One of the world's most widely-published authors, mystery writer Agatha Christie, wanted to be an opera star, not a writer. This little-known detail of the late author's life is one of many surprises to come out of a theatrical production entitled Agatha Sings performed recently in the Washington, D.C. area and scheduled to go on tour. Andrew Baroch had a front-row seat in the Lyceum Theater in Alexandria, Virginia.
American cabaret singer Robin Phillips Knop, is the writer, producer, director and, accompanied by a piano player, the only singer and actor in the show Agatha Sings.
Ms. Knop based the script on Christie's autobiography and other books about her life. A native of Devon, England, the mystery writer was born in 1890 and died in 1976. She wrote more than 100 mysteries, stories, and plays and while her books comprise the most popular literature ever written, after Shakespeare and the Bible. The author, herself, remains somewhat of a mystery. Few, if any, plays or movies have examined her life. Agatha Sings does. The script is almost entirely a monologue - the mystery writer's own words, culled from an autobiography and other books. Ms. Knop impersonates her - her posture, mannerisms, and voice. The audience sees Ms. Christie as a young woman, in her middle-aged years, and then as an old woman.
"I was only five years old when mother appeared at the door and announced, 'Agatha wants to learn music,'" says actor Robin Phillips Knop, portraying Agatha at age 21.
"People don't realize that she was a musician," explains Ms. Knop, in an interview. "She studied music from the age of five to 21. And her cherished secret fantasy was to become an opera singer on the stage."
But at the age of 21, Ms. Christie fails an audition in front of a representative of America's Metropolitan Opera, "an American woman," as Christie puts it on stage.
There's a pivotal moment in the play, the point where this American woman told Agatha, 'Well, I think I better tell you straight: the songs you san told me nothing, but the [vocal] exercises do. You would make a good concert singer, and would do well and could make your name at that. But your voice is just not strong enough for opera and never will be.'
"Oh! I went home feeling dejected and asked myself, soberly, 'What's next Agatha?' My cherished secret fantasy had ended. I had no ambition to become a concert singer," admits Ms. Christie, as portrayed by Ms. Knop.
Around that time, Agatha Christie receives a package in the mail. It's a manuscript, a story she'd written and sent to a literary agent, who returns it with a good review. "His words of encouragement upon reading my first manuscript were most heartening. And so it was that one door closed in my face, while another opened wide and bade me enter," she says.
In another scene, Ms. Christie has become a successful writer, but her personal life is in a shambles. In 1926, on her daughter's seventh birthday, her husband Archie Christie calls on the telephone to say that he's leaving her for another woman - a mutual acquaintance.
"'But Archie I can't understand what you're trying to say to me. Marry Nancy? Nancy Neil! The secretary? But Archie we don't even like her," she says.
"It threw Agatha into a tailspin," explains Ms. Knop. "She forgot her name while she was writing a check."
Agatha Christie suffered what appeared to be a mental collapse. She disappeared for about a week and, after a nationwide manhunt, was discovered in a hotel near her home, claiming to have suffered a bout of amnesia. She and Archie Christie were divorced in 1928.
Ms. Christie met an archaeologist two years later and spent the rest of her life, peacefully and happily, writing detective stories and traveling to the Middle East with him to photograph his archaeological digs.
"An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets, the more interest he has in her," says Agatha Christie at age 75, portrayed by Robin Phillips Knop.
Things had finally worked out for her. "Things that happened seemingly for no reason now make sense," she reflects. "Looking back, I can see a design I was not able to see at the time. That was how we human creatures are made and our destinies are not always evident to us at the beginnings of our lives."
Actress Robin Phillips Knop intersperses the script with renditions of opera and popular American and European music of the early 20th century. Her performance of a 1960s song entitled Far from the Home I Love sums up the theme of Agatha Sings: that everyone's life is, in a sense, a mystery - a puzzle we are all trying to work out.