The Joker of the Opera
"Dad! Make Leenie turn her music down!" shouted J.J., the Joker's teenage son, clapping his hands to his ears. His twin sister Arleen's music bled through the walls of her room into his, and to J.J.'s ears, it was a hideous cacophony of sound which disturbed him from his work. "I'm trying to write up a business model here, and I can't with that racket distracting me!"
"It's not a racket, J.J.!" snapped Arleen, storming into his room. "It's the most beautiful musical ever written! Tragic and haunting! You just have no romance in your soul!"
"Sure I do," said J.J. "But forgive me if I don't find people singing at the top of their lungs particularly romantic. If one of my dates just started doing that randomly, I'd end the relationship on the spot, and then contact Arkham."
"It's called suspension of disbelief, J.J.," snapped Arleen. "You have to do that all the time for superhero movies – why not musicals?"
"Because frankly, I don't find stories about super-powered freaks that unbelievable, living as I do in Gotham City," retorted J.J. "But I find a lot unbelievable about an ugly guy living underneath an opera house where everyone sings to each other in casual conversation."
"The only thing I find unbelievable is the ending," said Arleen. "Like any woman in her right mind would go for the boring, simpering aristocrat over the obsessive, psychotic genius. If Mom's taught us one thing, it's that nothing's more attractive than a resolute psychopath who murders innocents to get his way."
"Oh, my ears are burning!" chuckled Joker, entering the room suddenly.
"Dad, settle an argument," said J.J. "Are musicals inherently unbelievable?"
"No," said Joker. "Many's the time I've randomly burst into a song and dance routine on a scheme. Admittedly, no one else joined in except Harley occasionally, and that would usually screw it up. But nothing's inherently unbelievable, J.J. As your father, I thought I would have taught you that anything's possible."
"See?" said Arleen, sticking her tongue out at her twin brother.
"Well, at least buy some headphones so I don't have to hear it," retorted J.J. "I think the music's loud and annoying, and the story is stupid and unbelievable. I'm entitled to that opinion, and I'm entitled to not being bothered by it."
"He is," agreed Joker, nodding. "We respect differences of opinion in this house, unless they're disagreeing with me, of course. Don't you have headphones, Leenie?"
"I guess," sighed Arleen. "I just think it's the kinda music that needs to be blared out – it's so full of pain and passion and you can't experience that fully through headphones. You have to surround yourself with the music, like it says in the song."
"Well, you're welcome to blare it when your brother's out," said Joker. "Harley and I don't mind it. We're used to rackets after being in Arkham."
"To be fair, puddin', most of the rackets in Arkham were usually made by us," said Harley Quinn, entering the room. "But what don't we mind?"
"Leenie's favorite musical," said Joker.
"Oh no, I love it," said Harley, smiling. "No matter how many times I hear it, I always cry at the end. It's just so unfair. The guy might be a little unique-looking, but that's no reason to abandon him after he killed people for you! People can be so superficial sometimes," she sighed.
"Well, I can't change the ending of the musical," said Joker, shrugging. "But I can give you a happier version of the story, if you want. One where the pretty girl ends up with the violent psychopath."
"You're gonna tell us a story, Dad?" asked J.J., eagerly. "Just like old times?"
"Just like old times," said Joker, nodding.
"Your stories were the best when we were kids, Dad!" exclaimed Arleen, hugging him. "I don't think it's possible to improve my favorite musical, but if anyone can do it, it's you!"
"Well, thanks for your faith in me, sweetness – I'll certainly do my best," said Joker. "There'll probably be less singing in my version, but you never know. I think I've got who I'm casting as every character sorted, so let's start and we'll see how it goes. It was the late nineteenth century, so before indoor plumbing, in Paris, France, so you can imagine how bad everyone smelled…"
"Puddin', no derogatory national stereotypes," snapped Harley.
"Aw, but I was gonna do a comedy French accent for the characters!" protested Joker. "And have them all surrender at the end!"
"No derogatory national stereotypes," repeated Harley, firmly.
"Take all the fun outta telling a story," muttered Joker. "All right, I'll start over. Paris, the late nineteenth century. The people of France had decided to take a rare break in between revolutions…"
"That's not a derogatory national stereotype – that's just history!" snapped Joker. "There was no revolution going on at the time, except for the one in the Paris Opera House, where our story begins. And that wasn't so much a revolution, as a voluntary transfer of power from the old opera director to the two new owners."
"There you are, gentlemen, just sign here, and the opera is yours," said Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot, eagerly holding out a pen to the two men opposite him. His eyes betrayed a look of immense relief when the signatures were written down on the paper, and he shook hands heartily with the two men. "Congratulations – you won't regret your investment, I assure you," he said, puffing out a cloud of smoke from his cigarette holder. "Let me take you downstairs and introduce you to the company – they're just in the midst of rehearsals."
"Isn't this exciting, Jonathan?" asked Jervis Tetch eagerly, as he and his business partner, Jonathan Crane, followed Cobblepot out of the office and down the stairs. "Just look at this place! It's gorgeous!"
"Yes, beautiful," agreed Crane. "Which makes me wonder at the marvelous price we got for it. I should have thought it was worth at least double what we paid for it, if not triple."
"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth, haven't you heard that expression?" asked Tetch. He paused on the staircase and squealed excitedly. "Just look at the scrolling on those columns!" he exclaimed, pointing.
"Delightful," agreed Crane, with far less enthusiasm.
"And these sculptures, they're gorgeously detailed," said Tetch. "So elaborate! Are those cherubs on the ceiling?! I do believe they're cherubs!"
"Save some excitement for the auditorium, Monsieur Tetch," said Cobblepot. "Of course the building is beautiful, but we take particular pride in the caliber of our performers, as you will see inside."
"Won't you miss it, Monsieur Cobblepot?" asked Crane, as Cobblepot beckoned them through the doors that led to the backstage area.
"Miss it? No, not at all. There are certain…pressures in running an opera that…I personally didn't foresee, and which have had an adverse effect on…my health. I…was told by my doctors to get away," said Cobblepot, slowly. "The asking price was so low because of those reasons…I need to…get away as soon as possible before things get worse for me."
"I see," said Crane, as they wandered onto the stage in the midst of rehearsals for the opera's latest production of Pagliacci. "Well, I do hope you recover quickly."
"Oh yes, I will," said Cobblepot, hastily. "I'm sure. Once I'm away from here…everything will be fine."
The rehearsal was in full swing, with a beautiful red-headed woman belting out a passionate number into the face of an incredibly handsome man. The surrounding chorus members supported them under the watchful eye of the musical director, Madame Joan Leland.
"Gentlemen, please clear the stage – we're rehearsing!" she snapped during a pause in the singing.
"My apologies, Madame Leland," said Cobblepot. "You'll want to be on good terms with her – Madame Leland is basically in charge of things on stage," he added to Crane and Tetch. "She runs a tight and efficient ship, or at least she tries to. We still have a few divas in the company."
"Harleen Quinzel, you just missed your cue!" snapped Madame Leland, glaring at a pretty blonde chorus girl. She was holding a prop glass and gazing up dreamily towards the rafters, but Madame Leland's voice snapped her out of her reverie.
"Sorry, Madame Leland," she said, hurrying over to hand the glass to the pretty redhead star, who glared at her.
"You're lucky you have a part – pay attention in future or you won't much longer!" the red-haired woman snapped at her, grabbing the glass away.
"Sorry, Signora Ivy," said the blonde girl, looking embarrassed. The red-haired woman threw the glass back at her, and continued singing.
"Who on earth is that stunning creature?" asked Crane.
"Signora Pamela Ivy? She's been the leading soprano here for nineteen seasons, you know that," said Tetch. "We've seen all her performances…"
"Not her," interrupted Crane. He pointed at the blonde girl, who had returned to her place in the chorus and whose eyes wandered up toward the rafters again. "Her."
"That's Harleen Quinzel, one of the chorus girls," said Cobblepot. "She has a fine voice, but she's a bit of an inattentive performer, I'm afraid. Always has her head in the clouds."
"I see Signor Dent is in fine form tonight," commented Tetch, nodding at the attractive man partnered with Ivy.
"As always – he plays so well opposite Signora Ivy," said Cobblepot, nodding. "Though I suspect that's partially because of their off-stage affair. Everyone knows about it – they don't try to be discreet, even when they're publicly performing," he said, gesturing as Ivy reached her hand around to squeeze Dent's bottom. "But if you try and speak to her about it, she'll snap at you. In fact, if you try to give her any direction or criticism at all, she'll snap at you. She's a bit of a diva, I'm afraid, and must be handled with kid gloves at all times. The company calls her 'Poison Ivy,' as a nickname because of that, but never to her face, of course."
"Of course," agreed Tetch. "Goodness, I wish someone had warned us about divas before we bought this place, right, Jonathan? Jonathan?" he pressed, as his friend just stared at Harleen Quinzel in captivation.
"Sorry, what?" he asked.
"You know it would be incredibly unprofessional for the owners of the opera to have an affair with one of its singers, don't you?" asked Tetch.
"Yes, yes," snapped Crane. "I assure you, that's not my intention. She's just…a strikingly beautiful young lady."
"She comes from a poor family, an orphan since the death of her father several months back," said Cobblepot. "It affected her deeply – she was never a very outgoing person, but after that, she withdrew even further into her shell. She spends a lot of time alone, away from the rest of the company. She doesn't really have any friends, or anyone to look after her."
"The poor girl," said Crane. "Taking a fatherly interest in her isn't unprofessional, is it, Jervis?"
"Not as such," agreed Tetch. "But we mustn't play favorites with the company, Jonathan. We must treat them all as equally valued employees."
"You should treat Signora Ivy a lot better than that, or you'll have a crisis on your hands," said Cobblepot. "She is the epitome of a prima donna."
The current song ended, and the three men immediately began rapturously applauding. Ivy smiled at them in acknowledgment, and then kissed Dent deeply. "I've been wanting to do that since the beginning of the duet," she said.
"You sang beautifully, my love," Dent murmured.
"I know," sighed Ivy. "I always do. But I never get tired of hearing it."
"Ladies and gentlemen, if I could have a few moments of your time, please…" began Cobblepot, stepping forward.
"Make it quick," snapped Madame Leland, glancing at her watch. "We're on a tight schedule, and I want to go over that song again without Signora Ivy's wandering hands."
Ivy glared at her. "Don't blame me – we would have had to go over it anyway because some little brat forgot her cue," she said, nodding at Harleen.
"It will just take a minute, Madame Leland," said Cobblepot.
"I'm timing it," retorted Madame Leland.
"Ladies and gentlemen, for many months there have been rumors of my imminent retirement," said Cobblepot, addressing the company. "I can now tell you that these are all true, and I would like to introduce you to the two gentlemen who now own the opera, Monsieur Jonathan Crane and Monsieur Jervis Tetch," he said, beckoning them forward.
The company applauded. "Gentlemen, allow me to introduce Signora Pamela Ivy," said Cobblepot, taking her hand and bringing her over to them.
"Signora, this is an extraordinary honor," said Tetch, seizing her hand and kissing it. "I've experienced all your greatest roles – your voice is perfection."
"I'm aware of that," said Ivy, smiling at him. "But it's always nice to meet a fan."
"If I recall, Nedda has a rather fine aria about birdsong in the first act of Pagliacci," said Tetch. "I wonder if, as a personal favor, you would oblige us with a private rendition, Signora. Unless of course Madame Leland objects," he said.
"Let her object – she doesn't control me," interrupted Ivy, over Madame Leland's protest. "No one controls me, not even my new managers. But I will oblige you, Monsieur Tetch, because I wish to," she said, clearing her throat and nodding at the pianist.
She launched into the aria, but hadn't got more than a few strains out when a backdrop suddenly plummeted from the rafters, nearly hitting Ivy, who was pushed out of the way just in time by Dent. The backdrop had some writing scribbled on it in red paint: What's red and green and tone-deaf all over? Poison Ivy, of course! HA HA HA!
Ivy stared at the inscription, and then grew furious. "Who did this?!" she shrieked. "Whose idea of a joke is this?!"
Nobody said a word, but Harleen Quinzel couldn't suppress a small giggle. "You!" shrieked Ivy, storming over to her. "You think this is funny?! Did you do this?!"
"She's been here the whole time, Signora – how could she?" murmured Madame Leland, glancing up to the rafters. "I think it must have been…the Joker."
Nervous murmuring started up at this. "The Joker?" repeated Crane, confused. "Who on earth is the Joker?"
Nobody responded. "Signora Ivy, please accept our sincerest apologies for this horrible prank," said Tetch. "We will find out who's responsible, but there's no need to lose your temper. These things do happen."
Ivy turned slowly toward him, her eyes blazing. "These things do happen?" she hissed. "You have been here five minutes – what do you know? Yes, these things do happen all the time! For the past six months, these things do happen, and did you stop them from happening?!" she shrieked at Cobblepot. "No! And you," she growled, rounding on Tetch. "You're as bad as he is! These things do happen! Well, until you stop these things from happening, this thing," she said, pointing to herself. "Does not happen! Harvey, come along – we're leaving!" she snapped, storming off the stage and out of the auditorium.
Dent followed her instantly, turning back to sneer at Tetch and Crane. "Amateurs," he muttered.
"Well, I don't think there's much more I can do to assist you gentlemen," said Cobblepot, smiling at them. "If you need me, I'll be in Gotham City. Goodbye."
He hurried from the room, leaving Tetch and Crane with an instant and very deep sense of buyer's remorse.