On a wall over the dining table hung a large painting, oil on canvas in a gilded frame. The painting showed a young woman in a long white gown and blond braids. She stood on a stage with her mouth open. Behind her stood a man in a red robe, red hat, and red shoes. He had a sinister mustache and a straight, sharp tail. Flames flickered in the background. Below, with his back to the viewer, the top half of a man in a black coat raised his arms and held a baton. The man in the red costume was clearly the devil, but what was happening?
Our grandfather, the advertising director for the Radio Corporation of America in the 1920s, had commissioned the painting. It was reproduced in magazine ads for radios. Other ads showed well-dressed people at home listening or dancing to the Radiola, RCA’s brand name. These early radios were large, operated by vacuum tubes. They came in handsome wooden cabinets and were expensive. But there was no radio in this painting.
After a detour of many years, the painting passed to me. Then, in a junk shop, I found The Victor Book of the Opera, subtitled “Stories of the Operas with Illustrations and Descriptions of Victor Opera Records” printed in 1929. In that year, RCA bought the Victor Talking Machine Company, the leading American producer of phonograph records and players. Victor had a white beagle-terrier mascot named Nipper and a slogan, “His Master’s Voice.” The book confirmed my hunch.
Loosely based on the play by Goethe, the opera Faust premiered in Paris in 1859. It was popular in New York in the 1920s. The opera “with its conflicting human passions and religious sentiment . . . amazing wealth of melody . . . and colorful orchestral treatment” shifts the focus from the elderly scholar Faust to his young love interest, a soprano named Marguerite. She wears a long white gown and blond braids. Mephistopheles, however, a bass dressed in red, steals the show. Like the devil, he deceives, tempts, and mocks the other characters. A child could easily mistake his sword for a tail.
Faust does not have a duet between Marguerite and Mephistopheles, though they appear onstage with others. The painting, then, shows the essence of the opera, not an actual scene, with the conductor in the foreground. This is what you could hear on the radio—live music, an exciting story, and high culture.
The grandfather connected with the painting was married to Dodie. But she lived near us in a garden apartment, and he lived in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He visited us in North Syracuse for a few days one summer while she was absent. A dark, energetic man of seventy, well-dressed, he brought a tray of slides from a trip to Paris and projected them on a wall. He brought a supply of liquor, which he drank in the evening. And as gifts he brought children’s books in French, which we could not read: Bambi, Histoire de Babar, and Le petit chaperon rouge. Was this grandfather the devil? Why did he live in Fort Wayne, Indiana?
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Saturday Evening Post, and online magazines.