I walk into the dusty opera house, long forgotten by its once dramatic inhibitors, and look up through the lavishly painted roof to the gray sky beyond. I have come to see if what they say is true. The gilded mirrors ahead are tarnished, and reflect a sadly neglected hall, its harlequin-tiled floor warped, its ornately carved columns dusty and worn. Pigeons coo to each other, seeming to be part of the decaying decoration in their quiet gray feathers and pudgy bodies. A small brown mouse skitters away as I approach it, hurrying into the red-papered walls of the opera house with a tiny crumb dropped by the pigeons.
They say that a woman lives here; she was an actress of long ago, and now her mind is unstable. She performs to the empty seats of the opera house, singing Arias to imaginary devotees, bowing and picking up imaginary roses as she leaves the broken stage. My friends told me that it was good amusement to come and urge her on from unseen places. She would start as if burned and rush towards the place from which the voice was coming, calling out in plaintive tones for them to come out, begging them to come from the shadows and show her their faces.
As I settle into a shadowed box, I wipe my fingers lightly over the gilded rail, coughing when, as I sit, dust floats up around me in clouds. The once plush red velvet seat is slightly molded, but otherwise little decayed. I glance around me, sighing. The seats below are more worn; the box seats had been reserved for the wealthy and important attendees, therefore they had been little used. And ever so slowly, the poorer attendees ceased to come, drawn away from the opera by the coming of the cinema and the modern plays. The opera house was outdated; it settled into decay, and now only glimpses of its past remained for any who were curious about its past life.
Though old, the stage below is still stable; its once smooth surface is pitted but sturdy looking. Shards of glass from the chandelier above are scattered across the once lavish seats and the wooden stage, glittering in the dusty shafts of sunlight that pour through the roof. The deep red curtains, hanging loosely at the sides of the stage, are no more than shreds of cloth, eaten through by moths and molded with the weather. Gilt faces peer out of the wall above the stage, their carved features once bright gold leering like ghosts of the past imprisoned in plaster.
It is silent, but for the fluttering of pigeon wings and their soft cooing, and a slight wind blows its way through the domed room, picking up dust to swirl it among the rows of wine-colored seats. A rickety background made of painted wood stands on the stage, its face sweetly portraying a soft garden scene alight with flowers and weeping willows. I wait as the sun slowly descends and shifts its light through the holes in the roof to rest on the center of the stage like a spotlight. I sigh; I have been here for half of an hour, and nothing has happened. But just as I begin to stand, I hear the swish of a skirt across a wooden surface, and dainty footsteps over the rotting stage.
She has come out.
Her pale white face is heavily touched by time; the once beautiful features are now sagging and wrinkled; her lips are colorless, her eyelids drooping, her hair pure white and thin. With a timid smile, she bows to an unseen audience, and as her head comes up, I see a spark of sadness in her dull brown eyes. Her dress is fashioned as a wedding dress, though it is no longer white, but yellowed with age. It swishes over the stage as she sways in time with unheard music and begins to sing.
Pure notes flutter from her mouth, echoing high in the dome of the opera house as she trills out her song, and as if by magic, the opera house begins to change. I can see hundreds upon hundreds of devotees occupying the soft red velvet chairs, their hands resting lightly upon the shining polished armrests as they listen to her perfect song. Glittering ladies, rustling with taffeta gowns, gaze enviously upon the woman on the stage, their white gloved hands smoothing satiny skirts and patting curled and braided hair. Top-hatted gentlemen sway their heads in time with the orchestra, gazing upon the paragon of beauty who sings soulfully upon the richly decorated stage.
I gaze around the splendor surrounding me, amazed at the transformation. Cupids smile and dance upon the high ceilings, drawing their bows to shoot arrows of love into the hearts of the unguarded; golden statues of Grecian women hold up bright candles that give a soft glow to the room. The rich velvet curtains are tied back with a thick golden chord, their soft surface moving slightly as they are accidentally brushed by dancers on stage.
The bright dancers in their beribboned costumes pirouette to the sound of a violin, their heavily painted faces smiling falsely as they struggle to concentrate on their moves. A painted sun lowers in the bright blue sky of the set, bouncing along in the air in time with the lively strains of the flute. The stage is no longer old and decaying, but new and alive, its floor shining with varnish, its set pieces brightly painted in reds, blues, and yellows, its curtains thick and its decoration opulent.
But the most amazing transformation of them all is the woman singing. Dark hair is curled and braided to softly frame her oval face; small pearls are tucked into the dark strands of hair, and glitter sparkles like fairy dust upon her tresses. Her smooth, creamy cheeks are tinged with pink, and her bright brown eyes are rimmed with dark, thick lashes. As angelic notes rise from her throat, her full lips open to emit the sounds, her eyes sparkle with the joy of singing in her beloved opera house, and her hands rise and fall with the gentle chords of the orchestra. She wears the pure white dress with a proud straightness to her back; the dress's satiny surface is embroidered with countless sparkling diamonds that catch the lights of the stage and make the woman appear as an angel floating upon the stage.
Then, she finishes her song, and bows to the roaring applause. As she bends again to pick up a rose out of the hundreds thrown to her, the vision recedes, and she is again an old woman, bowing and smiling to nothing but empty, worn, molding seats. Pigeons fly over her head as she scoops an imaginary rose from the stage, her face gleaming. Her white hair folds softly around her pale face, and her yellowed dress fits loosely on her bent figure. She, who once was the paragon of beauty and the goddess of song, now backs from the stage, her thinned lips baring broken teeth in a wistful smile, and just before she slips away into the shadows, I see something glitter upon her aged cheek.
It slides from her delicate skin and falls, crystal, to the worn wooden stage, making no sound as it drops onto the dusty surface. And as she disappears, I hear the forlorn sound of solitary footsteps and broken hearted weeping. Her days are over. The opera has gone through its last act, and its music falls to the rotten stage as silence once again takes over the opera house.
And time forgets the prima donna of the opera.