In the world of grand opera there was no bigger star than Giulietta Silvana. At the Met—the old “Diamond Horseshoe” on 39th Street—even the sleepiest of men who’d been dragged to the opera by their culture-climbing wives woke up when “La Silvana” arrived center stage.
There was, of course, no shortage of men who swept through the stage door in their top hats and capes hoping to court “La Silvana.” The usual nightly contretemps between a Diva and her tenor? For “La Silvana”, this was just the opening salvo to a night of romance. Like a bee collecting pollen, she never settled on one flower. Reporter after reporter asked why, and to all she simply replied, “Show me a man of substance, and I will have sung my last Lucia.”
European suitors, many of them of royal lineage, also fell under her spell during visits to La Scala, the Palais Garnier, the Royal Opera House, and countless concert stages. Her great rival, Lily Pons, was green with envy at La Silvana’s independence from the grasp of one man.
At home, which was usually the best suite in the best hotel in whatever city she sang, she was tended to by a staff who doted on, and anticipated her every whim. Her private chef ensured that there would never be too much of her to squeeze into the corsets that costume designers inevitably built into her costumes; a private masseuse pounded every excess ounce of avoirdupois from her that the chef may have missed. What the chef and masseuse may have missed, her own notoriously steely discipline and focus nipped in the bud. She sailed around the world like a maharani: staff, clothes, jewels, and determination never far from her reach. If you find the theory that Great Divas are born Great Divas dubious, let La Silvana wipe away all doubts.
Still, if you were to observe closely, you’d notice some clues to the “real” La Silvana. At every meal, in any restaurant, even on the most luxurious ocean liner, she would rub the silverware with her napkin as if the cleanest was never clean enough. Then there was the locket: a large silver locket that never left her neck no matter the role or costume. She always held it when, as Tosca, she made her final plunge. No man, no maid, no costume designer could make her remove the locket. It was reported (but never confirmed) that she slept with it in her grasp.
Sadly, time—age—was unkind to La Silvana. Inevitably, her voice became heavy, her face matured, and she began to find herself shunted aside in favor of younger singers—both on stage and off.
Rather than linger on in the shadows, La Silvana did what she thought was expected of a Great Diva: she simply disappeared. Her whereabouts—even whether she was dead or alive—became one of the great mysteries of the Opera world.
However, after the recent death of Professor Carlos Bernberg—one of the world’s great scholars on twentieth century opera (and a notorious pack rat)—we are finally able to reveal what happened to La Silvana after she took her final bow. For, hidden amongst the boxes that defined the Professor’s living and working space lies the story of La Silvana’s Act II.
The story of her second act begins—by sheer coincidence—on a snowy Christmas Eve. Still awash in the rosy glow of music as he made his way from Carnegie Hall through the falling snow, Professor Bernberg, heeding the rumbles of his empty stomach, decided that a light, late supper was in order. Worried that Schrafft’s (his usual haunt) would be closed, he decided to try a small bistro he’d spied on his many trips through the neighborhood. Its warm glow always reminded him of Vienna, but its name always captured his fancy: “Lucia”. Not, “Lucia’s Place” or “Café Lucia”. Just “Lucia”.
He paused as he entered, for the restaurant was full and the boisterousness of the crowd left him with the impression that he was intruding on a private party. Through the smoky haze he could see a small staff of red-jacketed waiters clucking and bowing, and in the back, through a window cut in the wall, a cherub-cheeked man, white hair under a toque, fussing in the kitchen.
A short, slightly plump woman with silver hair grabbed both of his hands and greeted him like an old friend. She explained that while there were no individual tables available, if he didn’t mind, she could happily seat him with others. His initial reluctance was overruled by another rumble of his empty stomach, and he soon found himself seated at a large round table with seven other diners. Not so much seated as “tucked in”, as the plump, silver-haired matron who greeted him made sure his chair was pushed in and his “serviette” spread in his lap just so. While telling him about things to look for on the menu, she stood with a cloth and wiped his silverware.
Indicating the other people at the table, she allowed, “My friends will tell you that I am biased, but I think we have the best Veal Marengo in the world.” Nodding towards the kitchen she continued, “Franco is Piedmontese, so he knows just the right amount of white truffle to add.”
Well, given such salesmanship, and the agreement of his tablemates, how could the Professor not try the Veal Marengo?
After his meal—and a rather bracing glass of Cotes de Nuits – Villages—he patted his stomach in appreciation of the fine meal, and the happy conversation with the strangers at the table.
Insisting that he have something sweet with his coffee, the silver-haired matron delivered a small plate baring just a few simple, round pastries that were studded with nibs of sugar. They were hollow, and the nibs of sugar sweetened the toasted, egg-infused, pastry with little “pops” each time he took a bite.
The Professor pleaded with the silver-haired matron to know what they were.
“Ah, those? They are Chouquettes. I first had them on a Christmas Eve many moons ago in Vienna. A place much like this one. I was with my first love, my only true love. I had to plead with the baker for the recipe for I knew that I would want my love to have Chouquettes every Christmas Eve. I carried the recipe in my locket for many years. I always felt that I could conquer the world if I kept the recipe close to my heart.”
As she pointed to her large silver locket, the Professor looked her up and down while a wash of memories flooded him. “You are La Silvana!” he gasped.
“Ha!” she giggled. “La Silvana! I made her up like a child pretends to be a cowboy or an Indian. Would people have come to see Gertrude Silverman sing? I think not. So I became Giulietta Silvana. But all the fame and riches could never bring back my true love. He was lost in the Great War. After I stopped singing I opened this place so that every night I could re-live those dinners in Vienna. Some days, at my darkest, I imagine that the door will open, he’ll walk in, and we’ll be reunited forever.” Then, with a sigh, “But it is not to be.”
She smiled at the professor and said, “You’ll keep my secret, yes? Better for the world to think La Silvana just evaporated into thin air then for them to know she is now a dumpy, grey haired frau. So here I am, hiding in plain sight. Shhhh…” she teased, holding her finger over her lips if playing a game of Hide and Seek. As she made her request she offered the Professor one more Chouquette. He bit into it and as the sugar made little “pops” in his mouth, he knew almost as if he’d been placed under a spell, that he would never reveal the secret of La Silvana.
Want to make your own Chouquettes? Follow my recipe for Gougeres, but omit the cheese. Before baking, sprinkle with nib (pearl) sugar, or any large grain sugar.
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