Home Columns SILBER LININGS: The One Where Greg Writes an Opera

SILBER LININGS: The One Where Greg Writes an Opera

The story of the time Greg almost got duped into writing an opera for an eccentric aristocrat.

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The Beat’s Gregory Paul Silber has been accused of having a bit of an… obsessive personality. Each week in Silber Linings, he takes a humorous look at the weirdest, funniest, and most obscure bits of comics and pop culture that he can’t get out of his head.

I’m doing something a little different this week. I have a story to tell about one of the craziest things that ever happened to me.

It all started the moment I left my Brooklyn apartment on a Sunday morning in November 2016. Groggily heading toward the subway, I barely got five feet away from my apartment before I stepped over broken glass. The trail of shards led to the bodega on the corner, where firefighters were assessing the destruction of the night before.

“What happened here?” I asked a woman staring at the scorched bodega. I had only moved to the block a few months prior, but I must’ve gone to that bodega every other day since. I liked the guys who worked there and hoped they hadn’t been hurt. You know, being a human and all.

“Well obviously, the place burned down,” the woman said, like she couldn’t believe as big an idiot as me would have the gall to open his mouth.

Maybe it was caused by an errant superweapon blast, like in Spider-Man: Homecoming? Who’s to say!

That incident doesn’t have much to do with the rest of this story, but in retrospect, starting my day on such a strange note may have been an omen for the even stranger events that would soon transpire.

I was heading over to Union Square for brunch with a man named Dave and an assortment of his friends, most of whom, I assumed, he met through his career in the nonprofit world. Dave’s a great guy, and I’m proud to say he’s been a real mentor to me. A worldly and well-read Irish-Australian passionate about activism and storytelling, he’s always fun to talk to, and I always meet interesting people when he’s in town to introduce me to them.

“Everyone, this is Greg,” Dave said, introducing me to the diverse hodgepodge of strangers crowded around the restaurant table. “He used to work with me. And he’s a brilliant writer.”

“A writer, you say?” said a man I would learn was named William. “I must speak to him!”

After we finished our meals, William pulled me aside and asked me a series of questions about myself and my writing career, as if it was a novelty to meet a 20-something struggling writer in New York City. I told him the truth, which I don’t imagine was particularly impressive at that time. I was still just a few years out of college, which was followed by various writing-related internships and odd jobs, a year of Americorps service in which I worked at an elementary school and taught 10-year-olds how to make comics, and my then-current day job as a clickbait writer for a content farm.

But it certainly felt like William saw something in me. He listened as I spoke wistfully about my love of comics, about my belief that everybody has a story worth writing a book about, about my dreams for the historical fantasy story I didn’t feel ready to write yet.

Along the way, William shared a few details about himself, although he was transparently holding a few mysterious things close to his chest. Seventy-something years old and, as I would soon find out, quite wealthy, he clumsily attempted to appeal to my sensibilities as an artsy, lefty 25-year-old. He said he liked heavy metal, that he thought all religions were bullshit, and that while he hates Trump, he couldn’t stand to vote for Hilary. If he was trying to impress me with that last part, it didn’t work, but otherwise I was naïve enough to buy that he really did have an appreciation for “the youth.”

Then William told me, in hushed tones, that he had an opportunity for me, but only if I was ready to take it seriously. He made plans for me to meet him at his apartment, but first I’d have to complete a series of tasks. I had to read an article he wrote, in a magazine he published, about the history of Malta. I had to watch a DVD he lent me of a symphony that was named after him and performed by an orchestra in his honor. I had to take copious notes about all of this.

Feeling about as prepared as I could reasonably be expected to feel in this situation in my short-sleeve button-down shirt and business casual khakis, I arrived at William’s Chelsea apartment for our meeting. From the moment the doorman let me in, I felt absurdly – no, cartoonishly – out of place. None of my friends’ apartments had doormen, let alone a Greek-style (for all I know it was a priceless ancient artifact) 8-foot marble statue in their home. I would later find out that William’s apartment was worth, if I recall correctly, about $13 million.

When I walked in, William was still in a meeting with two young men whom he’d hired to work on the website for the textiles company he owned. I guess my bewilderment was obvious, because William encouraged me to “explore” the apartment with a glass of orange juice as he finished up his current meeting.

I didn’t know an apartment could have so many rooms, and as I entered each one, I said ‘what the fuuuuuuuck’ to myself under my breath. There were certificates and awards from various nonprofits and government agencies. There was a signed photo of him and his partner with Bill Clinton, thanking William for something or another. I recall something that resembled a family crest. And did I mention the statues?

When I returned to the kitchen, William was eager to hear my reaction. “It’s… a lot,” I said. “In a good way, of course. Thank you for having me.”

“The pleasure’s all mine, Gregory. Come, sit. Tell me, what did you think of the [REDACTED NAME OF CLASSICAL MUSIC PERFORMANCE NAMED AFTER WILLIAM]?”

“Oh, it was great. That band–”

“An orchestra, Gregory. We call that an orchestra.”

“Oh, right. Well they were really impressive.”

William remained coy about why he wanted to meet with me throughout most of this initial discussion. It became clear that he was testing me, not just about the homework he’d given me, but to make sure that I was the scrappy young upstart that he was looking for. He asked me about music and literature and history, and I did my best to prove I could be the next-big-thing he wanted me to be, under the mounting pressures of imposter syndrome.

“You’re very catholic, you know,” he said at one point.

“What? No, I’m Jewish.”

“I meant lowercase-C catholic. You’re worldly.”

“Oh. Well, uh, thank you.”

Eventually, he got around to telling me what he was recruiting me for:

An opera.

Based on his own life.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: ‘But Greg, did you have any experience writing operas?’ No. Absolutely not. I don’t even like opera, unless perhaps it’s about rock’n’rolling pinball wizards or pop-punk time travelers. And I don’t know how to write music. I love listening to music and I’ve dabbled in writing about music, but I can barely even wrap my head around the concept of time signature.

I didn’t want to deceive William. I told him as clearly as I could that if he’s looking for the next Mozart, he wouldn’t find him in me. But William was undeterred. He insisted that I could still have what it takes to be a great librettist, as long as I was willing to work hard. He would eventually hire someone else to be the composer, while I’d take care of the words and storytelling.

Besides, he insisted that this story would be full of things I’m interested in: political tension, rock music (although it wouldn’t exclusively be a rock opera), even superheroes. What superheroes had to do with William’s life, I’m not sure. I suppose he saw himself as one.

We never got very far in terms of mapping out the story for this thing. William would tell me bits and pieces about his life, teasing out details in a way that he sure seemed to think was very tantalizing. I played along, often interjecting to bring up songs I knew that his anecdotes reminded me of. William welcomed these interjections, furrowing his brow and listening quietly while I played songs like Nirvana’s “Sliver” and Say Anything’s “Alive with the Glory of Love.”

When I got home that night, I wrote William a long, impassioned email about how excited I was to work with him. I also included several more song suggestions, complete with links and long paragraphs describing how they might relate to the opera and what little I understood about it. These songs included “One” by Metallica, “Pyramids” by Frank Ocean, and “Everyone Else is an Asshole” by… sigh… Reel Big Fish. Look, I don’t know what to tell you. I had no idea what I was doing and was flailing about wildly. But I was fascinated by William, and he seemed interested in becoming my friend. He talked more than once about how eventually he might visit me at my Brooklyn apartment and order pizza. He kept bringing up the pizza. I guess pizza is peasant food.

Our second meeting at William’s apartment continued the same trajectory, I think, but I don’t remember it as well as what happened as we left his apartment. He had to meet his partner at some dinner party in Brooklyn, but for whatever reason, he couldn’t take a taxi as planned. He asked me if I could use my “device” – my iPhone, that is, because he didn’t have a smartphone – to help him figure out how to take the subway to his friend’s home. I gave him directions, then escorted him to the nearest subway kiosk and showed him how to buy a metrocard.

Uneasy feelings started to creep in as I realized how odd it is that despite living in Manhattan for decades, William was so wealthy that he didn’t even know how to take the subway, opting for cabs instead. These feelings were reinforced the next time I spoke to him on the phone. He thanked me for helping him, and laughed about how he thought he was “going to die” as he walked through an unfamiliar part of the city.

My fantasies about William being a wise patron of the arts who could take an undiscovered talent like me under his wing and launch me to fame and glory started to twist into something ugly as the reality began to take shape. William was so rich that he could barely conceal his contempt for working class people like me. So how much was he planning on paying me? And why hadn’t he brought it up yet?

I brought it up myself at our third and final meeting in his apartment, where he was wearing little more than slippers and a bathrobe. I told him that I was excited about the project and believed we could produce something special, but I couldn’t afford to put that much work into something that I wouldn’t get paid for. Also, what kind of credit would i receive? That hadn’t been discussed yet either.

William expressed disappointment, and I caught a little anger too. There’s very little money in opera, he said, but if it was a success I could achieve great renown. He essentially gave me an ultimatum: either I write the opera for free and receive the lion’s share of credit, or he could pay me “a pittance” and I would receive little credit. He warned me about the opportunity I might be squandering with my skepticism. I might come to regret it years later when I’m still living “in squalor.” I didn’t bother to explain that I failed to understand how writing a whole opera for free – a years-long endeavor – would help take me out of that squalor.

I don’t know what else we got done in that meeting. William cut it short. With the touch of a button on his remote, a huge TV descended from the ceiling, from which William proceeded to watch Donald Trump‘s State of the Union address. That speech included something about his supposed opposition to antisemitism, which he delivered in the same bored tone as a child being forced to apologize for not sharing their Pokémon cards. I rolled my eyes.

William turned to me. “I haven’t disagreed with a single thing he’s said so far.”

Something was rotten. But the whole situation was too surreal for me to know how to proceed. Me, Greg Silber, writing an opera!

I called Dave for advice. “He’s a fucking multimillionaire!” he said. “Of course he can afford to pay you!”

Dave was right, of course. I worked up the courage to call William and explain that I couldn’t work with him further unless I could be paid fairly. But he didn’t pick up, so I left a voicemail asking him to call me when he got the chance. He never did.

If you were hoping for a satisfying end to this story, I’m afraid I don’t have one. To the best of my knowledge, William still hasn’t produced an opera. Perhaps he’s still working on it with some other idealistic young writer vulnerable to exploitation.

But for a brief shining moment, I, Gregory Paul Silber, whose knowledge of opera extended little beyond Looney Tunes and Green Day’s American Idiot, was an opera librettist. I could fantasize about glowing reviews from The New York Times and talk show appearances, where Stephen Colbert would tease me about my cluelessness towards the art form.

But I think I got a pretty good story out of it. And I like to think that makes it worth it.

That said, William (not your real name but you know who you are), if you’re reading this: I’m willing to let bygones be bygones and make your opera dreams come true. My number hasn’t changed. All you’ve gotta do is pay up.

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