The Stars That Tremble

The Stars that TrembleAvailable September 30, 2013

Giovanni Boca was destined to go down in history as an opera legend until a vocal chord injury abruptly ended his career. Now he teaches voice lessons at a prestigious New York City music school. During auditions for his summer opera workshop, he finds his protégé in fourteen-year-old Emma McPhee. Just as intriguing to Gio is Emma’s father Mike, a blue-collar guy who runs a business renovating the kitchens and bathrooms of New York’s elite to finance his daughter’s dream.

Mike’s partner was killed when Emma was a toddler, and Gio mourns the beautiful voice he will never have again, so coping with loss is something they have in common. Their initial physical attraction quickly grows to something more as each hopes to fill the gap that loss and grief has left in his life. Although Mike wonders if he can truly fit into Gio’s upperclass world, their bond grows stronger. Then, trouble strikes from outside when the machinations of an unscrupulous stage mother threaten to tear Gio and Mike apart—and ruin Emma’s bright future.


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THE girl had the voice of an angel.

Gio could say that with some authority, since there had been a time when many people had said the same about him.

But this girl. She was tiny, maybe four foot eleven, and very fine-boned, and her application indicated she was fourteen years old even though she barely looked a day over ten. Gio eyed the row of parents sitting in folding chairs or on the floor off to the side of the studio and tried to guess which of them this girl belonged to. Probably an overbearing helicopter mom. There were a dozen of those in the crowd of parents. Usually, you could spot the one who belonged to the auditioning kid because she sat forward in her seat and mouthed the words along with her child. But, no, in this case, all of the moms looked on either with disinterest or in naked shock that such a big sound had come out of such a tiny girl.

Gio was sympathetic to the latter feeling.

Although, there was one person in the crowd of parents who caught Gio’s attention, a handsome man who seemed a little out of place. He was very handsome. He had messy brown hair and a square jaw, wide shoulders atop a strong body, and he wore gray trousers and a blue button-front shirt as if they were jeans and a T-shirt. Gio wished he hadn’t noticed the man, because now he’d be distracted through the rest of the auditions.

But back to the matter at hand.

“Miss McPhee,” he said. “That was really lovely. Would you indulge me by singing that last part again, starting with ‘Tu che di gel sei cinta’? Okay?”

She nodded and launched back into the Puccini aria. Her Italian was pretty good. It wasn’t perfect, which indicated to Gio that she’d learned the aria by listening to recordings and mimicking rather than really understanding and learning to correctly pronounce the words, but he could work on that. Because this girl was it. She would be his protégé, his muse, the next great star of the Metropolitan Opera!

And she was only fourteen.

Tiny Emma McPhee finished singing. The faculty panel, Gio included, applauded her enthusiastically. She bowed and moved back to the area where the other potential students of the great Giovanni Boca’s opera workshop were waiting. She glanced toward the crowd of parents, probably looking for her mother, but then she took her seat and chatted with another girl.

“Have you ever?” said Dacia, who was sitting next to him. She leaned close and blocked the parents’ view of them by holding up a piece of paper. Her eyes were wide.

“She’s mine,” Gio said.

“I thought you might say that.” Her expression turned wry. “You want her to be la tua stella.”

“Sì,” he said. “Ha la voce.” Gio knew without a doubt this girl had the voice to be a star.

Dacia nodded. She threw her long, dark-gray hair over her shoulder and softly crooned a few notes in her smoky mezzo voice. She put the paper down and said, “Avanti. Let us continue.”

The next hour passed the way these auditions always passed: there was a mix of kids aged thirteen to seventeen, some of whom were terrible, some of whom had a bit of vocal talent, and some of whom had the raw material but needed refinement. Emma McPhee remained the only shoo-in for the workshop, although Gio had made a list of potentials and had pretty much decided on his twelve students by the time the auditions were winding down. The other faculty members on the audition committee always forced Gio into the song and dance with head shots, vague remembrances of the performances from people with bad recall, and usually Sam, the violin teacher, said lecherously of some talentless girl, “But she’s just so beautiful,” as if beauty had ever actually been linked to skill. Gio indulged them because he figured he shouldn’t bite the hand that fed him, since the Olcott School continued to employ him every year, but the final decision was still his.

He tuned out a particularly bad audition by mentally listing who he wanted in his class. He’d scrawled notes on his pad about why he wanted each one in case Sam or Dacia or even Jules, the quiet pianist, somehow thought a teenager with middling talent belonged in the most prestigious workshop in the city for young singers. And then, mercifully, the last audition was over.

Dacia stood and announced that the faculty was going to meet for about an hour to discuss and then the accepted singers would be posted on the bulletin board outside of Gio’s studio. She welcomed them to stick around or go grab a bite to eat and come back.

Gio stood, ready to shuffle into his office for an hour of nonsense, but he caught little Emma McPhee jogging across the room and then, much to Gio’s surprise, throwing her arms around the handsome man who had been distracting Gio for the better part of the audition process.


Gio considered walking right up to the man and informing him that his daughter was definitely getting a spot in the workshop, just to get a closer look, but Dacia hooked her hand around his elbow and pulled him away.

A miserable forty-five minutes ensued in which three kids were obviously in, six were mostly agreed on without controversy, and three were furiously debated. Gio wanted a sixteen-year-old tenor with a voice like honey, but Sam wanted a soprano from New Jersey because, of course, “She’s just so pretty.”

“So we’re clear,” Gio said, “this is Giovanni Boca’s opera workshop, not Collective Olcott Music Faculty’s workshop. In my opinion, yes, Julie is a very pretty girl, but Tyler has the real potential here. His voice is a little thin right now, but he has a good sense of pitch and rhythm, and I can work with that. Julie was a half step sharp through most of her audition.” Luckily, Dacia and Jules sided with Gio, so he got his way in the end.

Needing some air outside of his stuffy office, Gio volunteered to go hang up the list. His assistant typed it up and printed it, and Gio took it and a pushpin to the bulletin board outside of his studio. About two-thirds of the prospective students and their parents were milling around in the hallway.

Gio spotted Emma McPhee with that man—her father, presumably, although there wasn’t a great deal of resemblance—and he smiled at the guy, who just looked back, biting his lip. There was something endearing about that. Surely he knew how much talent his daughter—or whoever she was—had.

He cleared his throat and said, “If your name is on this list, my assistant Angela will be e-mailing you or your parents with a class schedule and syllabus within the next forty-eight hours. Everyone else, better luck next time.”

He posted the list and barely got out of the way before the horde descended. He managed to catch Emma’s attention and crooked his finger, inviting her to follow him down the hall. The man trailed after her.

“I wish I had spared you the wait,” Gio said, which got him two horrified expressions in return. He laughed softly. He probably could have said that more nicely. “You were in from the moment you opened your mouth. I haven’t heard a voice like that in quite some time. I look forward to working with you, Miss McPhee.”

Her eyes were like quarters. “What? Really? I got in?”

“Yes. And classes start on the twenty-eighth. I expect you to be there.”

She turned to the man. “Daddy, did you hear that? I got in! I got in!” The words came out in a squeal. She jumped up and down a few times.

By now, the assembled crowd had gotten to the board, and there were assorted whoops of joy and groans of disappointment. A couple of the parents gave “buck up” speeches, or said something like, “We’ll try again next year,” although Gio knew some of those kids would never be good enough. Perhaps that was a harsh way to think of it, but he’d been around music long enough to know that talent was not something that could be taught.

Pushing that aside, Gio extended his hand to the man. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Your daughter is an extraordinary talent.”

The man blushed and took his hand in a firm handshake. “I’m Mike McPhee.”

“Giovanni Boca, but I suppose you knew that.”

“Emma is thrilled, obviously,” Mike said. “We’re really honored just to audition. It means a lot that you see so much in her.” Gio detected a local accent—Brooklyn, maybe.

“It really was a splendid audition. Does this kind of musical talent run in the family? Do you sing?”

Mike shook his head. “No, not at all. Don’t know where this voice came from. I don’t know much about opera at all, either, but Emma loves it. Her voice teacher—do you know Tina Moretz from the Academy of Music?—well, Ms. Moretz thought Emma’s voice would be good for opera, so that’s what she’s been studying for two years.”

Mike’s voice quivered a little, as if he were nervous. There was something about the man that softened Gio’s heart. “I know Tina Moretz a little. She’s a good teacher.” Gio glanced at Mike’s hand. No wedding ring. “Is there a singer in the family? A wife? A husband, even?”

Mike frowned and shook his head. He briefly looked very sad. There was a story there, for certain.

“Nah,” Mike said, “just me and Emma.” He put an arm around his daughter and hugged her close. He was not a small man—just above six feet, if Gio’s guess was correct, and he was on the bulkier side, though up close it looked like the bulk was mostly muscle—so little Emma’s head rested near his armpit.

The rhythmic clack of heels walking on the linoleum told Gio that Dacia was coming to fetch him. “I have a faculty meeting in twenty minutes, or I’d chat more,” Gio said to the McPhees. “It was wonderful to meet you, though, and I will see you in class.”

“Yes, definitely!” Emma said.