I love food. I really do. Some of my favorite people are the ones that can sit with me over dinner and dissect the ingredients in a puree and the delicate balance which has created something of a romantic experience for the palate. Sometimes, when food is really amazing, I can’t speak at all.
I didn’t begin this way. I began as all humans, on milk of some form or another. So I believe it goes with most things in life which have the potential to be extraordinary. The simple can lead to the sublime.
A friend of mine recently sent me a link to a film about a fictitious composer. This friend was excited for me to watch it as the singing of opera in film is so rare and they know this is one of my soapbox causes in life: getting art, especially opera, accepted.
After taking a few minutes to view the excerpt, I was struck by something. It was terrible. The voices weren’t really trained, there was a lack of connection and the singing was so stagnant, so uninspired. But my friend absolutely LOVED it. Thought it was so beautiful. And I was left to wonder, how is it that the impression of a performance can leave one person elevated, and another with indigestion?
Contrast this situation with that of another rendering of a musical classic that struck a chord with audiences. That of the movie version of the musical, Sweeney Todd. To those of us who are diehard fans, it was somewhat, if not entirely disappointing. The chorus-the main artery of the show-was non-existent. The portrayal of Mrs. Lovett was confusing at best, and infuriating at worst, simply because it wasn’t correct. Or was it?
Perhaps it’s all about taste. I think it might be, but not in a general sense, I think taste in this sense is about that first smell of something divine. Food prepared with subtlety and craft takes a sensitive palate, and palates are developed. This piece of schmopera (smaltzy-opera), and the other, a glossed over reading of a rather incredible musical may lead to something bigger.
For the latter, I have to look at my own experience. After seeing the aforementioned film, my little brother-a kid who seemingly had no interest in musicals-purchased the original Broadway soundtrack. Success! So what if the chorus was missing in the movie, MY little brother wanted to watch the original now! Wanted to listen to it! This piece I would deem classic had become a part of his vernacular. Many of my flavorful friends argued about who should have been cast in the film, and what it could have been. But, without that element of intrigue, something to bridge the divide, my brother and many more like him, would never have watched it. And for me, this is the starting point. This is the beginning of the journey. Seeing something, a kernel of something. And when it comes to opera, that kernel requires the people performing to tell an honest story.
And this is where I come to something I heard recently about one of our dear inspirations, Joyce DiDonato. Apparently, her Met contract will expire in 2017. In a recent conversation with a respected colleague, a discussion regarding the very same performance of Joyce’s in Maria Stuarda, (the one which brought fellow tTs soprano, Alisa Peterson to tears and absolute inspiration) caused this colleague to leave the performance. Why? How is that possible?
It takes courage to perform the way Ms. DiDonato does. I believe her-because she believes herself. She becomes the character and draws people into the story of something so seemingly foreign. People in costumes singing about love, dying on stage for twenty minutes, crying about an unrequited mismatch of affection, for an unreasonable amount of time after having met only five minutes prior. But it is the combination of this commitment, and the decision to create art that is applicable to the audience-accessible in some way-that brings us from milk, to meat. And what a gift that artist is who knows how to skirt that divide.
So I ask myself, what are the transcendent things that I do-that you do-to make opera-something tangible, something, necessary? Where we can have a theatrical experiences that brings together five to five million strangers?
I have had such a meaty theatrical experience. It was a few years ago. I was in NYC. It was a sticky Summer day and I had the privilege of seeing Mark Rylance perform in the play, Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth. He portrayed an unsympathetic, rather terrible character, but I wanted him to win. His commitment was so riveting that by the end of the play, myself, and those around me were likewise physically exhausted. I had allowed myself to figuratively step onto that stage with him, and become something. After this sold out matinee performance there was a five minute standing ovation. I made the long trek down the spiral staircase out into the street. I walked in silence for a few minutes. I looked up to see these familiar strangers around me, and among this sea of human experiences, I asked some of them, “were you just? Did you feel? I know, right?!” There wasn’t much to be said because this artist had done the work. He found the deepest nuance of character and made it palatable, consumable, tasty.
I asked an usher afterward, “who is Mr. Rylance’s understudy?” “Oh, there is no understudy. If he doesn’t perform, the show doesn’t go on.”