Lately a riotous group of ideas has been playing inside my head like a bunch of devilishly exuberant and unruly children, and like a distracted parent I feel I must push them out the door, even if they will then have to play barefoot in the street. I cannot hold on to them long enough to get them fully dressed and shod, but must have a little quiet in the house in order to sit down at my computer for a few undistracted moments in order to think about demons, gender-multiplicity, the failure of the divine, hearing voices, the paradise of the autocrat, sacred spaces, the repair of the soul, operatic divas and the voices of writers, and to figure out where and how on earth could all these ideas be brought together?
To begin at the beginning, I think I might have to excuse God for his terrible mistakes. The children’s behaviour reminds me that he was young and ignorant, and his egomaniacal temperament did not help him in the least when it came to rescuing himself – let alone everyone else – from error. Ignorance of his own origins (the mistake of an over-indulgent mother) made a monster out of him. So his experiment with creation was doomed from the very beginning. His maladroit manipulations threw hell and heaven and earth into a roiling mess, where freedom and leisure and joy came to be admixed with censure and punishment and guilt. Such an important enterprise as creation should never have been entrusted to a clumsy and not-too- bright child – especially one whose eyes were set too close together, and who drooled and was given to tantrums, but even the Goddess makes the occasional error in judgement. This is a good thing, because we human beings need look no further in seeking a reason to be kind to ourselves with regard to our own mistakes.
Kings – who began their careers the children of divine queens, were to become god’s representatives on earth, and some of them mirrored their
defective creator to a remarkable degree, but occasionally the goddess had a worthy grandson who exemplified the complex virtues I am certain were originally intended to be possessed by our human rulers. God began his misadventure by making paradise unsafe. He made some foolish and short-sighted conditions, and when things began to go pear-shaped, he compounded his initial errors several times over. Then, in a fit of childish distemper he evicted his created companions, and sent them off to keep company with the devil. Now, the devil, as we know, is quite the antithesis of God, and as the Bible notes, is extremely subtle. He could – and did – embody himself as both serpent and apple, so the end-game and the first move happened in the same moment. God – to his eternal detriment, is a god of exclusion, but the devil – or rather his minions, our individual demons, are creatures of accommodation: that is to say, they must by all accounts be accommodated. If this talented troupe is welcomed to the table which hath been prepared before us, in the presence of all who might wish to observe, and the cups run over, and if they are suitably and properly propitiated, everything in the earthly garden will be made lovely: if not, everyone suffers.
An enlightened despot, a benevolent dictator, an autocrat of rare sensibility – however one would wish to define him – is the one whom the Goddess should have put in charge in the first place. Such a person would have been vastly more qualified to deal with our demon-ridden souls, and infinitely more suited to do good than a rodent-eyed presiding deity.
But where might such a gem be found? Not in paradise certainly – that unaccommodating and dangerous place – that stage with the rotten floor-boards, where the monster is given to strolling in the evening….
No – the place to look for him would be on the operatic stage – and in particular in that amazing opera La clemenza di Tito.
Opera is the place where the imperfect is perfectly staged , where all the angels – fallen and otherwise, and all the demons – redeemed or otherwise – are given their voices. They are relieved of the constraint to silence, and are allowed, encouraged – and even compelled – to sing. Not just their voices, but their many genders are relieved of all imprisoning trammels. The full authentic range of dæmonic splendour can be unleashed and relished in full view, and the audience pays for the privilege of being a docile witness , being by convention permitted to respond only at certain times, and in certain ways.
The stage then is a sacred space – life and death are treated according to the requirements of well-designed plots: punishments and rewards are meted out according to a complex but pleasing calculus. There is a “fearful symmetry” to be found here, and occasionally a pleasing and satisfying one, where the demons find that to be known is to be loved – and to be accepted and forgiven. What more could we ask for? Mozart has given freely of his musical riches in a wonderful score, and the combined talents of three or more librettists have given us poetry, and drama. All this bounty is brought stunningly to life in one production which probably stands head and shoulders above all the others – the 2003 Salzburg staging featuring Michael Schade, Vesselina Kasarova, Dorothea Röschmann, (who might be recognised as the daughter in the clip with Diana Damrau who sings “Der Hölle Rache” elsewhere on this blog) Barbara Bonney and Elina Garanča – referred to as ‘The dream team’.
Love, hate, enmity, ambition, invidiousness, weakness, shame, regret, treachery, and acts of arson, treason attempted murder and reckless endangerment are followed by clemency shaded strongly towards forgiveness . All the demons of troublesome and mismanaged human impulses are all given a significant part to play in this thrilling drama. In my view hell is the place where the demons have not been welcomed, accepted and suitably propitiated, therefore this particular production finds the lot of them happy in their operatic heaven. This is a place where they can hold suspenseful and beautiful sway. This is where errors and miscalculations are not only forgiven, but redeemed. Aside from the intricacies of the plot, a few arias command our undivided attention. The first is an operatic rarity, a mezzo-mezzo aria. Here we have a mind-boggling confection set forth for our delectation. Vesselina Kasarova (Sesto) and Elina Garanča (Annio) celebrate their friendship in the all too brief aria
Deh, prendi un dolce amplesso (mio amico fedel) – Oh take a sweet embrace, my faithful friend.
Here we have two ostensibly straight women in the roles of two straight men, displaying in appearance the vision of butch-lesbian beauty personified, and dramatising the shadows of two gay boys! The multiplicity of gender expressions witnessed here dazzles the eye and tickles the brain. The mind boggles at having to absorb the fluid chiaroscuro of so many shades of gender in less than two minutes. The two mezzos are in on whatever they have decided to act or enact – and we the stunned spectators are left helpless, immobilised, speechless, and silent. This is theatre at its very best.
One of the interesting aspects to me of such roles and spectacles, is that once a woman plays such a part, regardless of the requirements of the script, once I have recognised and registered a lesbian ‘visual’, she then occupies a particular psychic space within me. The fusion is effortless and unstoppable, and it takes over the space of the whole opera, and extends beyond it. Whenever I see either Kasarova or Garanča in another role, my mind obeys the law of a light-suffused eye and superimposes a ghost upon my actual vision, the ghost of the shadow of these retained images.
Ah perdona il primo affetto
The 2003 Salzburg production of this wonderful opera takes a position of openness and celebration towards the frissons created by a profusion of gender ambiguities. At the same time, it does so with a certain degree of wryness or slyness, under cover of of plot conventions which require us to believe we are seeing men (though played by women) who sound and look like lesbians. No matter what we believe about what the roles and genders are intended to represent, subliminally we absorb and recognise and intuit the subtext of a lesbian continuum which gaily runs all the way from male to female. Divas like Brigitte Fassbaender bring something even more to the parts they play, (Prince Orlovsky in Die Fledermaus and Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier) which is to say, their authentic lesbian natures. The voice of a woman issuing from the figure of a man can only mean one thing to me – and that is ‘lesbian’, but this was not always so. In Mozart’s time, these parts were played by castrati.
In this next clip, “Parto ma tu ben mio” (in a different production – and perhaps a more introspective interpretation) when Kasarova sings “guarda mi – guarda mi” – “look at me – look at me” – I feel I know what is implied here – and those chest notes – which seem to fly directly out from the heart – express all the complexities of the ideas I keep trying to express.
The castrato is an unbelievably elaborate construct: that of gender and sexuality, and a birthright given – or taken – in exchange for a voice. Such is the importance of The Operatic Voice. I sometimes think that our voices are the most demanding parts of us – clamouring louder than our hearts and souls ever could. They demand to be heard, to be attended to – they function as the most complete stand-ins of our authenticity – our aspirations, our characters, our very selves. The registers and timbres and ranges of our voices spill into everything we do – how we communicate, how we express ourselves, how we are heard, and how we are perceived. Even the way we read – and certainly how we write – possesses a voice. But the one important aspect of our voice – or voices – is that our demons possess a chorus of voices as well.
Come ti piace imponi
Most of us constrain the voices of our our concealed demons to a decorous public silence – or the occasional sotto voce, if what is said can be made to sound socially acceptable and politic. The demons have to be kept secret. Unseen they may be able to reconcile themselves to the fact that they are indeed truly unloved and unwanted. But the problems of course begin in earnest once they are seen – because to remain unloved, after one has been seen, is to be truly disowned and rejected.
The castrati of past centuries succumbed to a physical neutering in order to develop a voice which was at once sweet and powerful, and I for one, am reminded of this when I hear a strong mezzo voice. Euripides observed that all women are exiles. Certainly this was so in his time, when women had to leave their parental homes in order to live with their husbands, but the same could be claimed of lesbians who have to inhabit an overwhelmingly heterosexual world. Their true natures must frequently be hidden or disguised, and a kind of neutered self be made to take its place, which is in effect, to live in exile from the self. When a mezzo plays a trouser role – these ambiguous parts requiring powerful voices – she is paying tribute to both these classes of people. She slips into the indeterminacy of maleness and femaleness and expresses this pivotal point in the gender continuum with the beauty of her nuanced and powerful voice. Thus, in certain situations, exile itself becomes a refuge, because it has been given a voice, and an expression.
Parto ma tu ben mio
I am beginning to suppose that this ‘giving of voice’ may be one of the reasons that the mirroring of lesbian expression in trouser roles is such a charged and potent spectacle for lesbians. Certainly I think this is true for the way in which some gay men (of the operatic persuasion!) feel about the great sopranos – divas like Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi. But the success of the voice alone might not – and frequently does not – bring along with a guarantee of happiness. Nevertheless, the imperative cannot be dispensed with or ignored, or cast aside without incurring immense and disastrous losses of integrity and authenticity.
The mysteries and secrets of the lesbian voice extend far beyond the sphere of opera – and even of music in general, into the heart of writing itself. One of the most fascinating of authorial voices for me is that of Willa Cather. Cather was fascinated with the Swedish singer Olive Fremstad, and wrote a book The Song of the Lark in which her own and Fremstad’s voice were intertwined in the single character of Thea Kronberg (we cannot fail to note the twin echoes of divinity and royalty in this diva’s name) so much so that Fremstad admitted to not knowing where her character ended and Cather’s began.
As Cather got older, her voice – or so it seems to me – became more and more disguised and other-directed and more removed from herself. Death comes for the Archbishop, said to be her greatest work, is about the deep relationship between two celibate Roman Catholic priests. The voice has become asexual, and other-sexual, and for me it has lost its natural timbre and become sterile and uninteresting. And this might lead to another parallel concerning the life of ‘the voice’ – which is – that like all finite things given over to frequent use, it may be used up. It is a profound tragedy that a singer who over a lifetimes devotion dedicated to mastering her profession, may find that at the very pinnacle of her life as a singer, that the treasure she had acquired, the wealth of wisdom about the glories and subtleties her art, that they can no longer be applied, because the voice itself – her instrument – is no longer perfect. There are no immortal voices.
The love of Cather’s life was Isabelle McClung in whose paternal house Cather had a ‘writing room’ and where she lived for many years, sharing a bedroom with McClung. In 1915 Cather received a job offer of sorts in Germany, and she and McClung planned to go there together. However McClung’s father vetoed the trip, and instead Cather took off to the Southwest with her friend Edith Lewis. When her father died later the same year, McClung became heir to his fortune, and, probably stung by Cather’s apparent betrayal, she married the violinist Jan Hambourg. Cather lost her ‘writing room’ in the McClung home, not because it was denied her – it was not. I speculate that it was probably the change in their respective relationships which made a resumption of the old status quo impossible. Perhaps she was no longer able to tolerate being there. When McClung died in 1938, bundles of letters Cather had written to her were returned, whereupon Cather systematically burned them all.
Though Lewis and Cather went on to have a long relationship (they lived together until Cather’s death in 1947.) it would seem that something in Cather’s voice went silent as well. She lost McClung to marriage, and then to death, and it seems to me she began to fall back more upon that old lesbian trick of ventriloquism. Though Cather cared passionately about her individual characters’ places in their landscapes, I think she had lost her own – which was not to be found in any geographical location, but elsewhere – in another place, another stage, with sympathetic acoustics, and an audience who could hear her honest intonations. Cather remarked that “The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young” – but she might as well have added “as a lesbian might to a straight world.”
One of the most important qualities needed in order to be a great soprano or a great mezzo, is, I think, a certain emotional accessibility – or even vulnerability – to have a heart which is visibly amenable or willing or ready or able to be touched. This is a quality that must come through if anything of the pathos or drama or humanity of a character is to be convincingly conveyed. ‘The voice’ is nearly everything, but it is not everything. There has to be an integration of all the human parts which support the voice – and a basic understanding – and acceptance of our own humanity.
Clemency – this is the grace of Tito – not a perfect person by any means, not very intelligent, and not very rational, but a good and moral human being with a good heart. Why he was ready to throw Sesto (the mere cat’s paw) to the lions and not Vitellia (the chief instigator) I cannot tell, but I am glad all were saved in the end, and forgiven their various sins and misdemeanours. It is clemency which is needed in the process of integration. Mistakes must be recognised, examined, understood and then repaired. In order for that to be achieved one has to embark upon a lifelong endeavor – to save and claim and reclaim all the scattered bits – the secret parts, the hidden aspirations, and all the supporting chorus – no matter how disorderly – of our demon allies. They must be accepted, and even loved. They cannot be blamed for being immature, for being demanding, and above all for being the children that some of them are.
And that is when the real performance can begin.