5.15 The Opera Singer


honested-picLast weekend, my parents visited me from out of town. There was the usual amount of anxiety when they visit, nothing to do with them, just whenever anyone is in my space. Lived alone too long, and when you’re as set in your ways as I am, a certain amount of trepidation appears when I have to share my space with other human beings, even if they share the same blood as me. We went downtown to my office and had lunch. Strangely, I have a lot of pride with where I work - it’s a great place full of amazing people. I’ve never brought my parents to where I work, never felt reason to, but this is different. The Centre for Social Innovation is located just south of Honest Ed’s and my mother said she had never been inside. Since Honest Ed’s is closing down soon, we decided to check it out.

Inside Honest Ed’s, we walked around the labyrinth-like rooms full of cheap goods and reached the second level area where the rugs are located. Yes, I needed a new rug, now you know. We found the rugs way in the back and I was standing there while my parents looked around. The walls of Honest Ed’s are full of photographs of people who have appeared in theatrical productions of Mirvish shows. Back here with the rugs were the smaller, lesser known performers. So, I’m standing there, kind of drifting off in my own world and looking at all the photographs when I see this really old one who kind of resembles my grandfather. Look closer and the caption on the photograph reads, “Francis Xavier Dore.” It’s the bottom right photograph in the pic included with this post, next to the Grip-It Non-Slip Rug Pads and above the $7.99 Fashion Handbags.

Ask my parents who Francis Xavier Dore was, and they have no idea, never heard of the guy. Must just be a coincidence. I don’t believe in coincidences, too much crazy shit happens like this in life for it to just be a coincidence. Get home, Google his name and after some digging, find the photograph on the internet that was hanging in Honest Ed’s. Francis Xavier Dore was a very distant uncle of mine, an opera singer, originally from New York City and performed in a Mirvish show in 1956. Apparently, it was the least successful Mirvish production ever and Dore was not asked back to perform in Toronto ever again. In fact, shortly after this show closed, Dore returned to New York and started performing less and less until he fell into obscurity.

Before the Toronto performance ruined his career, Dore was on the rise in his hometown. Toronto was merely a small stop to bigger things, but clearly, something happened out on the stage. Discovered that he wrote a book about his career, or lack of it, a book that I had a difficult time locating. Finally, a copy popped up in a used bookstore downtown. Made my way and between the dusty shelves and big-white-bearded owner, we found it: The Last Note by Francis Xavier Dore. Sat down on the floor and read about the meteoric rise of Dore and the equally meteoric fall.

One thing was clear: Dore loved music. Discovered at a young age, he always entertained his adopted family with his incredible voice. It wasn’t until he heard an opera concert on the radio that he knew what to do with his talent. Almost immediately, he was able to emulate the voices coming from the radio. After some training, Dore started singing professionally as a teenager. He didn’t understand the talent he had, he just wanted to sing. At the age of twenty-five, he made the infamous trip to Toronto, the performance the climax of the book. He described sheer torture - his wife leaving him when he went to Toronto, losing his voice the day before the show, a director that didn’t understand his artistry. A disaster, the show ended after only three performances instead of the scheduled six-month run. Dore was put on the hook financially for the loss and eventually sued, keeping him in and out of litigation for several years and sinking whatever money he had saved. He returned to New York, holed up in his Greenwich Village walk-up and nobody really heard much more about him.

Sitting on the floor of the bookstore, something in the air changed, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. Taken out of Dore’s book, music had started playing. Opera music. Obviously old, but I can’t even describe it. I’m certainly not an opera person, wouldn’t know what was good or bad, but there was something about this music, something in the voice - Italian, I think - that transported me somewhere else. Music can be a transportation device, it can bring you to anywhere in your head, bring you to any memory that’s still in there, at any point, just by a goddamn note.

Got up, walked to the front, the big bearded bookstore owner sitting there behind the counter, a record player spinning the opera music. He didn’t say a word, just handed over the record cover - the same photograph that was up in Honest Ed’s, the same title as his book: The Last Note, Francis Xavier Dore. The big bearded man threw in the record with the book and I listened to that damn record everyday for the next week.

Listened to opera leading up to leaving for a trip I was taking to New York with some of the people in my office. Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t even known the circumstances surrounding Dore’s death. Obviously, it wasn’t in the book as he wrote it. Didn’t take me long to figure out that he was still alive and still living in the same Greenwich Village apartment. Made note of it and headed to New York with my fellow office members.

After a long overnight ten-hour bus trip, we arrived blurry-eyed to a breakfast party at our office’s New York location complete with waffles and lots of toppings. Skipped out of the party early and headed to the loft I was staying in with seven other people. We checked in, found it to be perfect for us - complete with animal masks and self-portraits of the AirBnB host. Disappeared from the group under the guise that I had to do an interview for my podcast, which in retrospect, should’ve contacted Dore to see if he’d go on record. Didn’t even know if he’d talk to me. Found the address in Greenwich Village, buzzed the buzzer.

No answer. A part of me didn’t expect an answer. Maybe he died after all and it was never reported. The guy fell into obscurity anyway and the internet doesn’t know everything. Stood out on the street, the busyness of New York passing by. The door to the apartment flung open and a hunched over old man stood staring at me.

“Who’re you? Delivering something?” He growled. “Damn buzzer stopped working in 1962 and I never fixed it.”

“Are you Francis Xavier Dore?” I asked.

His eyes narrowed. “I don’t go by that name anymore,” he said.

I took out his book and showed it to him. Definitely it was him. “Put that away,” he said. “Come on, come on.” He flicked his cane in my direction, ushered me into the building. Walked up three flights of stairs, into a dusty apartment packed full of memorabilia from his young singing career. He pointed to a chair, I sat, the dust particles sparkling in the late afternoon sun. We didn’t say much, he didn’t know why I was there, I didn’t know why I wasn’t there. Instead, I let the music do the talking. Spotted a record player in the corner, walked over with my bag, took out Dore’s record, dropped the needle, the voice came out, the voice of the old withered man sitting on the other side of the room.

For a moment, or a collection of moments, that withered old man changed. He grew younger, I mean actually physically younger, his face and his hands, everything went backwards in time. I didn’t want to watch him, this was a private moment, one between his older and younger self, but couldn’t help it, wanted to witness how he negotiated these different selves. Slowly, he turned away from me, went into his own world, his lips started moving, unintentionally it seemed, and he started singing with the music. Low at first and then louder and louder. Didn’t want to make any sudden movements, but I slowly reached for the needle on the record player and lifted it up, the music cut out, but he didn’t notice. He kept singing, his voice loud and strong. He sang the rest of the song as tears ran down his face, he sang out the open window and I imagined the busyness of the street, the cars and the people, all stopped, all looked up to this voice that echoed throughout the streets and no one needed to shush, to tell others to be quiet, it just happened, the cars stopped, the honking ceased, people took earphones out of ears, we all collectively shared this moment of transformation.

And the song was over. And the world went back into motion.