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Monday, February 12, 2018

Operatic Safe Spaces

I have a new motto for opera!

Opera: A Safe Space for Exploring Uncomfortable Ideas!

Let's define some of those words. 

Opera: stories told through singing in front of a public audience
A: an indefinite article
Safe: secure from danger
Space: any expanse where humans can congregate physically, musically, or intellectually
for: a preposition
Exploring: to examine for the purpose of discovery
Uncomfortable: a state of unease
Ideas: a conception in the mind that can be shared

Over the past few years, two phrases have percolated into the consciousness and policies of many in our western world: "Safe Space" and "I'm uncomfortable with fill in the blank".  Usually, once someone becomes uncomfortable, they now begin to feel unsafe. Being uncomfortable is seen as something almost dangerous, akin to an assault of some sort. To feel comfortable is now something seen as a positive ideal, in all things. But that's where a danger lies, at least for us artists trying to create new, innovative works of art (dance, theatre, opera, compositions, productions, paintings, etc.).

To create art, one must push past the comfortable. Nothing new ever came from a place of comfort. Even authors who work in comfortable surroundings (I'm one of those, currently sitting in front of a roaring fireplace sipping a bit of scotch) must move into areas of their intellect that are undiscovered countries, and therefore not at all comfortable, in order to write anything that's close to interesting.

All one has to do is read or watch actors talk about their process to understand that they run from the comfortable. Viola Davis and Meryl Streep are just two who jump to mind. They've gone on record to say that if they find themselves acting from a place of comfort, their work in front of the camera will be terrible. The same if you read interviews with composers, writers, sculptors - literally anyone who creates. Comfort is not sought, in fact it is seen as quite dangerous. When Armie Hammer was interviewed about taking the part of Oliver in this year's amazing film "Call Me By Your Name", he said "It scared me. It made me nervous. The reason I had to do this project was because it made me feel uncomfortable."

I've blogged about running towards what scares you (It's called "Fear In Opera".) I really believe this and know it to be true! 

It is a truism that during the learning process there will be many moments of discomfort. Just the physicality of singing is not normal. No one sustains screams on organized pitches set to poetry in order to communicate ideas in real life. That's opera! In order to do so, one has to work hard to learn the music itself (this is seldom easy), work to pronounce the text correctly (not comfortable), work to memorize the music and text (not comfortable), and then once staging rehearsals begin even more discomfort comes into play: learning the blocking, stage combat (not comfortable and initially can be physically dangerous), simulating emotions from love to rage to grief (any emotion that might be 100% comfortable is certainly not very interesting on the operatic stage), or simulating physical love onstage (truly not comfortable -- put your hand here, embrace sideways while still singing loud high notes into each other's faces, practicing kissing, slapping, or formalized bowing, oftentimes timed to a musical score's tempo controlled by another uncomfortable entity, the conductor!) Most of the parts of creating an opera are the opposite of comfortable. 

Now over the course of rehearsals, many of these things become incredibly comfortable, or at least manageable. That's what rehearsal is for and that's why we rehearse. Yet, I find some young singers don't understand that notion. If something is asked of them - for instance, cross to stage left and throw a handkerchief at someone - and if it might feel uncomfortable, then a judgement sometimes gets made that it should not be attempted because it makes them (themselves, usually not their character) feel uncomfortable. Instead of trying it (i.e. rehearsing it), the idea is dismissed and another more comfortable idea is explored instead, oftentimes without giving the initial idea a try.  (Even writing that paragraph and knowing someone will read it with the intention to prove that those ideas are wrong is really uncomfortable for me!) I'm not talking about rehearsing in an arena of non-consent. Consent is a totally different subject and extremely important in order to make everyone in the room comfortable and at ease. If people are currently rehearsing in a space without a dialogue about consent, then everything should stop and that conversation should happen. Why? It's 2018, that's why.

And that's one of the paradoxes about comfort and learning. In order to really act, one needs to feel at ease. The environment of the rehearsal space creates this feeling of, for lack of a better word, comfort. But once everyone moves into this safe space of comfort, we have to be able to start exploring the uncomfortable. This is an important detail. It's why actors love working with certain directors, why singers love working with certain conductors. There is a state of ease at play, a sense that everyone will be taken care of somehow, so that all can do their best work possible. And often that best work is found in uncomfortable places.

Why would someone ask someone else to feel uncomfortable? Being asked to be uncomfortable is now seen by some as akin to assault. Part of the problem is that it's becoming increasingly difficult to have conversations about polarizing ideas, as well as understanding the difference between the person in the rehearsal and the character being rehearsed. (The latter half of that sentence is the important part.)

There is a difference here. In opera we explore ideas that are meant to entertain a public audience. Opera is, as I love to say, "never about the day nothing happened." Opera is never about singing emotions that are boring, pleasant, or comfortable. These characters being sung by operatic performers are oftentimes terrible people, or victims, or assholes, or abusers. or family, or gods and goddesses, or queens, or supernatural beings, or regular people caught up in an irregular moment or event. But singing Tosca does not require the soprano to be at one with murdering a potential rapist and become a suicidal diva who sings one of the great final lines in all of opera before leaping to her death. There is a separation between subject and player, character and singer.

One of the failures of education today is showing up more and more whenever I work with young singers: an inability to understand the rational and irrational ideas present in all the elements of their art form.  Teaching critical thinking and problem solving (the rational) as well as allowing students to explore their imagination and emotional inner lives (the irrational) seems to be lacking in many backgrounds of singers I now work with -- mind you, not just in the academic world, but with the professional young artists and artists that I've worked with recently. It is becoming more and more a challenge to get singers to see beyond the score, to imagine worlds not present, to sing horizontal phrases that aren't tied to vertical beats, to act on the edge of emotions, to make audacious choices, to explore dangerous ideas and ideals that are, I clear my throat, uncomfortable.

If one wants to be a success, to innovate, to put themselves ahead of the pack, to make themselves heard and seen above the rest, to be known as a creative artist or exciting performer, one has to run towards what scares you. One has to runaway from the comfortable and easy choices, the things that make everyone else stay happily in their safe arenas. 

Because, you see, if one deems a space "safe", it actually deems all other spaces "unsafe". How about a crazy idea? All spaces should be "safe"? Is that possible? I believe it should be, at least in the artistic arena of the rehearsal space and the operatic stage. Safe from comfort. Safe from easy choices that make no one think beyond themselves. Safe from accepting the status quo. Safe from emotional restrictions and physical repressions. But especially, safe from censorship.

The operatic process could become a tool to reteach the world how to free themselves. To teach the world that it is okay to be both rational and irrational. Maybe that might make the world a safer place for ideas, thoughts, and differences of opinions. 

Opera could help teach the world to become a safe place to explore uncomfortable ideas.