"Do you think it means 'high altitude' desert?" She didn't wait for a reply this time. "How close is Santa Fe to the Los Alamos National Laboratory?"

"Not that close." Larry yawned and ran a hand through his thick hair, the sunlight playing over a rugged body somehow stark against the soft duvet. "Why?"

"You know I'm chemically sensitive. If there's still any fallout around-"

"That's why I didn't schedule a stopover in the test flats."

"But do you think it gets in the air? Maybe comes down as rain?" She knew she was being overly finicky. She also knew Larry could handle it. "I just want you to take my sensitivities seriously."

"I do." He peered at her, doubtfully. "What's happening here, Julia? You're the one who wanted to go to Santa Fe. Are you having second thoughts?"

"They wear cowboy boots to the opera there, Larry."

"Sure they do. It's the southwest. The opera campus used to be a dude ranch. Anyway, it's too late. You've signed the contract."

"I suppose you're right." She knew he was. Her anxiety had little to do with cowboy boots and everything to do with her apprehension over fulfilling the new conductor's exacting demands.

"Of course I am. It'll be a great experience for you."

"And for you." Julia smiled.

"Me? That's a different story. Somebody once said opera can be deadly for non-opera people."

Julia felt uneasy at the reminder. "I'm sure that was a joke."

"And remember the cougar who ran off in terror after someone started singing opera to it?"

"That was in L.A. Nothing is real there."

"You see? Compared with New York and L.A., Santa Fe will be relatively stress-free for you. Plus, it's hot and dry during the day, brisk in the evenings."

They both hated how humid New York summers could be. "What's not to like about that?" Larry said. "And all that history. Now there's something I can relate to. It's the second oldest city in the U.S."

"Where the Spaniards tried to crush the spirits of one hundred thousand Pueblo Indians. I've done my research, too," Julia said, starting to feel excited once again by the prospect of exploring new, exotic places. "Though the altitude is seven thousand feet. If I screw up because I get short of breath-"

"Let me stop you right there." He covered her concerned pout with an affectionate, if not entirely passionate, kiss. "You'll be fine. We'll be fine."

"Right. It can't be worse than opening night at the Met."

Both excitement and trepidation dissipated in a wave of melancholy as the memory of the previous year's tragic events overcame Julia. On the night of her debut performance in her first season as a fledgling twenty-two-year-old violinist at New York's venerable Metropolitan Opera, her mentor, conductor Abel Trudeau, had been shot and killed on the podium, before her eyes.

Abel had been like a father to her and trying to do her job without his benevolent caring and guidance had been a constant struggle. Worse, in the course of an investigation that she had gotten herself involved in she became caught up in an ominous web of jealousies and rivalries she never knew could exist in an opera house. Yet, despite the hazards and impediments, Julia had completed the rest of the Met season with her self-respect and her life intact.

Larry, almost twenty years older than Julia, had been the NYPD detective assigned to the murder case. The unlikely pair had become friendly as a result of their working together toward the goal of exonerating Sidney Richter, Julia's closest colleague at the Met, framed for Abel's murder. Larry had started out concerned for Julia's safety and welfare but had come to care for her in other ways. Now they were an item, spending more nights together than not.

Once the investigation had been completed, and Sidney cleared of all charges, Julia had felt free to soar to the heights of musical accomplishment of which Abel thought her capable. She had performed at such an exceptional level that she caught the attention of Stewart Blatchley, the Australian conductor of the Santa Fe Opera, who had offered her the position of concertmaster for the company's summer season. It was not unusual for Met Orchestra members to spend their summers performing at Santa Fe Opera, when the Met was on hiatus, and she jumped at the opportunity.

"Besides," Larry said, "How often does a twenty-three-year-old get a chance to be concertmaster of a major opera company?"

"Abel always told me I would be a concertmaster someday. But what if now is just too soon?"

"If Abel were here, he'd say you were more than ready. And he would be incredibly proud of you. So would Sid."

Julia's eyes misted over at the thought of Sidney, who had recently collapsed and died under mysterious circumstances in front of a restaurant in lower Manhattan. "I miss Sid. Nothing is the same without him."

"I totally agree." Larry attempted a cheerful smile. "But think of all the challenges ahead of you. Once you start playing that violin of yours in Santa Fe, they won't know what hit them."

"I hope you're right."

"Believe it. Plus, I get to tag along for the most erotic and murderous season in years. Lulu, Salome, Lucia-"

"Sex and violence, right up your alley. You're so predictable." Julia gave Larry a playful nudge. "But you're right. All that gore in Salome. St. John's severed head. It could hardly be bloodier."

"Do you think that's why John Crosby programmed a Richard Strauss opera every season?" Larry said. "Because he liked violence?"

"No, I think it was because Strauss was one of Crosby's great passions. He programmed plenty of other Strauss operas, not only the violent ones. I can't wait to play more of them."

Both Julia and Larry held huge amounts of respect for John Crosby, who had founded the Santa Fe Opera in 1957. Against all odds, Crosby had taken a leap of faith in establishing an opera company in the middle of the desert, framed by New Mexico's mesas and mountains. Civic pride skyrocketed in Santa Fe as a result of Crosby's creation of what was named the "Salzburg of the Southwest."

Though he had passed away in 2002, Crosby's belief in his "temple of music" continued to be justified. After sixty-plus years, the company's reputation was at an all-time high. And Julia felt privileged to have been tapped for such a major role in it. But at the moment, doubtful feelings swept aside her self-gratified ones, especially when it came to the music of Richard Strauss.

"The Nazis liked Strauss, too. What if there are some neo-Nazis lurking about Santa Fe?" Julia's thoughts turned back to a more immediate fear. "Or worse, what if Blatchley hates my playing?"

"Julia, get a hold of yourself. Do you want to go to Santa Fe or not?"

She flipped to a page showing a stunning photo of Santa Fe Opera's John Crosby Theatre against the backdrop of a New Mexico sunset, and suddenly remembered how thrilled she was at the prospect of her new adventure. "Of course I do, silly. Who wouldn't want to play opera in this amazing atmosphere? Especially Lulu and Salome, two of the most challenging operas out there."

"And both very sexy, especially Salome."

"I can't argue with that. That opera was banned in Vienna and London as obscene, and after just one performance at the Met for the same reason. Critics called the story repugnant. Just the sort of thing that would inspire you."

"A banned composer. I like it," Larry said. "Who wouldn't be psyched to see the Dance of the Seven Veils? Though I suppose it depends who's doing it." He smirked. "Can you imagine the Austrian premiere with Puccini, Mahler, Schoenberg, and Berg in the audience? That must have been something."

Julia knew Larry had been enlightening himself about opera since the two of them had first started working together--and sleeping together. She was pleasantly surprised at the level of sophistication of his newfound knowledge. But she didn't want to admit it.

"Some musicologists have called Lucia a more violent, updated Scottish Roméo," Julia said. "Maybe that's why they're doing Lucia, Lulu and Roméo et Juliette in the same season."

"Lucia, an updated Roméo?" Larry shrugged. "I don't think so."

"Since when are you such an opera expert?"

"You wouldn't want it any other way, would you?"

"No." Julia secretly felt proud of him. "I wouldn't."

Larry reached under his pillow and pulled out a rectangular plastic box. "I got you something. A gift to commemorate you embarking on an important new chapter in your career."

Julia eyed the box, intrigued. "But I didn't get you anything."

"No worries. Just open it."

She placed the brochure on the night table, slid the cardboard sleeve off the box and gasped. "A Fitbit! You sly animal, you knew I've been wanting one. And purple, my favorite color."

"Try it on."

Larry aided Julia in her struggle to remove the wrappings and tape that sadistic designers always included in their packaging, lifted out the device and helped clasp it around her wrist.

"I figured you're going to be doing a lot of walking up and down hills and around the Santa Fe campus," he said. "This will motivate you. Plus, if someone calls you out for looking at it during boring rehearsals, you can always say you're checking your step count. Or tracking your sleep." He grinned. "This latest model even has a flashlight. Perfect for snooping around backstage in the dark." Larry demonstrated the button that controlled the flashlight mechanism.

Julia was uncomfortable, remembering the trouble she'd gotten into for nosing around hidden stairways and hallways at the Met during the murder investigation. "There'll be no snooping. But thank you. I love it."

Flushing with pleasure, Julia admired the gleaming chrome case and streamlined display and imagined herself showing off the spiffy piece of technology to her new orchestra colleagues. She kissed him on the cheek.

"I'm just sorry it doesn't match your locket," Larry said. "It didn't come in gold tone."

Up until recently, Julia usually wore the silver letter 'J' pendant she had gotten years before for her sixteenth birthday. But growing up, she always had admired the delicate, half-heart shaped gold locket her mother's sister, Zsófia, wore, and often fantasized about what had happened to the other half. When Zsófia had passed away a few months ago, her daughter, Julia's cousin, knowing how much Julia had coveted the piece, had gifted it to Julia. Now she wore it constantly, replacing her previous pendant.

Julia instinctively reached for the locket, now nestled at her throat. "That's okay. Chrome goes with everything." She hesitated. "By the way, I hope you don't mind if I cut my hair for the summer. I'm tired of blow drying it to get it straight." She knew how much Larry loved her long, flowing dark hair.

Larry studied Julia's face for a moment. Then he drew her close. "I do mind, but who am I to argue with a strong-willed woman?"

"I didn't know you thought of me that way."

"Are you kidding? Strong-willed, Jewish, beautiful and smart. Taking you on has been my most challenging project." He ran his fingers through her hair. "Can you at least keep it chin length?"

"I'll consider it. Now let me up," she said. "I have to practice those fiendish solos from Lulu. Otherwise I'll self-destruct, just like her character does. After she destroys every poor slob unfortunate enough to fall under her spell."

He pulled her back onto the bed. "I had a different kind of practicing in mind."

"For an opera buff, you can be absurdly unoriginal," she said.

"That's what you love about me," he said, wrapping his arms around her.

 

 

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Author Bio

Former Metropolitan Opera Orchestra violinist Erica Miner is an award-winning author, screenwriter, arts writer and lecturer. Her novels and screenplays have won awards in recognized competitions. Her lectures, seminars and workshops on writing and on opera have received kudos on both coasts and on major cruise lines. She is an active contributor to numerous arts websites.

TTB titles: Death by Opera
Murder in the Pit

Author web site.

 

###

 

Death by Opera Copyright © 2018. Erica Miner. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.

 

To order this book:
Format: ePub, PDF, HTML, Mobi, Palm
    Payment Method
PayPal -or- credit card -or- Amazon Kindle; Apple iBookstore; BN.com Nook; Kobo Books
List Price: $6.50 USD

Format: Trade Paperback
    Available now!
Order this book via check or credit card, Amazon aStore 
~ or visit ~ Amazon;  Barnes & Noble; Bamm.com;  Indy bookstores.
List Price: $18.95 USD

 

  Author News

 

Praise for Murder in the Pit

"...Murder in the Pit is an adventure of the imagination, a play within a play. ...[Miner] has recreated in a fascinating operatic world a tangle of plot twists whose intricacies ultimately unravel to reveal the prose of an author who is sure of her skills."
Valerio Massimo Manfredi, author of The Ancient Curse (Macmillan Publishers Ltd., July 2010), The Ides of March and The Lost Army.

"...As a lover of classical music and a patron of Tanglewood when I was younger, I was extremely happy with all the in-depth knowledge that Ms. Miner has delivered. She was actually a violinist at the Met, so she certainly knows the world of which she speaks. Because of this background, as well as quick-witted writing, Ms. Miner has put together a very solid mystery with a cast of characters who were an absolute joy to read."
Reviewed by Amy Lignor for Bookpleasures.com

 

  Reviews

"Erica Miner is the Agatha Christie of the opera world. More than a romp for opera buffs, Death by Opera is a wickedly wonderful, fast-paced thriller: a historically informative and illuminating "whodunit" interweaving ancient legends, ghost stories and present-day jealousies into a murder mystery of taut suspense playing out at Santa Fe's world-renowned summer opera festival.
~ Richard Stilwell, former Metropolitan Opera baritone and teacher/lecturer at the Chicago College of Performing Arts of Roosevelt University (retired)
 



 
 


 

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