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: "Früher habe ich mich selbst davon überzeugen 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.

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