The Soprano Who Caught Fire

Glockhaus bei Gniesenhöhl is an Alpine village so tiny that it has to be identified by its proximity (12 km when the roads are clear) to Gniesenhöhl, a village of 168 souls and a baptismal font. Glockhaus is not in fact a village at all, except by Swiss courtesy: it is nothing more or less than the house shared by the Glock family and its livestock. It was there in 1978 that Christina Glock was born.

In 1980 her father Rudl carried his daughter through the light summer snow the 12 km to the baptismal font of Sanct Xanthin’s in Gniesenhöhl. Sanct Xanthin’s had originally been a Roman supply shed – the Romans were just passing through on the tracks of Hannibal – then a church until the Calvinists turned it into a stable. The Catholic Knights of St. Ballo drove the Calvinists out and Sanct Xanthin’s resumed its modest career as a House of God.

The Schweitzers of this region were not particularly religious. They dutifully kept up their roadside shrines for the passers-by more pious than themselves, but their attendance at Sanct Xanthin’s was usually limited to the christening of a newborn Gniesenhöhler at the baptismal font or a brief but heartfelt service for a departed Gniesenhöhler, who then lay cold but at peace in the church’s sacristy until the snow grew thin enough and the ground soft enough for the mourners to essay a grave. Weddings, which tended to be more prolonged affairs, were celebrated at home, close to the warmth of a fire and food laden tables.

The Gniesenhöhlers, with typical Swiss hospitality, were perfectly willing to share their baptismal font and mourning vestments with the very occasional Glockhauser who might require one or the other. Which is why Rudl Glock was trudging through the snow with his daughter on his back. In most cantons christening was a rite compounded more of superstition than of theology, and though the locals had only the vaguest conception of Hell – the Piedmont? – they shared the strongly held conviction that their unbaptized little ones would inevitably die of influenza at the age of three and would go directly to those shadowy precincts without ever having the opportunity of milking a goat or carding wool.

The pastor (and only cleric) of Sanct Xanthin’s, Father Gonzague, was taken only slightly aback by the arrival of Rudl Glock and his daughter. Not really surprised, surely, since there was literally no telling when someone might be born or die at Glockhaus bei Gniesenhöhl. So he donned his stole and filled the font with what faith taught was holy water.

“And the child’s name?”

Glock was speechless. At home the child was called just that, das Kind, “the kid.”

“The wife knows,” Glock lied, “She’s back in the village milking. You know goats; they can’t wait.”

Father Gonzague knew as much about goats as he did about Transubstantiation, but that was not the issue here.

“But I can’t christen the little girl without giving her a name.” Rudl Glock, like every Schweizer living on a steep mountainside, knew how to grasp at straws.

“Yes, that’s it. Now I remember. Christening.”

And Father Gonzague, who rarely heard confessions since his parishioners were not prone to confess, could recognize a straw when he heard one.

“You mean Christina. Very well, the child will be christened Christina.”

”Ego baptizo te,” intoned Father Gonzague, “in nomine Patris…” pouring the holy water of the head of the child.

The rest of the Trinity did not make it into the incantation. Young Christina Glock emitted a single, clear cry that filled the tiny precincts of Sanct Xanthin’s and passed out through the open windows onto the single street of Gniesenhöhl.

Rudl Glock looked at Father Gonzague and Father Gonzague looked at the child in his arms. Tears began slowly to trickle down his cheeks.

“That was a perfect C6,” he stuttered.

Father Gonzague said a daily (poorly attended) Sunday Mass with the briefest of sermons, gave (even more poorly attended) catechism lessons and baptized the occasional newborn and buried the occasional deceased of Gniesenhöhl but otherwise had little to do to occupy him. It was not always thus. His previous posting was at Gruenschlitz, a town of 2000 that had a church, St. Ganbold’s, that not only possessed abaptismal font but boasted window panes, a choir loft and an organ. And Father Gonzague was not only liturgist and catechist in chief but also an earnest and exacting choirmaster. He could also play the organ. He had in fact been a modestly accomplished pianist in the Hochschule and it was only in his seminary days at St. Othmar’s that he switched to the more liturgically appropriate organ. But however appropriate the instrument, Canon Law nonetheless frowned on saying Mass and simultaneously accompanying oneself on the organ. Father Gonzague observed the letter of the law of course, but the spirit sometimes took a bit of a thrashing at his nimble hands: he was known on occasion, at the completion of Sunday Mass at Sanct Xinthin’s, to dash, chasuble flying, directly from altar to organ and play a rousing recessional as his few startled worshippers filed from of church.

“A perfect C6. I’ve never heard one live,” he said.

He might as well have been speaking Flemish to Rudl Glock who heard something that sounded like “Zee Sixt” or possibly “Sieh Sex,” neither a condition that occurred in Glockhaus bei Gniesenhöhl.

“All done?” was all that Glock could manage to say.

Father Gonzague handed over his now silent new Christian to her father.
“God bless her,” said Father Gonzague, and then, more softly, “I will drop by soon and see how she’s doing.”

Glock said nothing at this startling piece of news; he took his daughter, slung her on his back and left.

No one ever dropped by Glockhaus bei Gniesenhöhl, much less visited there. The only stranger to cross its somewhat ill-defined municipal limits was the Federal Assessor who arrived annually to collect the tax dues and determine if there were any males liable to conscription hiding in the goat pens. His business was concluded in less than an hour. He shook hands with Rudl Glock, bowed to the lady of the house and hastily made off for Gniesenhöhl, which had a hotel, and though there were no guests, there was a schnapps bar that was nightly filled with what amounted to the entire male population of the village.

“How did it go, new papa?” asked Güdli Glock, who had a slightly more functional sense of humor than her husband.

Rudl Glock deposited the sleeping Christina in the trundle bed he had built for her and sat heavily down at the kitchen table.

“Beer,” he said. “And cheese.” Beer and cheese were produced.

“He’s coming here.”

“Who’s coming here?” asked his puzzled wife, all thoughts of both milking and baptism banished by this new piece of news.

“The priest. Father Gonzague. I don’t like it. It’s not good. “Why? What did you say? Why is he coming?”

“I don’t know. Christina. He wants to see Christina.”

“Who is Christina?” asked Güdli, now totally alarmed by the prospect of a second visitor.

“Das Kind. I don’t know. He said something in Romansch about Sixt or Sex.”

“Who is Christina?” Güdli again demanded, now louder and more insistently, “and what has she got to do with das Kind?”

“He wanted a Christening name. I said all right. I’ve never done this before. I thought Christening was a name.”

“You Glockhaus bei Gniesenhöhl dolt!….”

Not to break the narrative thread, but the Swiss, when irritated, often trace the source of their irritation to the intellectual fiber of the offender’s native village. Glock, the baptismal innocent, was of course a local, while Güdli had been a much desired beauty in Fressenmahl, a prosperous town of 750 in a nearby, more intelligent canton
“…You knew I wanted to name das Kind Freundli after my mother.” “Maybe we can change it when he comes.”

“We’ll see. And in the meantime I don’t want to hear the name ‘Christina’ come out of your idiot Glockhaus mouth.”

Father Gonzague did come, of course, though it took him a year, perhaps to give the Glocks a chance to get used to the idea that they were going to have a visitor. If so it didn’t work.

His knock on the door caused panic within.

“Christ in Heaven, who’s that?” “It must be him.”

“Papa, who’s Christ?”

The young Christina, now nearly four, was a veritable sponge for new information, though there was not a great deal available at Glockhaus bei Gniesenhöhl, save in the matter of animal courtship. But she was soon to get her fill.

“May God bless this house and all within,” said Father Gonzague, stamping the snow off his boots at the lintel. “And this must be little Christina. I am Father Gonzague. I baptized you, child.”

This was almost too much to absorb in one package. Did God really bless houses? And this very odd new man –His name was “Father”?— wearing a peculiar black dress. And what was baptized? And why and when was it done to her? And who was Christina?”

“Yes, about that, Father. We thought, Rudl and I, actually it was Rudl’s idea, that Freundli, my sainted mother’s name, might be a more suitable one for das Kind. So if you’ll just make that small change in your records..,”

“Oh, no, Frau Glock, that’s quite impossible. Baptism is an indelible mark…” –Christina’s eyes widened with wonder— “…and her name is, well, inscribed in Heaven where the angels sing it before the throne of God.”

It was obviously the organist speaking rather than the theologian, but the distinction was lost on Father Gonzague’s audience around the Glock kitchen table. Christina was delighted and terrified by what she had just learned; Rudl was just terrified: he had puzzled out what “indelible” meant and so he knew that this was going to end very, very badly. Güdli, however, seemed sublimely at peace. Her mind had in fact drifted back to Fressenmahl, as she sat of a Sunday with her parents in church, small waisted and dimpled and comfortably aware that all male eyes were turned in admiration toward her. One small sliver of memory missing, however, from that lovely tableau was that one of those pair of male eyes belonged to Rudl Glock of Glockhaus bei Gniesenhöhl who sold his cheeses in Fressenmahl and who had discussed dowry with Güdli’s father that very morning.

“I wonder, Father Gonzague said, ever so casually, ”if little Christina sings. And perhaps she will even sing something for us.”

“No,” said Rudl, but before he could give voice to whatever lie he was contemplating, das Kind had cleared her throat and performed a light but perfectly pitched and perfectly phrased “Ave Maria” that she had picked up from Radio Svizzera, presumably while her parents were otherwise occupied in milking and cheesing.

“Brava,” said Father Gonzague. Her parents said nothing, each deeply engaged with truly terrible thoughts regarding the other. This priest. This name. This still unexplained “Zee Sixt,” or was it “Sex”? And the matter was not helped when, at Father Gonzague’s eventual departure, he cheerfully suggested he would be back. “God’s flock, you know, needs
6tending” is what he said, but he was looking directly and steadily at the youngest Glock, whichever of her names the angels were singing.

And Father Gonzague did return, first monthly, and then weekly, to the homestead at Glockhaus bei Gniesenhöhl. All pretense of giving moral guidance (or marriage counseling) to Rudl and Güdli was soon dropped, and catechism lessons for little Christina, as her instructor called her –her parents clung, more out spite for each other than from Swiss conservatism, to an ironically muttered das Kind—were likewise abandoned. The Glocks went about their work –the goats really can’t wait— while Christina and the former choirmaster at St. Gonbol’s in Gruenschlitz sat and listened to Radio Svizzera. Actually, it was the priest who was listening, and not to Radio Svizzera, but to Christina Glock who merrily chirped along with the Marriage of Figaro and Gianni Schicchi, not quite hitting the Italian but knocking the musical notes clear out the Glockhaus windows, high over the goat pens and out into the sparkling Alpine air.

It took some time for the Glocks to get used to a priest sitting month and month in their kitchen drinking their beer and eating their cheese with no other apparent purpose than listening to the radio.The ways of the Church were mysterious. But he seemed harmless. He didn’t urge them to go to Mass or recite the rosary, and –a missed opportunity here!— he didn’t offer to hear their confessions. Nor did he, as Güdli often pointed out to her husband, roll up his skirts and volunteer to milk the goats or strain the cheese. Just the radio with the endless music and the little hum-alongs with Das Kind.

Seated alone at the Glock kitchen table, Father Gonzague had things other than beer and cheese on his mind and, not surprisingly, the chief of them was the now eight year old Christina Glock. As was apparent from that first day at the baptismal font, apparent, for the moment, only to the man slowly deconstructing a large cut of Emmenthaler, this blue-eyed, blond-haired, well-mannered child of eight possessed not only perfect pitch but the vocal range of a soprano.

At her baptism the pouring of the holy water on her head had elicited not a screech or a squall or a wail but a perfect high soprano C. And as was now clear from the many carefully engineered sing-alongs with Radio Svizzera, she heard, remembered and could reproduce classical vocalise in a manner that bordered on –the term was not to be used lightly, but yes, here it seemed appropriate—the miraculous.

It was good, he reflected, that he had not forced or led her.

Christina sang or hummed or just ignored whatever RSI chose to beam into their quiet valley from distant Bern. He had, it is true, gently tuned her Italian over the yeas, very gently since he acquired his own thin expertise

in a summer course he took at the Gregorian in Rome in the early 70s when he managed to pick up a couple of genuine Italian vowels. But otherwise he merely smiled or chuckled approval. Once, however, he actually applauded when Christina worked her way through an aria in Butterfly. She seemed pleased and rewarded her audience of one with a small curtsey and warbling a delicious little phrase from Countess Maritza as an encore.

But it was time, he thought, inpatient at his own impatience, to move on, to take the next step toward…? He had no idea.

“Christina, why don’t I bring one of my tapes the next time? I think you will enjoy them.”
“What are tapes? Are they chocolates?” Christina was not without her own small plans.

“No, they’re a kind of music machine. They play music that you choose, not just what RSI sends you. You’ll see.”

As a rein on his own eagerness, Father Gonzague waited an entire impatient month before taking the narrow path up to Glockhaus bei Gniesenhöhl. In his rucksack was not a vial of the Holy Chrism or a Eucharistic pyx in the event that the Glocks might be at death’s door or, even more unlikely, should wish to take the Sacrament. No, neatly tucked within was a thick bauernbrot sandwich of cow’s milk Gruyère –the Glocks’ Emmenthaler caprese was wearing a little thin even for the ascetic Father Gonzague— nestling comfortably next to a nicely wrapped packet of Confiserie Sprüngli chocolates, a Sony tape-player, two even more carefully wrapped tape cassettes, and a passel of empty tapes.

No one can read the mind of a nine year old. It is a locked room until puberty comes to spring the lock and thoughts and desires come tumbling forth, erratically, often disconcertingly and occasionally appallingly. But if no one could divine what Christina Glock was thinking, the door to the well-lit mind of Father Gonzague lay invitingly open for all to enter. He was a mature male of forty-seven whose thoughts were fully considered, judiciously framed and, like all things Swiss, timely expressed. He was serious about his clerical vocation, committed to the life of celibacy and devoted to the Church. He was un homme moyen spirituel, dutifully pious, untouched by either fanaticism or laxity. Unlike his famous 16th century Jesuit namesake, Aloysius, who declined to look upon his own mother lest he be tempted –to what?– this Gonzague moved easily among his parishioners, who thought him a good fellow, though essentially wasting his time.

Father Gonzague’s interests were entirely appropriate to the clerical state, soccer and hiking, and were pursued in moderation, with the possible, and occasionally troubling exception of music. He lived frugally – there were not many other options available to a curate in Gniesenhöhl or anywhere else in the diocese of Blitzberg— but whatever he did manage to save from his meager benefices and the stipends for the performance of his ecclesiastical duties he spent almost entirely on music cassettes, mostly of opera, which was his passion. He had discussed it with his confessor in Zindiffel. Was opera too worldly a preoccupation for one vowed to the work of the Spirit? “Rest easy, dear Gonzague,” Père Joubert had said. “Music itself is a work of the Holy Spirit.”

“Oh, Sprüngli! Thank you, Father,” said the delighted Christina. “What a surprise!”
Rudl Glock, who was seated at the kitchen table finishing his lunch while Güdli tended to the goats, turned to witness this new event in the Glockhaus estate.

“Look, papa! It’s chocolate.”

Papa had long since lost interest in these monthly clerical visits and had even ceased hearing the continuous din of classical music. He had the goats on his mind, not Idomeneo. He returned to his beer and cheese.

“And what are these?”

“Those are the tapes. You play them on this machine. This one is Renata Tebaldi singing Butterfly. Why don’t I play it and you can sing along after you finish the chocolate.

Rudl Glock was out the door.

Chocolate is a universal solvent. It greases the volition, eases obedience, turns the wheels of action. And not just for nine year olds.


It took a few measures for Christina to catch up with Tebaldi, who, to be fair, had done this before; but once she did, it was almost like a duet, the nine year old Christina Glock and the taped 42 year old Renata Tebaldi. Father Gonzague tried to hum along and even occasionally voiced the tenor parts –his voice, like all else about the cleric, was moderately clear and moderately strong—but what he was waiting for was the B5 in “un bel di.” Tebaldi as always hit it smack on, musically and effortlessly, perhaps even a little smugly? Christina not so strongly perhaps, but surely, sweetly and silvery, as if Pavarotti had suddenly become a soprano.

“That was excellent, Christina, really quite fine. Would you like to try another?

“A chocolate or a song?” she smiled.

Ah, the enticements of the flesh, he thought. They can turn even the brightest of spirits into the dullest flesh.

The thought was quite unusual for Father Gonzague, who rarely passed judgment and even more rarely pitted the flesh against the spirit. The two had always lived quite comfortably together in his brightly lit and well – ventilated soul. It passed quickly, however. By the time the equally luminous spirit seated beside him had finished her Sprüngli treat – “Almonds! Almonds in this one, Father!”—he had slipped the new cassette into the Sony.

“This is Maria Callas, the greatest soprano of our day. She is singing Tosca on this tape. See what you can do, but be careful; she has a remarkable range.”

Father Gonzague was not a Callas fan. Her sound, though it was technically astonishing, sounded unpleasant to his ears. Like Sutherland, she could accomplish what was written on the staff, and more. In Sutherland’s case it came out as musical gibberish; in Callas’, he thought, often as dramatic noise. Two vocally gifted women who simply could not sing.

Tosca began. Christina, relaxed as she now always was in these exercises, eased slowly and gracefully atop Maria Callas. The notes were the same, the voices utterly different. Christina’s superimposed Floria Tosca was sweet, but no less brave or determined for that. Her resistance to Scarpia was softly disdainful and made Tito Gobbi sound like a rustic savage who would never think of defiling the Christina Glock Tosca. And the B5 she took with a calm reassurance that simply underlined the Callas screech behind her.

Father Gonzague’s return to Gniesenhöhl that afternoon was slower and more thoughtful than usual. This was amazing. This young girl, this goatherd’s daughter with the appetites of a child… He was stopped by a new thought. He rummaged in his rucksack and found two surviving Sprüngli bars that he quickly unwrapped and consumed before he got to the next bend in the road. …with the appetites, yes, of a child and no training whatsoever, had a perfect soprano voice. Maybe there were a few others hidden away in these Alpine valleys who could sing those same notes, he reflected, but his fanciulla del oro –he paused briefly to admire the clever aptness of his phrase– had more, much more: she possessed an incomparable musical grace and as perfect a vocal technique as some of the greatest singers of the day. And without the grotesque bellowing, the facial contorting, the swelling veins in the neckand the bulging eyes that betrayed so many performances. Christina Glock sang effortlessly, sweetly, convincingly.
Was it possible? The word that lingered was miracle.

As already noted, Father Gonzague was perhaps more accomplished as an organist than as a theologian. He knew of course of the Cana water- into-wine miracle, a remote event not much duplicated since the Ascension of the Lord. And there was the Mozart miracle: the inexplicable, no smoke or mirrors transformation of an Austrian pfennig into a golden Maria Theresa thaler. Which was this? A divine intervention or a random cast of fate’s dice, with its only witness a Swiss village curate? A more spiritual man might have found clarification in prayer. A wiser man might have gotten on the first train to Zindiffel and sought guidance from Père Joubert or, if he dared, put on his Sunday soutane, go all the way to Saint Gallen and lay the matter before the bishop, His Excellency Serge de Laugier de Beaurecueil, whose bearing, attitude and genealogy ran, directement, back to Clovis.

Father Gonzague was, not entirely surprisingly, none of the above.

He had another idea. His music cassettes were kept in a large locked drawer –no need to share his interest in Anna Moffo with his weekly housekeeper—all save one that was hidden away in what he thought of somewhat ashamedly as his “tabernacle,” a japaned cask with “Gloria all’Egitto” inscribed in gold leaf on its cover. In its blue velvet-lined interior lay fixed and secure his personal treasure, the four vinyl disk recordings of Maria Callas’1951 performance of Aida in Mexico City. If not the most celebrated single performance in opera history, then it was certainly the single most famous note ever recorded. In Act II, at the climax of the great choral anthem “Gloria all’Egitto,” the 28 year old Callas gave voice to a glorious E7 that floated suspended, endlessly, like a kind of celestial benediction, above the glorious voices of Mario del Monaco, Giuseppe Taddei. Oralia Dominguez and the full-throated chorus of the Teatro de Bellas Artes.

At his next visit to Glockhaus bei Gniesenhöhl Father Gonzague’s rucksack included, along with the now mandatory Sprüngli chocolates, a tape of Callas’ 1951 Mexico City Aida –the vinyl disks never left their “tabernacle” of course—which he now silently inserted into the Sony and pressed “Play.” Neither he nor Christina said a word as the opera began to unfold. They exchanged smiles at the lovely voice of Dominguez’ Amneris, but neither made a sound even as Callas performed her spectacular runs up and down the Egypto-Mexican landscape. Then toward the end of the Second Act, the priest began to hum softly along with the chorus of the Egyptians and, as if signaled, Christina started to fit her soprano atop Callas’ own. Quickly Rodriquez’ mezzo faded into the background, then even del Monaco’s assertive tenor; Christina Glock was floating alone in the heavens with Maria Callas.

They took the breathtaking E7 together, Callas powerfully, Christina celestially. The walls of the Glockhaus home shook with the sound of it, the goats stirred in their pens; Güdli looked up, alarmed, from her milking and Rudl paused in his scything and looked skyward, toward what he imagined was the source of the sound. The audience meanwhile in the Teatro de Bellas Artes shouted their delirious delight at what they had just heard on that evening in 1951 in Mexico City.

Father Gonzague turned off the Sony and retrieved the cassette without a word. He cast a quick sidelong glance at Christina, who was slightly flushed but was standing quietly and staring out the window at the meadows beyond.

“Bitte,” he said. ”My regards to your parents,” and he left.

At first, when Father Gonzague returned home to Sanct Xanthin’s – he lived in a two room cottage behind the church, bedroom, sitting room with fireplace, and a kind of attached shed that served as a kitchen with a privy not nearly far enough behind it— he used to think happily of Christina, who was then singing only soprano high Cs, as a kind of rustic wonder, like the discovery a few years earlier of a championship yodeler in a field outside Fritzbeutel. The boy won a cantonal contest or two and that was that. But the more he heard in the Glock house, and the higher and more effortlessly Christina ascended le scale, the more the image of the boy yodeler in lederhosen yielded to that of a lad named Amadeus in silk britches and a white wig. Christina was no Mozart, of course: she had a profound sense of music but she did not compose it. No, she was a Callas Minor. Or was Christina Glock, he had lately begun to think, a Callas Major?

Then there was this thought as he sat smoking (a new Gonzague habit, like the glass of grappa that rested on the table next to his armchair). He was not Leopold Mozart, the father who ruled the son and reaped, as he imagined, large Mozartean rewards. If there was a Leopold Mozart, it was Rudl Glock or, worse, Güdli Glock, the milkers of goats and the turners of cheese rounds, whose only hope for Christina was that she have a firm hand on the teat, a strong back in the hay barn and eventually a beau who would take her, her infernal radio and her clerical attendant off their hands.

What was his name? Something a little odd. Meneghini! An older man, a brick maker that Callas’ fame had turned into a millionaire until she left him for the Greek, Onassis. It may have been the improvident consumption of his nation’s favorite cheese, or possibly just a sheer coincidence, but Father Gonzague’s grasp of popular history, and particularly its most complex and demanding sub-specialty, opera gossip, was shot full of holes. It was the smitten millionaire Meneghini, who put his money and his heart into the project, who turned the overweight, myopic and trembling 24 year old Callas into an international star.

For most of the residents of Gniesenhöhl, or even of that entire canton buried in the mountainous heart of Europe, to subvert the Callas career was an inconsequential error, a laughable instance of rustic ignorance, but for Father Gonzague, who had now begun to see himself as Giovanni Battista Meneghini, it was a fatal miscalculation.

It was not greed, however, but more simply the grandeur of the idea, and particularly the image of himself as a man of consequence, an opera impresario, that drove Father Gonzague to Hochuli and the office of Advokat Zysk. His parishioners, who were as likely to visit Hochuli, which had a cinema and an ATM, as they were to vacation on the moon, would never have recognized their shepherd of souls. He had bought a grey suit to make himself more convincing to the Hochuli professionals but which actually gave him the air of an unemployed insurance salesman from Geneva.

No matter. Advokat Zysk judged people not by the cut of their clothes but by the color of their money, and the uneasy gentleman in ill-fitting grey had paid him 250 Swiss francs, his mother’s bequest to her clerical son which he was saving for his planned retirement to Lago Maggiore, to draw up a management contract between one Aloys Gonzague –yes, his name, however disguised, was the same as the hysterical Jesuit saint; they were in fact related—of Gniesenhölh –It figures, thought Advokat Zysk— and the unmarried female Christina Glock of Glockhaus bei Gniesenhöhl – Oh? thought the professionally suspicious advokat– with her age left blank until Father Gonzague figured out how far he as going to stretch this business. Zysk was an expensive lawyer precisely because he left blanks in commercial contracts.

The Swiss trains that outsiders think so famous for their punctually, and not least the ferrocrats who weekly glide smoothly and without pause from Geneva to Bern or Zürich to Basel, were rather more of an annoyance to the Swiss who rode the local lines, where trains arrived, punctually, and departed, with equal punctuality, at every cowshed, milk stand, camping grounds, every faux hamlet, obscure village, unmapped town and, it seemed, every street corner along its route to arrive at its destination proudly and punctually according to the gleaming Helvetica timepiece hung ostentatiously over the station exit. So Father Gonzague had ample time between Hochuli and Oberkammer –Gniesenhölh had no rail station of its own, the ultimate sign of insignificance in Switzerland, and passengers had to travel the last two miles from Oberkammer to Gniesenhöhl on foot– to work out the details of what might be called, in a more careless narrative, a plan.

First, he had to wean Christina from following the voices of other sopranos and to learn to sing the words solo. He had to that end bought a tape of “Opera Without Words” at Hochuli and he already had at home a book of Rossini and Puccini lyrics. So far, so good. He also assumed, with somewhat less confidence, that Christina would go along with the plan, that her love of singing was stronger than her devotion to mucking out the goat pens and stirring milk curd. OK. Let’s assume that, he thought. The real problem was to explain to the Glocks that what he intended was to carry their daughter away to Zug or even to Zermatt and, well, turn her into a famous opera star, not the dream, admittedly, of a couple who had spent their entire lives with goats, clinging, they and the goats, to an Alpine mountainside.

The details were, granted, somewhat sketchy, but he knew what he had in hand, a one in a million voice lodged in a compliant young girl who respected her mentor and loved chocolate. All he had to do was to wait until Christina turned 14, the age at which the trusting Swiss granted adolescents a quasi-adult status: they could drink beer, carry firearms, open bank accounts in their own name and, the beauty part, sign contracts.

“It’s all a little odd,” as explained by Advokat Zysk, who fancied himself a bit of a legal scholar, “in the light of the Code Napoléon. But I suppose we contrarian Swiss preferred to go our own way. Cigarette? Though all we were actually doing was following Roman Catholic Canon Law, which has the same low age bar, the buggers. You a Roman, Mr. Gonzague?”

The supercilious Protestant bastard, thought Father Gonzague, now within sight of the huddled houses that were Gniesenhöhl, but In ten months Advokat Zysk would have that signed management contract on his desk with the blank space neatly filled with “14.”

The next day Christina saw Father Gonzague coming up the path and rushed to meet him at the door.

“Grüsse Gott.”

“Er, yes, of course. Grüsse Gott.”

Where in the world did that come from he wondered. “I have a surprise for you, Christina.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to disappoint you, Father, but I’ve decided not to eat any more chocolate.”

He had in fact forgotten to bring the chocolates, and in his relief at being spared the embarrassment, he neglected to ask her why she had given up chocolate, an omission he had reason to regret later.

“No, this is a different surprise. A tape with just the music of opera, no lyrics. “Opera Without Words.” The Americans of course. Andre Kostelanetz. Now you can practice singing alone.”

“And I have a surprise for you, Father Gonzague. I can sing alone. I’ve memorized a song for you.”

“Splendid! Let me guess. “Casta Diva”?” “No, silly. “Panis Angelicus”.”

“César Franck? That’s not even an opera; it’s a hymn.” “I know. I thought you would like it. A hymn.”

“I do, I do. It’s just….”

She looked crestfallen. He’d never see her so sad. “Here, here now. Why don’t you sing it for me.”

After a sniffle or two, Christina took her place in the middle of the room, facing her chastened audience of one, but with eyes cast down, and she slowly began to sing.
From the opening note he knew this was something different. This was not Christina following or emulating: this was Christina singing, a capella.

Aquinas’ words, Franck’s notes, but Christina’s voice; no, more: Christina’s song, sung like it had never been sung before, and he was hearing it like it had never been heard by mortal ears before. Ever.

“Did you like it?”

“Why, yes. It was wonderful. More than wonderful. And now that you can memorize….”

“I want to sing it in your church. Is that all right? It’s a hymn.”

Christina, as far as he knew, had never been to Gniesenhöhl, much less to Sanct Xanthin’s, since the day she had been baptized. She had never been to Mass or confession, never made her First Communion. Quite deliberately he had never discussed religion with her, never tried a “Gloria” or a “Dies Irae” to test her skills. And now this.

“You mean at Sunday Mass?”

“Yes. Is that all right? I was baptized. You were there,” she smiled.

According to the baptismal rolls, Sanct Xanthin’s had 79 parishioners, of whom anywhere from eight to fifteen (Easter) showed up for Sunday Mass,depending on the weather and, well, the weather. But on this snowy Sunday morning in February, there were thirty-five putative worshippers crammed into its pews, including, to the astonishment of all present –even the shamelessly generic statue of Sanct Xanthin that stood in one corner of the sanctuary seemed a bit nonplussed– Herr and Frau Glock, he in a never before seen overcoat and she in what appeared to be a hat. News had gotten about in the town, where the only news was the birth of goats and the death of some toothless resident that everyone had forgotten was still alive, that something unusual was going to happen at Sanct Xanthin’s on Sunday.

And it did. When Father Gonzague entered the sanctuary, but before the Mass began, Christina Glock, rose from her seat, where she had gone largely unnoticed due to the shock of seeing her parents in the pews, marched forward and stood before the congregation. Father Gonzague, who was as surprised as his parishioners since he had made no arrangements with Christina short of giving her permission to sing at the Sunday service, sat himself uneasily on a folding chair next to the altar.

Christina smiled, cleared her throat, from which there then came forth, like the heralds of a new kingdom, the first notes of “Panis Angelicus.”

One might have thought that the snow that blanketed every mountain and valley of the land would have damped down the sound, but the news of the Sanct Xanthin’s soprano sped nonetheless through the canton, even as far as Zindiffel where it fell on the always attentive ears of Père Joubert. Immediately he checked his daybook and noticed – “Tiens!”—that Father Gonzague had not confessed in over a year. He flipped over the pages of the daybook until he reached the Sunday following, where he inscribed in his legible ecclesiastical hand: “Attend Sunday Mass at Sanct Xanthin’s, Gniesenhöhl.” And then, after a moment’s reflection, in large caps: “SOPRANO.”

That following Sunday was somewhat different from the preceding. For one thing, there were now 175 people crammed into Sanct Xanthin’s, though the Glocks were now comfortably seated in a reserved front pew. Some of those present were parishioners, others were drawn by the spreading word of mouth or the brief notice in the Gippelstuzt Tagblatt, which also sent a reporter to cover the event. And there was, of course, Père Joubert, installed somewhat uneasily, front and center, on a folding chair. A whisper went quickly around the church that he had been sent by the Pope.

But the main difference was that this time Christina would sing after the Mass. Last time, when the parishioners had recovered from their soul- quaking surprise –a few even made their confession during the following week– most of them rose and left the church before Father Gonzague had a chance to stand before the altar and utter his opening “Introibo ad altare Dei.” That was not going to happen again: willy-nilly, as the theologians liked to say, everyone inside Sanct Xanthin’s was going to hear Mass, including his homily. His topic: The Miracle at Cana in Galilee.

Another difference: a number of the congregation –or, more accurately, the congregated—came forward to take the Eucharist, including Christina Glock. Canon law suggested, nay, it required, that Father Gonzague demur since he knew for a certainty that he had never heard her confession. But he also knew, or thought he knew, that Christina Glock had never in her life sinned; indeed, though he would admit it to no one, particularly if that someone were wearing a clerical collar, he thought her incapable of sin. As Christina approached the altar, Father Gonzague shot a quick desperate look at Père Joubert for some signal of what he should do. Was that a nod? An almost invisible theological green light? It had to be! Father Gonzague delicately placed the Eucharistic bread on Christina’s tongue. Eyes cast modestly down, she curtsied and returned to her place in the first pew. Père Joubert was buried deep in his breviary.

Once again, Christina’s a capella performance of “Panis Angelicus” was more than a song, more than an extraordinary rendering of a hymn; it was a voyage onto a spiritual landscape where none had been before, not the congregation certainly, not Father Gonzague who now sat blushing with shame at the banality of his own homily, and not even Père Joubert who sat transfixed, unable to take his eyes off Christina Glock who stood immobile before the altar, all aglow, like a statue afire within.

When she had finished there was silence, broken only by the sound of weeping. Then, suddenly, spontaneously, some began to applaud. Père Joubert and Father Gonzague exchanged a single reproachful glance. It said “Protestants!”

It was only the beginning. Every Sunday Christina appeared at Sanct Xanthin’s, always accompanied by her parents and now with Père Joubert close by. Father Gonzague nodded in greeting and they nodded back; Christina dipped a modest curtsy. And after Mass –after that first Sunday Father Gonzague wisely decided to omit the homily– Christina sang, which is the reason why the church was filled to overflowing. Her audience, for now that was surely what they were, began arriving at dawn to assure themselves a place inside; the rest crowded the doorway of Sanct Xanthin’s or stood outside the windows.

Christina for her part expanded her repertoire without asking or receiving advice from Father Gonzague. “Panis Angelicus” was followed by an “Ave Verum” that flooded the church with tears and sobs, though the next Sunday’s radiant “Salve Regina” wiped them all away. The parishioners –Father Gonzague had stopped his accounting: anyone who stepped into his church, even if it had been Vladimir Lenin himself, was a parishioner— began to exchange the kiss of peace after Mass, a sight surely exclusive to that church in that canton in all of Switzerland. There was even talk of a Corpus Christi procession that summer

It took months before Father Gonzague had the courage to visit the cottagers at Glockhaus bei Gniesenhöhl. He was embarrassed for himself in ways that he could not explain. It was as if he had aimed for the apple and shot Christina instead. No, he reflected, he was really aiming at Christina and hit the apple instead. No…. What he did know was that he was disheartened that his ambitious plan was going awry. He was fearful too of the judgment of Père Joubert, a man he admired and whose counsel he had always followed. And finally there were the Glocks, who now sat stiffly, Sunday after Sunday, in the front pew of Sanct Xanthin’s, Christine at their side and, at hers, Père Joubert, looking neither to the left nor the right and certainly not at him.

But what had to be done had to be done and Father Gonzague took the path up to Glockhaus bei Gniesenhöhl for what he hoped, and in fact was, the last time. Christina had turned fourteen two weeks earlier, and that fateful birthday was marked by two items in his rucksack. The first was a neatly wrapped and neatly inscribed copy of Johann Wyss’ Der Schweitzerische Robinson, the tale of a plucky Swiss family marooned on a remote East Indian isle en route to Australia. It had thrilled him as a boy and he hoped Christina would share the excitement.
The second was also a gift, but in this instance perhaps more of a gift to himself than to the birthday girl. It was the management contract drawn up at Hochuli by the Advokat Zysk what now seemed like a century ago. All Christina had to do was sign it and the two of them would be off to Zug.

He had even had his grey impresario suit pressed by his housekeeper, whose ironing hand shook with curiosity since all she had ever sponged and pressed for him were soup-stained black soutanes.

“Happy Birthday, Christina,” handing her the book parcel. “A little late but heartfelt nonetheless.”

“Thank you, dear Father Gonzague.”

She took the parcel and started to unwrap it. There was something different about her, he thought uneasily as he watched her. A kind of silent strength that he had not seen before. Puberty? Perhaps. He did not know much about such things. But that glow that surrounded her, as if from a light somewhere within, that luminosity he had noticed during her church recitals and now seemed like a permanent condition, that had nothing to do with puberty.

“Oh, a book! Der Schweizerische Robinson! How kind! Thank you. I have so many books to read,” she sighed casting a glance at a pile of books near the fireplace that he had not noticed before.”

“Really? You have taken up novels?” She ignored that.

“I’m only three-quarters through the Life of Saint Hildegard of Bingen. You must know all about her.

“Of course.”

Father Gonzague had only the vaguest of ideas about Hildegard of Bingen, the kind that get most of us through life more or less unscathed.

“Such a great lady! Like Saint Catherine of Siena. And the music!” “And where did you get such books?”

The nearest lending library –no amount of goat cheese could buy such items—might well have been in Milan.

“”Oh, they’re Père Joubert’s. Just a loan.”

Somewhere in the Far East of Father Gonzague’s mind a sun was slowly beginning to rise.
“That was very generous of him. Who knows, one of these days he may take you to St. Gallen to pay a visit to His Excellency Serge de Laugier de Beaurecueil.

“Oh, he’s already talked to Bishop Serge about me.” “Bishop de Beaurecueil,” he corrected.
Father Gonzague had a burning sensation inside his breast pocket. It felt like the management contract there was combusting.

“I see. And what did they talk about, if I may ask?

At that moment the door opened and in rushed a blast of cold air bearing, in addition, the unmistakable scent of goat, cheese and Güdli Glock.

“Oh, you’re here,” she said. Then, turning to her daughter, “Did you tell him the news?”

“What news?” asked Father Gonzague, knowing only that it was going to some particularly lethal form of bad news.

“Bishop Serge, sorry, Father, Bishop de Beaurecueil has given me permission to enter the Sisters of Saint Brigitta at Niedersiedlung.”

“He what?” The smoldering contract in his soutane now seemed to have burst into flames. He could feel the heat and all but smell the burning paper. “You’re only fourteen!”

“That’s the canonical age, Father. You should know that. If the parents give consent.”

“And we give our consent, gladly,” Güdli chimed in. “A girl like that belongs in a convent.”

Even Father Gonzague, not at his best at this moment, could hear the unspoken subtext: “Not here.”

“Do you know what goes on there, Christina? The Sisters of Saint Brigitta are severely cloistered. “Enclosed” is the word. Nobody in or out. And they spend their days, and nights too –they get up at 3 AM!—to sing the Divine Office. It’s Gregorian Chant 24/7, and probably 25/7 in Lent. It’s like a lifetime sentence to singing.”

The sun had now completely risen. A lifetime of singing was precisely what he himself had planned for her, except not exactly for the glory of the Lord. Someone, something had switched tracks, had shunted his fanciulla from the Puccini to the Gregorian line, had substituted Matins for Mimi.

“Does Père Joubert approve of this?”

“Oh, yes. He said the first time he heard me sing he knew that I had caught fire, that the Holy Spirit had enflamed me like it had the Apostles at Pentecost but my gift was not preaching the Word but singing it, and only for God.

Father Gonzague’s own fire had gone out. If that contract was still in his pocket, it had turned to ashes.

“I’m sure…” he started. “I’m sure…” He was sure of nothing. There was nothing to do but leave.
“Wiedersehen, casta diva.”

She grasped his hand and kissed it. “Wiedersehen Radames.”

He stood for a long time outside their door. He could see Rudl Glock, head down, silently scything in the field. And far beyond, down in the valley, he could make out through the clear Alpine air the wisps smoke rising from the chimneys of Gniesenhöhl, his parish, and even the tiny steeple of Sanct Xanthin’s, his church with the baptismal font.

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