Talking the Centennial, Operti's Tropical Garden, and the Birthing of Fiction in Nonfiction

Monday, February 14, 2011

When St. John's Presbyterian Church invited me to speak for a Valentine's Day luncheon, we all envisioned a group of a dozen or so kind souls, gathered in a circle in the Carriage House.  Our dozen has grown to nearly 80, I'm told, and I want to be sure that I deliver.  And so, in found pockets of time this past week, I've been returning to my Dangerous Neighbors research files and assembling a 20-image Centennial Philadelphia talk that melds the known with the unknown and in that way reveals my own fiction-making process.

Those of you who have read Dangerous Neighbors (Egmont USA) know that key moments unfold within and outside of Operti's Tropical Garden, which stood on the margins of the Centennial grounds.  Contemporary reporters described Operti's as "one of the handsomest places of amusement in Philadelphia.  It was light and airy, and was handsomely decorated with frescoes and other paintings.  Long lines of colored globes, each containing a gas jet, stretched across the interior beneath the ceiling, and shed a brilliant light upon the scene below.  At the back a large waterfall dashed over the painted rocks, forming a beautiful cascade, and giving to the air on the hot nights of the summer a delicious coolness."

More than sixty performers led by a certain Signor Giuseppe Operti filled the place with music each night—the cascade being dimmed long enough for the music to soar, and then "spr(inging) into life again." Years later, working with those lines of description and this image, I was inspired to imagine a bird set free and all the nuanced consequences.  From Dangerous Neighbors:

Operti’s is an aromatic cove of high skies and blooms. Gas lanterns float like kites overhead. Potted trees shadow the paths. There are the bright flags of celosia and astilbe,  the yellow sleeves of forsythia forced well past their season, begonias the color of dandelions and fire, and in the midst of it all, the orchestra stage. On every wall,  frescoes , and in the very back someone has painted a rock cliff of schist and granite, then turned some sort of spigot on, so that water, real water, cascades down. The sound of Operti’s is gush and violins, the squeak of a chair, the leak of gas in a jet above, a stifled sneeze in the vicinity of the gardenias, and above that the silence of every single place that has ever lain in wait for an evening audience. By the time that Katherine has taken it all in, the girl, the mysterious mistress of the bird, has disappeared.
Katherine breathes. Miraculously, she is not asked to leave. This much beauty, she decides, is a painful thing. Paris in Philadelphia wasn’t right, and Operti’s isn’t either.
Now from behind, from above comes a swish-wash of sound, and when Katherine turns, she sees the creature’s wings—white as a magnolia bud in spring. The bird has been set free. It flies high, arcs wide past the suspended color globes, toward the cliff of painted rocks, the waterfalls. It swoops low and to the right, extending its wings and holding, ascending again and holding. It is the freest bird Katherine has ever seen.  It leans, swoops down, and descends over the room of empty chairs and flowers and palmy heads.  It drifts toward the orchestra stand where—on the very edge, between pots of calla lily and candytuft—the child sits with the empty gold cage .

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