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.

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