1636 The Devil’s Opera – Snippet 08

Chapter 4

          Mary Simpson stood as her guests entered the room.

“Good morning, Senator Abrabanel, President Piazza.”

When Rebecca Abrabanel had asked to visit, Mary had suspected that the resulting conversations would involve politics to some extent. After all, given that Rebecca was the senator to the USE parliament from Magdeburg, that her husband was the former (and first) prime minister of the USE, and that she was one of the leaders of the Fourth of July political party, it would be difficult to find something to discuss with her that didn’t involve politics in some manner. And seeing the senator accompanied by Ed Piazza, President of Thuringia-Franconia, up-timer, and also a leader of the Fourth of July party, simply confirmed her suspicions.

“Mary,” Ed said, holding out his hand. She grasped it, glad that he was a seasoned enough politician to know the difference between a firm grip and a crushing one, even — or especially — for someone as small as she was.

Ed released her hand, and she turned to Rebecca, who offered her hand in turn. “Ed, Rebecca, it’s good to see you,” Mary said as she shook hands with the other woman. “You know Lady Beth, of course.” Lady Beth Haygood, the up-timer who was head of the Duchess Elizabeth Sofie Secondary School for Girls in Magdeburg and also happened to be one of Mary’s lieutenants, stepped forward from where she stood before her chair for another round of handshakes.

“Please, be seated,” Mary said, motioning to the nearby chairs. They settled in as Mary motioned to Hilde who was hovering nearby to present the coffee tray. Mary poured the cups and handed them around, then settled back with her own, grateful that it was strong and hot enough to fight the chill from the outside weather. Like many people who were both short and slight, she seemed to suffer more from cold than larger folks. Thinking back to winters in Pittsburgh, she shivered a bit, and took another sip.

“One of the reasons I like to come to your parlor,” Ed said with a smile. “You do serve a good cup of coffee.”

Lady Beth nodded in agreement.

“Thank you,” Mary said. “Don Francisco finally made connections for us with a supplier of the best beans, and Hilde has learned the best ways to roast and grind them, so I’ll admit to enjoying my own coffee.”

“Walcha’s Coffee House isn’t bad,” Lady Beth observed. “A lot of the teachers go there.”

The conversation continued on that line for a couple of minutes, until Mary brought it to a close after there was a brief lull. “To see both of the leading lights of the Fourth of July Party sitting in my parlor puts me in mind of the days when the Pittsburgh politicos would come around looking for a favor.” She smiled at them over her cup.

Rebecca set her cup down on a side table, and leaned forward a bit in her chair, expression becoming more intent.

“Mary, I want to thank you and Lady Beth agreeing to meet with us on such short notice. And you are correct; we do have something important to ask of you.”

Mary took another sip of coffee to feel the warmth slide down her throat. She had had some contact with the senator in the past, of course. How could she not? Rebecca Abrabanel was not only a government figure in Magdeburg, but was also the wife of Michael Stearns, who’d been the prime minister of the USE during the time when Mary had become the leading social light of Magdeburg. They weren’t close friends, not by any standard, but there was a solid respect between the two women.

“Rebecca, if you and Ed need to bring something up with us, then given the times we’d best be available to you. So what’s up?”

Mary almost expected Ed Piazza to take the lead, since he was an up-timer and would be perfectly comfortable speaking to another up-timer. Her estimation of the senator went up when she continued as she had begun.

“We need your help,” the other woman began. “With everything that’s going on with Gustavus Adolphus and Oxenstierna, it’s pretty obvious that the chancellor is trying to draw what Ed calls the center of gravity from Magdeburg to Berlin.”

“It’s like this, Mary. If Oxenstierna gets everyone to start thinking that Berlin is the center of power and all things governmental . . .” Ed continued.

“Then he’s gone a long way toward becoming the de facto government,” Mary completed the thought, “regardless of the legalities involved.”

“Right.” Both Rebecca and Ed sat back in their seats.

“I’m neither a politician nor a political theorist,” Mary said, “so I’m not much help in the political arena.” Ed Piazza snorted at that, but Mary ignored him. “You must want something from me, though, or we wouldn’t be having this little chat.”

Rebecca resumed with, “Mike told me that you once said you wanted Magdeburg to glitter. Well, right now we want, or rather, we need you to make Magdeburg glitter like it never has before. We want every newspaper in the empire and all the surrounding countries to be filled with news about Magdeburg. We want Magdeburg to be so present and so prominent that Berlin seems like a country village beside it.”

Mary set her cup aside and steepled her fingers beneath her nose. After a moment, she looked up. “Unofficial propaganda, huh? By downplaying Berlin, you downplay the chancellor and his cronies.”

“Exactly!” Ed barked with a grin.

Mary frowned. “I can see that. But you realize I can’t be overtly political in this — in anything. I am the Admiral’s wife, after all.” They all heard the capital letter as she pronounced her husband’s title.

Admiral Simpson’s stand of neutrality in the chaos swirling in northern Germany was widely known. Everyone over the age of twelve had their opinions as to whether or not it was a wise or prudent position for him to have taken, but no one doubted that he meant what he said.

“Caesar’s wife,” Lady Beth inserted in support of her leader.

“Who must be without reproach, yes,” Rebecca said. “We are not asking for coordination and collusion. Simply that you do those things you would ordinarily do, but as prominently and loudly and, ah, ‘splashily’ as you can, if there is such a word.”

“There is now,” Mary replied with a smile. She sipped her coffee while she thought on everything that had been said, and much that hadn’t.

Naturally, she was tempted to ask for some funding. The arts always needed more money, and squeezing the powers-that-be for it was something Mary Simpson had done for so long — first in Pittsburgh, in another universe; now here in Magdeburg — that it was almost second nature to her.

But it would be a bad idea, in the long run. As much as she’d love to add an additional revenue stream to the Arts Council, she needed to maintain a public image of political neutrality. She could afford to let that image get strained, but not get broken outright.

No, this was something that would just have to be done for its own sake. When her cup was empty, she set it down on its saucer on the table before her and looked to her guests.

“No cooperation, no collusion, no conspiring. We will do what we think is best, and you will find out about it through normal channels.”

Rebecca looked at Ed. He nodded.


“Then I think we have an understanding,” Mary said. “Keep an eye on the papers.”


          When her guests left, Mary accompanied them to the door. Just before the door closed behind them, she heard Ed Piazza exclaim, “Not political, hah!”

She was still smiling when she returned to Lady Beth in the parlor. Mary looked over at her friend and lieutenant as she refreshed their coffee. “What do you think?”

Lady Beth had a note pad open and was already reviewing notes. “Salons, concerts, recitals, parades, feast celebrations, we can do lots of things. There are at least a couple of news reporter types in town that we can probably work with for articles, maybe more.”

Mary nodded. “We need to commission some musical works from the local composers, but at least one of them needs to be based on King Arthur. The theme of the wounded king who would return to his people in their time of trouble would just absolutely resonate with most of the folks.”

Lady Beth frowned. “It might be better to use Barbarossa as the subject, since he was a German emperor and his legend has many of the same elements — especially the theme of the sleeping ruler who will someday return to save his nation.”

“It’s a possibility,” Mary said, “but… The problem is that I can’t see the legend serving well as the story for an opera. So Emperor Barbarossa is sleeping with his knights somewhere under — what mountain was it?”

“There are variations. Some say Kyffhäuser, in Thuringia; others say it’s Mount Untersberg in Bavaria.”

Mary shook her head. “How do you do an opera based on a bunch of sleeping men? And what’s probably still worse from a dramatic standpoint is that there would be no suitable female roles in such an opera. Well, I suppose…”

She made a face. Lady Beth laughed. “Yes, a bit difficult! The only woman anywhere in the Barbarossa legend is his wife Beatrice who was insulted by the Milanese. And the emperor took his revenge by forcing the authorities of the city to eat figs coming out of the hind end of a donkey. How in the world would you stage that? — much less put it to song!”

Both women chuckled. Then Mary said: “No, best we stick with the Arthur legend.”

“Great idea,” Lady Beth enthused. She rubbed her hands together. “Get a couple of memorable songs out of it to put on the radio and send out the sheet music, and it could weld people together like nothing else. Only make it better than Camelot. I never could stand that show,” she muttered. “Julie Andrews — pfaugh!”

“And I know just the people to pull it off,” Mary said. “How soon can we get Amber Higham and Heinrich Schütz over here? What’s the use of having a theatre director and a great composer among your friends if you don’t put them to use?”