Sunday, 26 May 2013

On being sexy...

Picture this: I'm lying face-down on a table, wearing nothing but a short chemise.  My arse, in all its pink-and-white cotton Primark glory, is out in the open for everyone to see.

I also happen to be covered in strawberries at this point, but that's a story for another day.
A year ago, I would have found this situation mortifying.  These days, it doesn't feel like such a big deal.

This is the second opera this year in which I've performed in my underwear.  It might sound a bit crazy, but actually it's pretty good training for me.  In the course of my opera career, I will probably have to perform many more times in my underwear - or less.

Opera has changed a lot in the last fifty years.  Directors these days want realism.  They want sex appeal.  Gone are the days of buttoned-up corsets and petticoats: modern productions are more likely to show you naked in bed with your lover, or painting your nails in your lingerie.

Showing skin onstage is a pretty daunting prospect.  Whether you're skulking around in a skimpy dress, dancing around in your skivvies, or even doing the full Monty, you can't help being painfully aware that you're being watched.  Not just by yourself or your boyfriend/girlfriend - but by an entire audience.  A whole crowd of people are watching you.   And that means you don't just have to be brave enough to reveal your body.  You have to really sell it.  You have to be sexy.

Hopefully a bit sexier than these blokes.
You know those girls who are always look sexy?  The girls who love to strut around in heels with their gorgeous hair and smouldering eyes, flashing their cleavage and wafting their perfume wherever they go?  Well, I am not one of those girls.

I hate perfume.  I prefer running shoes to heels. And my cleavage?  It doesn't quite, um, cleave. And yes, I have a tendency to wear cotton pants from Primark. They happen to be very comfortable!

I've never really been called sexy.  Cute, maybe.  Pretty, perhaps, on a good day.  But not sexy.  And so I never thought I could be "sexy" onstage.  I could do happy, or angry, or evil, or silly... but sexy?  That was completely out of the question.

When I look in the mirror, "sexy" is not the word that comes to mind.  I'm not overweight.  But I'm not model-thin either.  Nor do I have a perfect hourglass figure like Jessica Rabbit.

I'm sure Jess would have no problem performing in her underwear.
I have cellulite.  I have a belly.  And I have my "wobbly bits", as Bridget Jones calls them.  To a certain extent, I have accepted this state of affairs.  It's my body.  It's the way I am.  Even if I worked out two hours a day, I would probably keep the same basic shape.  Partly because of genetics, partly because of my natural build, and partly because of my insatiable addiction to chocolate. 

Let's face it, that's not going away anytime soon.
But there's a big difference between tolerating what you see in the mirror and being able to parade it around in front of an audience.  The first time I had to perform in my underwear, I felt horribly, painfully self-conscious.  I was certain that nobody would want to see what was going on underneath my clothes.
Eventually, I realised that I could be just as sexy as the next girl.  Sexiness has nothing to do with how you look.  Sexiness is an attitude.

In this first opera, all the women were supposed to be underwear models, so we all performed in various forms of lingerie.  And it was very interesting to watch how different people handled it.  We are not ballet dancers or supermodels, after all - we are opera singers, and we come in all different shapes and sizes.  At first I thought that the slimmer girls would have an easier time of it.  But it didn't work that way at all.  The girls who were built like models were not necessarily the girls who looked like models onstage.  It was the girls who felt confident.  The girls who felt comfortable in their own skin.  Tall or short, thin or curvy - if they loved their body, it showed.  And it was beautiful.

Personally, I was lucky enough to have some positive reinforcement on my side. My boyfriend, bless his heart, was extremely supportive.  He knew I didn't feel confident about performing in my underwear, and so every day that I rehearsed the opera he sent me a confidence-boosting message (my personal favourite: "I looked up sexy in the dictionary and I saw your name").  My boyfriend always saw me as sexy, and he would love it if I could see myself the way he saw me.

But in the end, my confidence couldn't come from my boyfriend or anyone else.  It had to come from within.  And gradually, as I rehearsed day by day, I began to lose my inhibitions and self-consciousness.  I began to own my body, even to be proud of it.  My walk, my attitude, the way I held myself - all of these things began to change.  And I learned what it really is to be sexy.

Playing Junon in Acteon - photo by Emilie Lauwers
Real sexiness has nothing to do with your appearance. Real sexiness is a state of mind. It's about knowing who you are and owning it. Embracing every pimple, dimple, and roll of fat.  Showing them with pride, because they are a part of you. Speaking honestly, moving with dignity, and acting with conviction. True beauty comes from true confidence. Nothing is sexier than that.

So now that I'm performing in my underwear for the second time, I don't really mind at all.  If people are going to see my arse, they're going to see my arse.  It's my arse, and I happen to think it's a pretty good one - even if it is clothed in cheap cotton.

Rest assured, though - I will wear something a bit nicer for the performances.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Being Romy: Schauspieler sind so zerbrechlich

Last week we were performing lunchtime concerts at the opera house and I had an encounter I'll never forget.  A woman from the audience approached me, and with shining eyes she told me that she was going to see her first opera next week.  "It's so powerful, what you opera singers do," she said, "it's so full of emotion."  Having experienced a short concert of arias, she couldn't wait to experience this kind of emotional intensity for the length of a full opera. 

She was going to see Tosca, by the way, so I don't think she'll be disappointed.
This woman's words astounded me.  It was wonderful to see such an enthusiastic newcomer to opera.  But more importantly, her reaction to the music reminded me of what it is I actually do.  As an opera singer, sometimes I get so caught up in the technical details - the text, the stage directions, the high notes - that I forget what this is all about.  Opera is not about singing with impressive ability in foreign languages.  Opera is about the power of emotion - pure, raw, human emotion.

This is something I've always known of course - it's the reason I was drawn to opera in the first place.  And yet so many times I've forgotten it.  As I've studied, practised, and worked on my technique and my languages, I've often lost sight of the powerful emotion and drama behind the music.  I've often become disconnected from the meaning.  I don't know why this has happened.  It's inexcusable really, and embarrassing to admit.

Beethoven would have disapproved.
Playing Romy Schneider is changing all of this for me.  This opera is showing me just how much I can become emotionally involved in a role.  Of course I have cried in operas before - when I was sitting in the audience.  But until last week, when I cried real tears over the death of my fictional son, I had never before cried onstage.

I never thought I could get so upset about an opera while I was playing in it.  But in this scene, knowing the whole story, knowing that it actually happened, I felt overcome with emotion.  Romy lost her son David to a terrible accident when he was only fourteen.  Not long before the accident her first husband, David's father, had committed suicide by hanging himself.  For anyone to experience so much trauma and loss in such a short amount of time must have been unbearable.  But what made it even worse for Romy was that she had to relive every moment of these tragedies as they were reported in the press.  It's not just that her life was sad - it's that her life was never completely hers.

Why does Romy Schneider get to me so much?  Certainly she lived a difficult life, full of tragic events, but there's more to it than that.  I think Romy felt things very deeply.  She was an intense woman full of emotion.  And as we relive her life onstage, I can't help but feel everything with the same kind of intensity that she did.  I am learning a lot from Romy.  Unlike me, she would certainly never forget the emotional content of an opera.

As we continue working on this opera, I feel that I'm getting both closer and farther away from knowing who the real Romy Schneider was.  Our libretto is mostly based on the public Romy - quotes from interviews, lines from her films, rumours and speculation spread by the press. But what about Romy herself?   Can we ever really know who she was?

Celebrity is a strange way to live.  Like most child stars, Romy didn't really have a childhood: she went straight from living at a boarding school run by nuns to becoming a famous actress.  From the time she made her first movie at 15 years old, Romy lived in the public eye.  She could never truly be herself without being aware of how others saw her.  And as she grew older, there wasn't a single aspect of her life she could keep private.  A broken engagement, a divorce, a miscarriage - every event in her life, no matter how personal, was covered in detail by the press.  Even when her son David died, a reporter entered the hospital disguised as a nurse so they could take a picture of his body.

For me one of the saddest moments in this opera is my aria in the third act: "Fr├╝her habe ich mich selbst davon ├╝berzeugen wollen das ich einen Alltag wie alle andern haben kann.  Heute weiss ich, das ich so einen Alltag nicht leben kann." (I used to want to convince myself that I can have a life like everyone else. Today I know that I can not live a life like that.)  As Yellow Romy, I am the part of Romy that wants to have a traditional, normal life.  The sad truth is that for a famous actress this kind of life was impossible.

Romy and her son's grave in Boissy-sans-Avoir
With the public watching her every move, it must have been impossible for Romy to have any kind of life at all.  And yet I believe she did.  I believe Romy had a true self, one she kept safe from the relentless clutches of the magazines and newspapers.  And I believe we can see glimpses of it in her films.

In her films Romy felt a certain safety, a certain freedom that she didn't have in real life.  Here she could express herself with real intensity without being analysed and criticised personally.  Here she could be herself, her true self, safely hidden behind the mask of a character.  Within the confines of her films, she had the freedom to live authentically.

I recently watched Romy's last film, which she made shortly after her son's death.  In La Passante de Sans-Souci, Romy plays a woman who adopts an orphaned Jewish boy during WWII and escapes to Paris with him.  The boy in this film is the same age as Romy's real son, and it's heartbreaking to watch the way she interacts with him.  In one scene, they are having Christmas dinner after discovering her husband has been sent to a concentration camp, and she asks the boy to play his violin for her.  You can see the real Romy in this moment, crying for her son.

It is in her films - especially her later films - that we can see pieces of the real Romy.  She was a deeply intense and emotional woman.  A woman who felt everything to her very core.  She was strong and vulnerable at the same time.  She endured overwhelming sadness and anger, and she survived.  She was both extraordinary and human.
Who was the real Romy Schneider?  Perhaps we will never completely know.  I would like to think that.  I would like to think that although she sold so much of herself in films, in pictures and interviews, there was a part of her that she kept just for herself.  A part that was sacred and real, and not for anyone else to see.
We have less than two weeks left before the first show.  We know the words, we know the music, we know the staging.  But there is still something to discover before we perform this opera.  Somewhere in the middle of all this, in the middle of all the quotes and lines and hearsay, in the middle of Romy Schneider and ourselves, there is a truth to be found.  The text and the music and the staging are only a part of it.  At the heart there is this truth, this emotional core.  If we can find just a small part of this truth and express it to the audience, it will stop being words and music and staging, and it will become an opera.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

On getting through the rough patches...

Imagine this: you're at a concert and you hear a very promising young singer with a beautiful voice.  But when you ask about her you're told she's a lost cause.  She's hit a rough patch lately, it's affected her singing, and now it's too late for her to get back on track.  She's missed the boat now - no career, no future, nothing.
Sorry honey - the Career Boat couldn't wait for your personal life.
It sounds pretty brutal, doesn't it?  Unfortunately there are people in the singing business who really think this way.  To these people, the singing business is a rat race.  If you get lost or fall behind at one point, you've missed your chance.  You'll never make it.

To these people, your singing career must run on a tight schedule.  There are deadlines for everything.  If you don't achieve X by the time you're 25, you're a failure.  If you don't achieve Y by the time you're 30, you're done for.

To these people, there is no excuse for gettting distracted or held back.  If you let your personal life affect your singing, you aren't focused or dedicated enough.  If you can't always cope, you aren't strong enough.

Frankly, I think these people are full of crap.  How many singers do you know who NEVER get distracted by their personal life?  How many singers have you met who practise regularly and perform consistently EVERY SINGLE DAY, regardless of circumstance?  I'm pretty sure I've never met anyone like that.  That doesn't sound to me like a human being.  That sounds to me like a singing robot.

Sings a perfect high C... completely devoid of emotion.
The truth is, we all go through rough patches.  We all go through difficult times - breakups, bereavement, depression, addiction, and the list goes on...  This past week, many people have been sharing this brilliant blog post by Hyperbole and a Half on her experience of depression.  Seeing so many people share this post and relate to it, I couldn't help but think what a pervasive feeling depression is in our culture.  How many of us have felt deep unhappiness at some point in our lives?  How many of us have felt desperate, numb, anxious, lonely, or hopeless?

We all go through painful times like this.  And in the short term, it can feel like a disaster.  It can seem like you'll never recover.

But then, somehow, you do recover.  And what happens next?  According to these rat race fanatics, you should be written off as a singer.  You've lost too much time.  You'll never catch up.

I refuse to buy into that kind of thinking.  If I had bought into that kind of thinking, I would have given up singing ages ago.

Like most people, I've been through a few rough patches in my life.  Two major ones come to mind, both of which I've written about before.  Both of these times were a huge crisis that felt like the end of the world.  Both of them left me with more than a few scars.  And without a doubt, I lost a lot of time to them - time I could have spent becoming a better singer.  Nonetheless, I am very glad I lived through these rough patches.  In fact, I wouldn't want it any other way.
Wait, what??
Let me explain.  Firstly, in my early twenties, I struggled with an eating disorder.  When things started to get out of control I took a year off from studying music.  I stayed enrolled in the university, but took only academic courses.  I continued taking singing lessons - privately.  A lot of things happened in that year.  I shaved my head.  I got a boyfriend.  I learned about literature, philosophy, history, and Russian film comedy (yes, it does exist, and it was one of the best classes I ever took).  I made some new friends.  And I stopped binging and purging.

When I came back to music the next year, I got a lot of compliments on how much my singing had improved.  It seemed I had taken a huge leap forward in developing my singing technique.  To some people, it might seem that I had lost a year to my eating disorder.  But I hadn't lost a year - I had gained the rest of my life.  I came back with way more strength and confidence than I'd ever had before.  Overcoming my eating disorder had taught me to love myself.

My second major rough patch came after I finished my masters degree in Glasgow.  Following a bad breakup and an unsuccessful run of auditions, I lost my confidence and gave up singing.  I think this is actually a pretty common thing for singers to do - in fact, some people would say that if you haven't ever considered quitting, you haven't ever considered the reality of how tough this industry is.  Anyway, for me giving up on singing was exactly what I needed to do in order to realise just how much I wanted to sing.  By the time I left my office job to join the opera studio, I was absolutely certain that I wouldn't be happy doing anything else.  And I haven't looked back since.  I quit singing once.  Now I know I will never quit again.

Full steam ahead!
There are times when I wish these rough patches hadn't happened.  There are times when I wonder wistfully to myself, how much further ahead would I be by now if I hadn't gone through all that?  If I hadn't wasted all that time being sad, or doubting myself, or getting overwhelmed - how much more would I have progressed as a singer?

But that kind of thinking isn't constructive, and in fact it doesn't make any sense.  The truth is, if I didn't go through those rough patches, I wouldn't be the person I am today.  My rough patches made me stronger, more confident, and more determined.  They gave me wisdom and emotional fortitude.  They made me a better  person - and, I believe, a better singer.

We all go through our rough patches.  It doesn't mean we're weak - it only means we're human.  Nobody should ever be written off because they're struggling through a rough patch.  It may seem right now like they're falling behind, but they might just be getting ready to soar.  In the end, it's not about the time we lose struggling through the rough patches.  It's about the power we gain as we leave them behind.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Being Romy: Elle est moi et tu es moi

Do you know who Romy Schneider is?  Until recently, I had no idea who she was.  And yet Romy Schneider is the reason I haven't cut my hair since January.  She's the reason I've been watching French and German movies from the 60s and 70s.  She's the reason I've had my head in a score for the last three weeks.  And she's the reason I found myself walking home on Friday night feeling overwhelmingly sad.

Romy Schneider was a famous Austrian film actress.  I am one of three singers who will be playing her in a newly commissioned opera this June.  Ever since I was cast as one of the three Romys (more on that later), I have been reading all about her and watching her films.

I am really excited to be cast in this role because, to be honest, it's the first time I've been given a real role. Oh sure, I've had opera roles before. But up to this point, I've only been cast in two types of roles. Either I'm a boy - a page/solder/messenger/whatever who sings maybe 5 bars of insignificant music...

"Your majesty, I tremble in your presence whilst wearing this adorable historically accurate uniform to deliver an important message in recitative"
...Or I'm part of an ensemble like the Three Ladies in Magic Flute - three women who are completely anonymous and interchangeable.

Which one are you again?
This is the first time I've been given a character with real complexity and emotional depth. And not just any character, but a real person - a famous real person. This is a unique opportunity in terms of preparing a role.  It's not every day you can see your character in films, books, and television interviews.

Romy Schneider was born in Vienna in 1938.  Like many young actresses, her life was full of glamour and tragedy. There is a lot to say about Romy's life and career, but I'll try to summarise it for you briefly here.  Romy first achieved fame as a teenager by playing Empress Elizabeth of Austria in the popular "Sissi" film trilogy.

If you enjoy period costumes half as much as I do, trust me, you will LOVE these films.
She then outraged her German fans by becoming engaged to French actor/director Alain Delon and moving to Paris.  From the sweet and innocent Sissi, she moved on to more gritty and mature roles in French film.  Alain Delon later broke off their engagement, but they remained lifelong friends afterward.  Romy went on to marry twice and have two children.  Her firstborn, a son named David, died in a tragic accident when he was only 14.  He punctured a femoral artery when climbing a spiked fence.  Romy witnessed the accident herself and she was never the same afterward.  She turned to drinking.  When she was found dead in her Paris apartment at the age of 43, there was some speculation that it was caused by a lethal mix of alcohol and sleeping pills.

Romy Schneider, 23 September 1938 – 29 May 1982
I could spend years researching Romy Schneider.  But I don't have years - I have weeks.  There is less than a month to go before the premiere of the opera, and as we only got the score three weeks ago, I have lots of work to do!  When I'm not in rehearsals, or watching Romy Schneider films, or taking vitamins to help my hair grow out (we'll be getting "vintage" hairstyles in a few weeks and I've been told my hair needs to be longer), you will find me studying my score and listening to the helpful midi file which the composer has sent us.  Between the films, the music, and the staging rehearsals, I am just starting to get an idea of who Romy Schneider was...

Now, I mentioned that there are three of us playing Romy Schneider in the opera.  We have not been triple-cast in the same role.  Nor are we playing Romy at different ages.  We are all playing Romy at the same time.  Romy Schneider was a complicated woman full of contradictions.  And so we are each playing a different side of Romy's personality - Red Romy, Green Romy, and Yellow Romy.

The three Romys
We are a trio of sorts, and we often sing together.  But this is no anonymous ensemble like the Three Ladies.  Within the trio, we are very different personalities with very different fears and desires.  As our librettist explained to us, each colour represents a different aspect of Romy's life, and a different neurosis.  For Red Romy, the neurosis is attention.  Red Romy is obsessed with fame - with her relationship with her critics, the public, and the press.  For Green Romy, the neurosis is perfection.  Green Romy is the driven workaholic who always wants to be the best in her field.

For Yellow Romy - that's me - the neurosis is home and family.  Yellow Romy wants a marriage and children.  She wants a real home, where she can live a "normal" domestic life.  She is convinced that this is the only thing that will make her happy.  And when it doesn't make her happy, she can't face the truth that it isn't enough.

Fortunately - or perhaps, unfortunately? - pop culture is full of examples of women like this.  When I first encountered the idea of Yellow Romy, two TV characters immediately sprang to mind...

Betty Draper from Mad Men
...and Bree Van de Kamp from Desperate Housewives
These characters are something of an archetype.  They represent women who were raised to believe that the perfect domestic life - a husband, a home, and 2.5 children - is the only thing they should want, and that it should fulfill them entirely.  Inevitably, these women find that it isn't enough - maybe the marriage is dysfunctional, or maybe the kids are psychopaths, or maybe even when everything seems to be perfect it just feels empty.  But their real unhappiness is too difficult to bear, and so these women cover the truth with denial, pearl necklaces, and lots of valium.

Before I start launching into feminist theory though, let's get back to Romy Schneider.  As I've dug more into the role of Yellow Romy, I've discovered that she's more than just a desperate housewife.  She's an actress who's desperate for some stability in a very unstable life.  And that is something I can relate to very deeply.

I have been living abroad for almost four years now.  And while I'm glad to be following my passion and pursuing a career in opera, I often feel a bit lost at sea.  My family is in Canada, and even my boyfriend is miles away in Sweden.  My current flat isn't really my home - it's just a box that I'm inhabiting for the time being.  It feels blank and temporary.  I don't even have an oven or a microwave, or a real bed, or a stand-up shower. 

I have one of these.  For the record, it sucks.
I am always on the move, always figuring out what comes next.  It feels unstable, uncentred, insecure.  And while there's a part of me who is super-ambitious and determined to do whatever it takes to be an opera singer, there's another part of me that's very tired of all this upheaval.  A part of me who would love to settle down somewhere and start a family.  A part of me who looks with envy at other people my age who are "real grownups" with houses, husbands, cars, gardens, children - the works.

My boyfriend is lucky enough to live in a house in Gothenburg - a real house!  To him it's normal, but to me it's a huge luxury.  The last time I visited him he was completely mystified by my enthusiasm for staying in, baking bread, and cooking meals.  When he wanted to go out with friends, all I wanted to do was drink tea and watch television.  I know it must sound boring, but for me it was such an amazing novelty.  I don't have a home like that in Ghent, and it's something I miss a lot.

So I completely understand Yellow Romy's desperation to create a family and a home.  And I completely understand the conflict she feels between her ambitions as an actress and her yearnings for stability and domesticity.

It's an amazing experience, being able to delve into a role and inhabit a character's world.  But it can also be overwhelming.

I have a lot of emotional content to explore as Yellow Romy, from the tense duet I sing with my husband about our dysfunctional marriage, to the ironically triumphant canon I sing about giving birth at the hospital while he stayed at home sleeping.  When I'm not being controlled by my husband or abused by my stepfather (Romy's stepfather allegedly took an "unhealthy interest" in her, and he probably sexually abused her), I'm being micromanaged by a fame-hungry stage mother (Romy's mother managed her career and often appeared in films with her when she was younger).  And as the more maternal of the three Romys, I am often sympathising with the others' suffering.  I absorb Green Romy's anxiety as she's bullied by a power-hungry director.  I absorb Red Romy's grief when Alain Delon leaves her.  It's a lot to take in.

This is why, walking home on Friday night after a run-through of Act 1, I found myself feeling extremely depressed.  I have experienced so many intense emotions this week as Romy Schneider.  It's exhausting.

Is it possible to get too much into character?  Can a role be dangerous for your mental health?  As a friend told me yesterday, the line between yourself and a character can at times be very thin.  But for reasons of self preservation, it's important to remember that the line is there.

And so, as I go into another week of being Romy Schneider, I'm doing my best to continue identifying with her.  But I'm also remembering the line, no matter how thin it is - for safety's sake.