Opera is an art form that has been called an acquired taste. For many, this visual spectacle requires more than we are used to giving to truly comprehend. For others, it is as if by osmosis upon first exposure that the meaning is grasped.
Matthew Gallaway is one such opera lover and, more remarkably, not only has he acquired a deep understanding of the art form but he has found a way to capture its innate sensuality and drama within a story both all his own and one for the ages. And this story can be found in "The Metropolis Case."
We meet Martin, a gay man in New York at the brink of the 21st century experiencing a cultural ennui so all-consuming that he questions his career as an attorney in favor of a dream of indulging his part-time passion full-time to write heavy rock reviews for alt journals.
We also meet Anna, a one-time diva and now Juilliard professor who is looking for her ultimate prodigy, her literal and figurative daughter who will take her place in the lights. We learn that this prodigal daughter is destined to be Maria, a gothic child of suburban Pittsburgh who refuses to fit in to her cookie-cutter town.
Finally, we are introduced to the most ill-fitting character of them all, Lucien, a late 19th-century singer whose androgyny and anti-scientific viewpoints serve as sacrilege to his father, a researcher for the Romanian Court.
The only apparent initial link among characters, aside from the one between Maria and Anna, is the opera "Tristan and Isolde," which plays a seemingly minor chord in each life. For Lucien, the composition is new to his era and is one that he tries to soak in, envisioning its composer, Wagner, to be the father to a compositional renaissance.
For Anna, the score serves as a teaching point for her students. For Martin, it is a nagging symbol of his inadequacy in appreciating its magnitude.For Maria, it serves as her personal Mount Everest.
But looking beyond this operatic undertone we find a deeper connection between characters trying to conquer obstacles that will otherwise seal their fates. Maria seeks peace and self acceptance after horrific loss. Martin yearns for comfort with self and dreams. Anna chases immortality through her students, and Lucien strives to live out a more literal form of immortality.
Spurred on by the tragedy of Sept. 11, the characters find resolution. Gallaway softly weaves that fateful day into the embers of the national mourning, ascribing to it a mystical presence. He does this in a way that deserves commendation, far surpassing many of his contemporaries who seem to feel a nod to Sept. 11 is critical to literary success but place it awkwardly amidst their novels' storylines.
To explain how all of these tales tie together would warp the book's true magic, reveal too much too quickly and soil a story too complex to depict in simple summary. For this is a tale that screams for operatic patience while offering a friendly hand so that even those of us not acclimated to this art form can comfortably join in the experience. And as the last chapter closes we recognize that this novel deserves nothing less than a standing ovation for a virtuoso performance.
Adera Causey is curator of education at the Hunter Museum of American Art.