Matthew Gallaway’s debut imagines four lives connected by opera and coincidence. Operatic circles, at least as described in his novel, are small enough, but the four personas depicted in The Metropolis Case, yoked by a ridiculous fantasy, don’t fill out into flesh-and-blood lives as they wend toward a final insulting twist.
In 19th-century Paris, a young singer named Lucien trains with the blessing of a princess who steps up to act as his benefactor. Then he meets the love of his life, a Viennese architect who pushes him to audition for the international première of Tristan And Isolde. A century later, the same opera gives singer Anna Prus her big break at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in the ’60s. There, she takes a Pittsburgh prodigy under her wing; the girl is named Maria (after Callas), and is a child of tragedy with a prestigious scholarship to Juilliard. Finally, in a modern-day segment, opera is a late discovery for Martin, a 40-year-old lawyer whose midlife crisis occasions a search for a simpler life and an examination of the habits which have kept him isolated since he left his wife and came out of the closet.
Love of opera drives Gallaway’s professionals and amateur, and without much embellishment, their relationships with their art might have created a fine centerpiece for the novel. But Gallaway chooses to emphasize their romances instead, foregrounding their sexual awakenings with hackneyed scenes of backstage trysts and angst over how the flame of the moment might affect their great performances. The Metropolis Case appeals to the love and trauma of the personalities onstage (chiefly Tristan) to explain the erratic behaviors of the characters offstage, but the alignment is inexact, the passions never as grand. And their love lives are never as riveting as they imagine, when they’re portrayed at all—Martin’s near-kiss with a friend after a punk show is the nearest the narrative gets to touching on his history of promiscuity. Instead, Gallaway focuses on his emotional bond with his cats.
Having dispensed with the majesty of Wagner, Gallaway resorts to connecting the lives of the three singers through a supernatural occurrence as foolish as it is improbable. Rather than redeeming his characters’ small-mindedness, the turn that brings them together emphasizes how slight and static their lives have been. In a scene expressly decorated as heartwarming, The Metropolis Case attempts to justify its underdeveloped lives with a moment of grace, but falls flat on its face.