David Winner’s book Master Lovers is a masterfully told blend of fact and fiction.
Ann Beattie wrote of the book:
“This book is a brilliant concoction, equal to the ingredients that might have been combined in Dorle’s cocktail shaker: fact, fiction, revelation, riddles. It has a sad ending – though one that is so kind. The tenderness broke my heart”
After discovering five sets of love letters to my great aunt, Dorle Jarmel Soria, from the 1930s hidden in her apartment after her death, I wrote Master Lovers, a fiction/non-fiction mash-up that imagines these affairs and relays some of the darker stranger associations in Dorle’s life. Since Dorle was a publicist and producer close with Arturo Toscanini, Maria Callas, and Leonard Bernstein, since her life was lived with opera in the background, my playlist focuses on five arias with a rock song thrown in.
“Casta Diva,” from Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma is one of several deeply disingenuous arias from Italian Opera. Norma, a priestess, prays for peace for herself and her fellow Druids now that the Romans have invaded. “When the spirit, irate and gloomy, will ask for the blood of the Romans. From the Druidic temple, my voice will thunder.” What Norma fails to disclose to her flock, as she discourages them from fighting the Romans, is that she has fallen in love with a Roman herself.
One of the most famous Normas was Maria Callas. Dorle and her husband, Dario, became her confidantes after recording her for Angel, their record label. After Callas left her husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, for Aristotle Onassis, the broken-hearted Meneghini called Dorle and Dario over and over begging for them to somehow intervene. Whatever Dorle said to soothe Meneghini may have been akin to Norma’s aria, diverting his attention to Druidic Temples and away from the Roman (actually Greek) with whom she’d fallen in love. Maria herself was direct and unsentimental in a note to Dorle after Onassis had left her for Jacqueline, “As for Daddy O, what is over is over, Sagittarians are like that.”
Non Piangere Liu
“Non piangere, Liu,” which Calaf sings to Liu in Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot is even more egregious. Piangere means to cry, and there are plenty of reasons for Liu to do so. For one thing, she is in love with Calaf, who is not in love with her. She also happens to be a “slave girl.” What that means in Puccini’s fantastical pseudo-China (more on Orientalism later) is not clear, but it can’t be good.
Dorle flitted from lover to lover with considerable aplomb. As we only have the letters of her lovers not those she wrote back, we don’t know if she urged any of them not to “piangere” while in the process of moving on. Not one to waste words, though, I don’t think she sang them any arias, even disingenuous ones.
Le Femmine d’Italia
Turandot is just one of opera’s many dives into Orientalism, which I’m using in the Edward Said sense to suggest a sentimentalized western vision of the east. Back-to-back 1813 and 1814, Gioachino Rossini wrote L’italiana in Algeri and Il Turco in Italia. The former recalls Dorle who if not Italian was at least married to one and often visited North Africa and the Middle East. In L’italiana in Algeri, an Italian girl is kidnapped and nearly forced to marry a pasha. But Dorle hardly needed to be kidnapped to hook up with Georges Asfar, not a pasha but at least a Syrian, who had an antiquities store in the Damascus Medina. When Dorle visited him there, she was taken on a Gazelle hunt. “Before I started,” she wrote her mother, “the idea was dreadful to me. Gazelles were beautiful and to hunt them in cars not particularly sportsmanlike.”
Not all the arias from the L’italiana in Algeri dwell on the mysteries and excitements of the “Orient.” “Le femmine d’Italia,” relays the primacy of the Italian Female. Here it is sung by Cesare Siepi, an old friend of Dorle’s. “The females of Italy. They are casual and shrewd. And they know more than others. The art of making love.”
La donna è mobile
“La donna è mobile” from Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto was both one of operas greatest hits – sung all over Milan when it first came out– and one of its most disingenuous. The sleazy Duke of Mantua, a Don Juan figure, complains about the capriciousness of women. It’s hard to underestimate how often women have been falsely labeled by men. Anticipating Donald Trump nearly two centuries earlier, the dastardly duke accuses women of exactly his own crimes. “The woman is fickle… He is always miserable who trusts in her.”
“What it will be like when you stop loving me, I cannot foresee but I know that you will stop,” John Franklin Carter wrote Dorle in 1936, “You must, if only to save yourself and fulfill your destiny as a woman.” Dorle’s destiny as a woman or otherwise was many things – publicist, producer, columnist – but she was probably enough of a player to merit the Duke of Mantua’s admonishment.
Let’s spend the night together
In the nineties, I found a photograph in Dorle’s apartment of Dorle and Mick Jagger embracing at a party. It looks like the eighties when Dorle would have been in her eighties and Mick would have been in his forties. On it, someone had scrawled “eat your heart out, Pavarotti.” When asked about it, Dorle remembered that Mick had asked her for baby name advice. His daughter Elizabeth would have been born at about that time though I don’t think her name came from Dorle. Dorle and Mick look delighted with each other, and it would be nice to imagine that Mick, a man with younger and younger romantic partners, was Dorle’s last Master Lover, or wanted to be, serenading her with one of his sex-entreating songs, “Let’s spend the night together.”
David Winner is the author of three novels, Enemy Combatant, Tyler’s Last and The Cannibal of Guadalajara, winner of the 2009 Gival Press Novel Award and nominated for the National Book Award. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, Fiction, The Iowa Review, The Millions, The Kenyon Review and other publications in the U.S. and the U.K. He is the fiction editor of The American (www.theamericanmag. com), a monthly magazine based in Rome, a senior editor at Statorec magazine and a regular contributor to The Brooklyn Rail. Most recently, he is the co-editor of Writing the Virus: Work from Statorec magazine.