This past Thursday I had the pleasure of participating in an unique experience courtesy of Vital Opera. Their Artist Development Workshop presented scenes from Le nozze di Figaro, but the event turned out to be much more than that.
As an audience member, it was strange initially to watch a sort of public rehearsal, but after the first couple scenes, the format had won me over. The ensemble of singers was so courageous and willing to experiment in front of a skeptical crowd, and their enthusiasm and acceptance was infectious.
Now I'm not going to pretend that I absolutely loved every moment of the experience because I didn't. Le nozze di Figaro is one of my absolute favorite operas, and often I get annoyed if a performance doesn't live up to my standards. I found myself falling into this trend a lot during the workshop, but I had to just keep reminding myself that this wasn't supposed to be a finished product. I had no qualms whatsoever about the singers' abilities themselves. Every role was well sung and performed. It was a talented group, and they worked well together for how little time they'd been rehearsing together.
In the end, it was the discussion after the scenes that had the greatest impact upon me personally. There were a few points made that struck me the most, and I'd like to expound upon them briefly for you here:
1. Rules of "The Room"
One of the very first things the director of Vital Opera, Kelvin Chan, did at this event was share with the audience the "Room Rules" that the ensemble had created during their rehearsal process. I don't remember every single rule, but the main goal seemed to be to create an environment in which the cast members would feel secure and open minded enough to experiment as performers.
This concept of "the Room" where each person was invested in not only his/her own explorations but also those of fellow cast mates was refreshing. It seems like something that should be more fundamental and not so surprising to me as a performer, but it is all too easy to forget. I applaud the singers in this workshop for their willingness to accept these rules with complete trust and enthusiasm. Their performances were all the stronger for this open minded attitude, and I hope that I can apply these concepts in my own career.
2. The conundrum
Once the ideal scenario of "the Room" has been experienced, the more difficult question arises: How does one carry these concepts into environments that may not be so encouraging or supportive? There is really no simple answer to this, but it is worth pondering.
All too often as performers we find ourselves in environments that do not allow us to experiment. Sometimes it is because of a director with a very specific vision. Sometimes it is because of a competitive atmosphere between singers. Sometimes the issue lies in our own heads because of difficult music, staging that makes us uncomfortable, non-musical stress, or the ever present fear of failure. Whatever the reason, it holds us back from taking risks, and that is a crucial element of performing. I like to think that being aware of the need to foster creativity is half the battle, and when I am preparing a role and rehearsing in the future, I hope that I may be able to infuse some of Vital Opera's vitality into my own process.
3. Stock characters and preconceptions
The biggest moment of self-awareness that I experienced that night, however, was related to the idea of stock characters and conventions. Now, as I mentioned earlier, Le nozze di Figaro is a very beloved opera to me, and I can get annoyed when I don't think Mozart's creation is getting properly displayed. My friends have experienced this after numerous recitals when I insist on playing recordings for them to contrast whichever aria has just been butchered according to my opinion.
As I watched Vital Opera's workshop, I often found myself having adverse reactions to various experimentations. They would try some extreme alteration in a characterization, and while I knew it was simply to explore a new perspective, I would immediately dislike it. They stated many times that the process involved asking a lot of questions about a character without committing to any answer or decision. The perfectionist control freak in me was not pleased, crying out, "No! They're doing it wrong! Bartolo would never do that! The Count isn't like that at all!"
It wasn't until the discussion turned to stock characters and preconceptions that I started to recognize my hang ups. I generally like to think of myself as open minded about stagings and such, so why was I so horrified by a simple exercise in character development? Maybe I wasn't as open to change as I thought I was. What was the possible harm in trying something new? Who was to say what was right or wrong with a choice in character portrayal? I had set myself up as an authority where I had no right, and while I am still sensitive about upholding the works I cherish, I am determined to be more accepting of new ideas in an old favorite. Art of any kind is up to interpretation. I don't have to agree with every choice made in an opera production, but I will respect the rights of singers, directors, and designers to make their own choices and try to glean what I can from their perspective.
By the end of the night, I had learned much more than I anticipated, and I want to thank Vital Opera for welcoming their audience members to participate in their workshop and for nurturing such an energetic and open environment of artistic growth. The opera world needs more experiences like this, and I look forward to this company's future work.
And just for fun, here's a clip from The Met's 1999 production of Le nozze di Figaro: