Cinematic Opera: The Future?
First day of opera rehearsal: Take out your thoroughly marked up, translated, well-worn score and sing through the music you’ve likely coached with your team for weeks. The musical lines are baked into your muscle memory, the plosive consonants calculated to the very last sixteenth note, the source material scoured for every possible dramatic beat. You sing the show beginning to end, and more likely than not, your preparation has—well—prepared you for exactly what transpires.
First day on film set: Show up. Play. See what happens.
The difference is not one of preparation (we’d rehearsed and prerecorded Mirrorflores’ dynamic baroque soundtrack and had discussions about character, interpretation, and some staging), but rather of control. In the very structured world of opera, adherence to style, accuracy, and ultimate command of the voice are paramount, and control serves as the framework through which the very best performers are able to find moments of freedom and spontaneity. Here though, with the singing already taken care of, performing for a camera allowed for freedom from the start. For many fellows, certainly for me, this more immediate freedom was a welcome breath of fresh air.
My scene partner and I were tasked with being mirror-image twins of one another. We were to find a brief escape from a purgatory-like existence (in the form of a 20’s garden party theatrical spectacular: the same show repeated ad nauseum as a means of torture and domination) and in our first moment alone discover one another for the first time, all to the tune of “Pur ti miro” from Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. What would it be like to see your own reflection for the first time? How would it feel to play with your own shadow? To escape? To find a way to touch, and eventually embrace, in a (perhaps post-pandemic) world so devoid of human connection?
Like the opera singers we were trained to be, my diligent scene partner and I came to staging with many pre-planned ideas. Some of this work was necessary to get to the level of synchronicity we wanted to achieve in our twinned movements, but we soon found that the real magic lay in the in-between moments: the flickers of unplanned yet still synchronized impulses, the hypnotic repetition and sensation of possibility in multiple takes, the flush of excitement in feeling the camera’s gaze close to our faces. We concluded that even as the world of live theatre is gratefully returning, there’s something about this world of film we can’t abandon, having experienced it once.
This intimacy between camera and performer we experienced affords our beloved craft an exciting opportunity. With cinema, we have the ability to bring to opera—an art form arguably unmatched in its ability to combine the very best of so many other disciplines—one more mode of expression: one that is inherently more accessible to new audiences, one that continues to expand our capacity for human storytelling, one that propels us toward the future.
Experience Mirrorflores now through September 12 here: https://musicacademy.cogplayer.com/event/mirrorflores/
“The poetry of Bilitis is not unknown to me. For a long time, I have considered her a personal friend,” a professor of Greek archaeology writes to Pierre Louÿs in response to his Les Chansons de Bilitis, a translation of a set of poems discovered in the tomb of sixth century Greek poetess and Sappho-contemporary, Bilitis. The only catch? The original poems along with their supposed author never existed.
These 143 poems, grouped into three sections of Bilitis’ life (her childhood and earliest sexual awakening, her time on the island of Lesbos and relationship with a woman, and her life as a courtesan in Cyprus) are perhaps best known for their eroticism and then-controversial exploration of homosexuality. As it turns out, Pierre Louÿs fabricated their entire origin story. And even though he fooled some experts, much of his audience knew, or at least suspected, the dubious nature of his source material.
But why choose pseudotranslation as an expressive form? Certainly, Louÿs enjoyed toying with the academic elite and their fascination with and reverence for the ancient world--claiming that just as his work was entrenched in historical invention, so too was academia. In what might be considered an early ancestor of the modern internet troll, when an unfavorable reviewer claimed to find anachronism in the work, Louÿs cited him in his faux scholarly bibliography in a later edition of the text. Also included was a fictional archaeologist named G. Heim, which only some were able to recognize as the pun that it was--on the German word geheim, meaning secret.
Besides demystifying the academic elite, Louÿs’ work was transgressive in its treatment of erotica and lesbianism. He writes that most literary lesbians are femme fatales, but that his Bilitis is an idyll, both normalized and revered. However earnest this intent may have been, the modern reader can’t help but wonder if Louÿs’ intensely voyeuristic tone ever strays very far from the patriarchal norms of the time. While it is clear Louÿs was catering to a heterosexual male audience, his Bilitis would serve as a muse for many lesbian writers that follow. Particularly of note is Renee Vivien, whose own translation of Sappho’s poetry does much more to subvert the male gaze, centering instead the female experience.
Contemporaries and friends, Pierre Louÿs and Claude Debussy gained much from each other artistically and personally. Debussy, enamored with Louÿs’ joie de vivre, bohemian values, and financial freedom, and Louÿs, avid lover of Debussy’s music and a student himself of piano and violin, found in one another a kindred spirit. It was only natural, then, that when a literary magazine commissioned Debussy to publish a new piece, he decided upon three of Louÿs’ Chansons to set to music.
What then becomes of our Bilitis--a fictional poet whose invented history was transcribed, translated, and now adapted into music? Perhaps Louÿs’ veil of authenticity is still at work and, in listening to this song cycle, it is Louÿs’ poetry that transports us to a world of Greek mysticism and ancient pleasure. Or maybe it is Debussy’s richly chromatic and deliciously sensuous harmonic language that fully legitimizes her, deepening her story in a way only music can. Whatever the case may be, Bilitis--once a figment of a man’s imagination--has surely taken on a very real life of her own.
Into the lens
“Hello, old friend,” is what I found myself saying audibly to my carry-on suitcase as I dug her out from the garage. A familiar but long lost set of feelings followed: the simple satisfaction of a just-organized-enough pack job, the vigilance of triple checking the audition binder, and that quiet and nameless sensation of buzzing independence tinged with possibility and adrenaline that is so specific to travel. (Is there a German word for this?)
I’m on an Amtrak to Philadelphia for a live audition. To sing for real humans in a new city. I missed this. There was a time when auditions felt like a circus act: one part tightrope walk (displaying of technical mastery) one part contortionist (twisting oneself into the exact shape that might fill the space available) and one part psychic medium (defining and communicating the unsaid desires of your audience). But after a few years of mind-trickery, meditation, and good old fashioned repetition, I had gotten myself to a place where auditions really did feel like performances, in the best sense of the word. I generally walked out of the room feeling like I had represented myself, the music, and the characters honestly and fully. It was even getting fun. I got to explore new cities, reconnect with friends, and sing a whole lot. Rejection season always rolled around and some confronting bank account math would be done, but, fortunately, there was usually some Yes that affirmed the whole ordeal in retrospect. And when there wasn’t, I survived.
When Corona hit, I was again pretty fortunate. My summer gig turned virtual, and I got to connect with artists and mentors that transformed my just-wait-it-out mentality into something much more creatively charged. I began work with a composer on a new commission, I woodshedded some technique, and I committed to learning a brand new set of arias for audition season. I hungrily accepted every virtual recital series, every filmed production, and every semblance of a gig that came my way. And I set about my goal of normalizing my least favorite thing: recording.
Creating recordings had long since felt like my personally tailored perfectionist nightmare. Things I would forgive in live performance I dwelt upon in recorded form. I would dread watching myself for days, finally sit down and endure it, then, heart pounding, click submit on an application, telling myself it just has to be good enough to get in the room. So when this year’s audition season took shape and everything was to be recorded or streamed, I had to reframe things a bit.
First, I got over my technophobia and learned how to record myself. The first few sessions went as usual: I felt like while singing one thing, I was still judging what I had done moments before. I had none of the good nerves and all of the bad. Pouring my soul out in front of the blank, painfully neutral lense of an iPhone had none of the sparkle of a live performance. And then I had to watch the videos and confront technical challenges I thought I had worked out months ago.
But sheer necessity and solidarity among friends going through the same painstaking process kept me showing up for the next session. And soon enough, hitting record and watching myself didn’t sting as badly. I was able to go in with increasingly specific goals, building upon and learning from the session before. And, perhaps most importantly, I began to use the medium to enhance what it is I already do.
One of the most helpful exercises from the virtual summer festival I took part in was the process of writing one’s artistic manifesto--wherein we were instructed to compose a very short yet representative statement of who we are as artists. It was painstaking to write, but intensely clarifying to come back to. Part of mine reads as follows:
“I am far more interested in telling a story than making beautiful sounds for their own sake. I prioritize preparedness, spontaneity, empathy, collaboration, laughter, and listening. In short, I stand for expression and connection.”
Rather than going about my usual business and setting up a camera and a mic as bystanding witnesses, I found ways to integrate these new technical aspects of the craft so that they might affirm the things I stood for in my manfesto. Instead of performing in front of the camera, I began to perform into it. Moments where the lens itself became my focus point unlocked newfound potential for intimacy in my dramatic arcs. Watching those recordings back, I saw that the power and immediacy of that connection was unlike anything I could achieve in live performance. Soon feeling vocally exposed with the mic so close became a way to explore new colors and timbres, new ways the breath itself might weave it’s way into the music and the drama. I was more willing to sing brand new arias, ones I had never sung live, and I enjoyed how untortured and fresh they felt to sing. And I began to embrace the feeling that, even though the moment was being recorded, it was just that: a recording of a moment. It didn’t need to mean anything more or less than it did. The recordings I ended up sending I really grew to love. They are not perfect. They are evidence of who I was as an artist and a human that day.
And now, I’m off to the in-person final round of an audition I wasn’t even sure I would get. And, while I’m psyched to have my first chance to sing for people unmasked in over a year, I have to admit, I may miss staring into that green light just a little bit. Just like I learned to love the camera, I will have to unlearn the sense of control it afforded me. I will have to trust my voice to fill the space and accept that people will receive the dramatic intent and musical interpretation I’m putting out there, or not. I will have to think on my feet if something goes wrong, instead of laughing and groaning and yelling “Cut!” I will wake up tomorrow morning in an unfamiliar bed, go to an unfamiliar room, meet and bear a little bit of my soul to unfamiliar people, and then head back home.
Artists everywhere were told time and time again that this pandemic was a great opportunity to adapt. As with “unprecedented times,” this directive started to be met with more eye rolls than appreciative nods over time. For me, it came to mean taking the thing I dreaded most, staring it directly in the lens, and learning to fall a little bit in love with it.
Rediscovering Joy in Practice
To begin, I will go against every piece of performing advice I’ve ever received and issue a disclaimer: For some of us, meaningful practice during these days of quarantine is inconceivable. We are after all, experiencing a sort of mass collective trauma that has suddenly rendered the never-ending quest of finding the perfect [a] vowel a little less pressing. And that’s fine--dare I say, good? At the very least, it’s a healthy dose of perspective and a necessary jolt from the tunnel vision so many of us find ourselves in, daily.
For me, after being knocked out by a nasty flu and out of commission for about a month, getting back into good voice was a process. I was fortunate enough to have Zoom lessons and classes online to keep my sense of structure relatively intact, but patience with myself and with my instrument was at an all-time low. Every practice session was riddled with relentlessly negative inner dialogue, frequent mid-phrase stopping and exasperated groans, and dissonant stings on the piano punctuating coloratura-crash-and-burns. I was in this circular pattern of failing to meet my own expectations, and practice became a looming chore that I knew would leave me spiraling into imposter syndrome, impatience, and jealousy of those that seem to have it all together. Yes, I was still getting back into shape after my dear friend Influenza A overstayed its welcome, but I think the mental block that was beginning to calcify was stronger than the symptoms had ever been.
But a few weeks ago, my improved health overlapped with a particularly fruitful ten-minute meditation, and I was able to gain some clarity on the nature of the thoughts that were setting up shop in my consciousness. I realized I was operating under this dark umbrella idea: that all the vocal challenges I was facing were temporary blocks on the road to technical perfection. As though perfection were the natural state of things, and I had cluttered things somehow. Practice had become nothing more than a means to get to an imaginary end--an end of never having to think about getting more space ah not that kind of space more soft palette now get under the sound but don’t let your consonants get punchy but now your words are muddled just speak the text but you need some cover through the passaggio no not that much cover on top now it’s too spread and on and on and on. The problem wasn’t that these thoughts existed, but that I had assigned them this negative halo--like they were unnatural, unwelcome, and unique to me. Stubborn little hurdles on the course to a fantasy world where singing is easy and fun all the time.
I almost never lose the joy when I’m performing. Something in my bones and blood and brain hums on the moment before getting on stage, and things fall into place in a way that I can’t account for. It’s peace and clarity and electricity in one. Like everything that occurs (technical challenges and all) is in service of a true Purpose, which just doesn’t exist in the same realm as petty frustrations. As such, the joy is ever-present, self-multiplying, and boundless. Where was any of this joy, or even the memory of it, in the practice room? Invitation lost in the mail? Never. Sent.
DISCOVER THE JOY, reads the sticky-note on my piano. The very moment I made this distinction, I’m not kidding, it was like the sun breaking through the clouds in my practice space. I’m not drilling exercises; I’m deep diving into the true miracle that is muscle memory--I mean actively delighting in it. I’m reconnecting with why I sing the pieces I sing--not to show this or that or because I’m a light-lyric-coloratura-who-knows-what, but because they move me. And reconnecting with why that is. I’m naming and specifying technical hangups, approaching them with playfulness, humility, a beginner’s mentality, and--most importantly--not giving them any larger significance than they inherently have. This is a radical shift that allows me to forgive myself for not meeting my expectations on any given day, to be curious about my voice, to be scientific, to tap into the admiration I feel for the work of my colleagues and friends, to celebrate when something feels a little easier than the day before, and to every once in a while put something away for tomorrow. And for what it’s worth, I know I’m singing better (whatever that means) than I have in months.
I want to be clear: I’m not floating into every practice session on a Glinda bubble, suddenly able to appreciate every part of my singing. It’s less romantic and more systematic, this project of re-programming joy. And I am one of the fortunate few who have been gifted with some unstructured time during this pandemic, not facing anywhere near the share of burdens that I know are weighing on so many right now. But, for me, this quarantine has proved the best time for this practice. Unlike my usual life of weekly lessons, coachings, rehearsals, (talk about fortunate!) where my vocal Concern of the Hour is governed by the last thing I was advised to do, this life at home is malleable, slow, and open ended. Warm ups aren’t squeezed in before class, I’m not saving my voice for anything in particular, and what I sing isn’t governed by anything other than what I am moved to sing that day. Yes, I have a list of goals, roles to prepare, and music to learn for when this is all over, but the immediate future is mine to devise. And I’m choosing joy.