It’s Easter Sunday, Passover has finished, Spring is officially “here”, and so the tide of thoughts turns to new beginnings, to the shedding of winter weight, and looking forward with anticipation. We humans are such creatures of habit, no? I wish we didn’t have to wait for the flip of the calendar to signal our brains that “it’s OK, to get going, now!” That power lies within us not only with each new year, new spring, or even with each new day – it’s available to us at each and every moment of the day. All we have to do is reach for it and choose it.
Once again, I see the stage as my teacher: I’m getting ready to debut with the Vienna State Opera (insert moment of glee here!) on Tuesday evening. I will sing the role of Rosina, one which I’ve sung a number of times, as you may know – and one that I will spend a lot of time with in the coming months. In keeping with the tradition here of reviving an opera, we got about 6 hours of rehearsal, obviously with none of it being on the stage, in costume, or with orchestra – that would be too easy! As a result, I find myself asking the question, “How in the world do I make this fresh, real, inspired, true and actually touch the audience under these conditions? I’ll be lucky if I can show up in the right costume, find my first entrance on the 3-level stage, and remember which is my room, and which is Bartolo’s!” And of course, the reality that this production actually premiered years before I was born is not far from my thoughts, serving only to cement the knowledge that EVERY MAJOR SINGER that has EVER encountered Rosina has sung it on this very stage – I’m guessing one won’t be able to “fool” this audience. Nor would I want to.
I think it means that I must simultaneously pull from my experience with this fiesty girl – the knowledge of how she thinks, the vocal pacing of the evening, the trouble musical spots in the ensembles, etc – and at the same time, I must remember that “she” has never experienced this day before. For “her” all is new: all is unexpected, and she is always completely surprised by what has happened. So it’s a balancing act between what “I” know, and what “she” doesn’t. That’s actually quite cool. (It’s probably also a recipe for short term schizophrenia!)
But it’s the BRILLIANT gift that this mystical world of theater, with its bright lights and impossibly high expectations, gives to me – finding a way to call on my resources and knowledge, but never daring to assume anything, always waiting for the surprise, always listening. I think one of the biggest gifts we can give ourselves is to stop assuming. Stop assuming we know how something goes. The minute we do that on the stage, we’re dead dramatically. If we do that in life, I think, we cut off all sorts of possibilities for discovery and growth. It’s definitely the scarier path – it’s much safer to stay in the place “we know” – but I think I’d rather choose the unknown and take the risk.
It’s what Mozart did! It seems as if he wasn’t afraid of anything. My fantasy of him is that he didn’t give a damn and just went for it – unafraid to push the envelope, fearing no one’s opinion. (It may well just be my fantasy, but I like the image!) And I think it’s why he was so wildly successful – he didn’t assume he had it all figured out – he tried things, reveled in shocking people, making people think! It’s one reason I love these two little cherubs that sit on the side of a statue erected in Mozart’s honor here in Vienna. Yes, the statue is lovely, and the garden around it well tended – but it was this pair of rascals that captured my attention and seem to capture the less “austere” Mozart depicted in the statue, that I love.
Handel is the same way – he took all the conventions around him, and then challenged the status quo with daring vocal fireworks, and perhaps more importantly, risked real emotional content in his pathos-filled, arching cantabile arias (think “Scherza infida”.) On Tuesday, it’s not just my Vienna State Opera debut – it’s also the 250th Anniversary of Handel’s Death. 250 years. And here we are “discovering” him anew. What if the scholars had insisted, “we know all there is to know about Handel.” What if we singers simply stole old ornaments from the past great singers and didn’t attempt to make it new for ourselves? What if we stopped asking the questions?
Someone once defined arrogance for me as “the inability to be taught anything new”, and I have to say, I think that’s pretty accurate. The moment we stop questioning, stop listening to the answers, I think we die a bit. But again, I function in this world where, in a peculiar way, I am a slave to the old school – to the school of “this is how it goes.” The librarian here at the opera brought into rehearsal the original Barbiere score that Rossini, HIMSELF used to conduct the premiere performance of Barbiere here in Vienna way back in 1820. My fingers touched the same pages that Rossini’s did…I was staring at his very own markings!!! So right there, before my very eyes, I was being told “how it goes.” And yet, I still have to breathe life into it on my own, as if it were the very first time it was being heard. I get to listen to it with fresh ears and to find the truth in it.
I enjoy putting this to practice in my every day life – it’s a challenge to keep from assuming I know how things will go, and therefore tempering my behavior to what I think the outcome will be – that only limits the possibilities. Yeah, it’s definitely a challenge. But when I actually take the risk and make that leap, the reward is pretty fabulous – I actually feel alive, and not part of a stale old production!
That’s enough bad philosophy for one night. Here’s to a good day off before the debut, and a HUGE toast to Mr. Handel on Tuesday – what an HONOR it has been to sing your divine music.