“You have a good mind, a pretty face, a disciplined body that does what you tell it to. You have everything it takes to be a lovely woman except the one essential: an understanding heart. And without that you might just as well be made of bronze.” –The Philadelphia Story
Previously, in Katharine’s Epically Long Musings on Identity And Her First Entführung: some thoughts about the character of Konstanze and how she relates to (and is changing) my own identity. Today, I want to write about bodies.
The body can be a vehicle for music, for illness, for slight inebriation on delicious French wine, for pulses of the blood and hormones, for fatigue. The body can be a magnet for desire, for criticism, for violence, for love. As a singer, my body is my instrument: I can’t escape this identification of my body with my work, my self, my value, my effectiveness. Being a singer (or any kind of performer) has a lot in common with being an athlete–no matter what your gifts, you’re only as strong and stable as your body is, and this is complicated. This part of my identity has been both affirmed and challenged mightily in the last few weeks.
First, the obvious point: this is a damn hard role to sing. Konstanze is a bear. Everyone who knows opera knows this. I’ve been working as a professional singer since my early 20s; my body has been my livelihood ever since and has seen some pretty tough assignments. But I’ve never done anything that challenged me physically to this extent. This is the highest-level singing I’ve ever done–I find myself stretching and growing daily to try to get all my ideas across in this insanely virtuosic score with grace, humanity, and realism, and to be able to do it day after day in long rehearsals, not just once in a single performance. In some ways I’m very strong, but I’m having to minutely adjust how I channel my strength into the most efficient possible process, with the least waste of effort, because the role is simply too fatiguing and difficult to stand the slightest counterproductivity, the slightest deviation from the optimal.
My feelings about my body are volatile. Sometimes, I feel proud of the capabilities and skills I do have, which are considerable, or else I wouldn’t have gotten this job, and of the huge amount of work I’ve already put in before arriving here. And sometimes, I feel like there isn’t enough time in the world, and especially not before opening night, to get my singing, my movement, my general fitness, my physical embodiment of the character, up to my own insanely high standards. Luckily, two people are helping me especially here: the repetiteur (vocal coach/assistant conductor/rehearsal pianist) and the choreographer. Both of them are taking what I’m already offering and showing me how to get it to a higher level in small, specific physical ways. The choreographer encourages me to feel and enjoy the full length of my arms and legs, to be always aware of how the skin feels (whether it’s shown or hidden), never to compress or to shield parts of the body (except when Konstanze does); even thinking these things makes my movement more graceful and helps me occupy my space more fully, less apologetically. The repetiteur has amazing ears for technical details, and he’s able to tell me clearly what he’s hearing, where something is blocked, and how I could reorient my effort to get a more consistent sound which will carry my musical ideas (or the conductor’s) through more clearly. Because of this kind of detailed work, and because the body is so astonishingly adaptable, I can notice that I make progress every single day. It won’t be perfect on opening night, but it’ll be a lot further along than when I arrived, closer to what I want.
On the other end of the luck spectrum, I caught a bad cold over the holidays, and I had little voice or energy for almost two weeks. (We had days off for the holidays themselves, but otherwise worked through December toward our early January opening date.) I hardly ever get seriously sick, which is one reason this career works well for me, but this was a longer and more stubborn illness than I’ve had in years. The thing I trust the most about myself, professionally, is my singing voice, and for many days of this work, I wasn’t able to offer that. Everyone was sympathetic, and I marked (sang down an octave or not at all) while still rehearsing scenes dramatically, and the process continued and developed even without my full voice. And I can see now in hindsight that it was actually a gift to have the huge vocal challenges of the music on the back burner for a little while, which let everything else develop in unexpected ways. But it was hard and discouraging and worrying. When your body is your livelihood, a cold is a big problem, and I had to stop myself from associating my whole self, my whole identity as a performer, with this vehicle–this body–that couldn’t work for me at that moment.
Another challenge: in this production, Konstanze is a 1930s screen-siren type, a diva, a star, a glamazon. I have the most GORGEOUS costumes, thanks to a brilliant wardrobe team of creative and skilled perfectionists, and it’s totally fun to imagine myself as this type. But it’s confronting, too. In real life, I don’t look like a diva. I tend to wear simple, dark-colored clothes or jeans most of the time and very little or no makeup. After an agonized adolescence of wanting to be beautiful and instead feeling mostly shy, overweight and insecure, I’ve grown into a reasonably confident adult; I can ignore the millions of frantic skin-care articles and stick to my own cheap and simple routine that works; I can look at a bra dispassionately and know immediately if it will suit me or not; I can walk quite a deliberate line, depending on the day, between people’s varied expectations of how I look. I can dress and make myself up to suit the needs of my job, to appear, on stage and for an evening at a time, as a glamorous soprano, but I can also (and usually do) wear glasses and simple shapes and be a completely anonymous member of a crowd. Over the years, I’ve learned, all too forcefully, that there’s a world of difference in how people treat you when you’re “beautiful” and when you’re ordinary, since I can be both. It’s jarring and sobering.
Have you ever heard of body dysmorphic disorder? It’s a psychological condition defined as “preoccupation with an imagined defect in appearance … the preoccupation causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” Although the disorder was first written about at the end of the 19th century, it’s only been seriously studied in the last two decades; there have been two large population studies finding its prevalence around 2.5 percent of women in America and 1.9 percent of women in Germany, with similar but slightly lower numbers in men. That is tens of millions of people in just two countries, and the symptoms are severe and debilitating, including a huge link to thoughts of or attempts at suicide. Millions of people are spending hours a day avoiding society, obsessively grooming, hating parts of their bodies, imagining that everyone who sees them is laughing at them, seeking unnecessary medical interventions. Many people who get surgery to fix their “flaws” don’t get any happier or have any relief from their psychological symptoms afterwards.
Thankfully, I don’t suffer from this condition, but I know it exists and have occasionally (like most people) had dysmorphic thoughts or periods. I was staggered when I looked up the statistics just now–first, at how prevalent the disorder is; second, at how severe the symptoms are; and third, at how much I recognize threads of thought and behavior that appear in myself and my friends–who are mostly “healthy” and would never receive this diagnosis. I find myself wanting to blame someone or something for these thoughts and behaviors. It’s easy to blame advertising, a massive industry that thrives by making people unhappy about themselves or their lives so that they buy more. But it obviously isn’t only the inescapable advertising and negative imaging we receive nowadays that causes this–the condition was around (and described just as severely, in haunting language) at the end of the 19th century, when advertising was nothing like the societal behemoth it is today.
This is apparently a condition of humanity, for some reason: hating our bodies, turning violent and morbid thoughts toward the carriers of our souls.
I’ve watched the screen sirens, the cultural ideals of beauty and elegance, countless times–the older stars of classic movies and musicals, the actresses who were stars when I was growing up and thus seemed perfect to my adolescent self, and now in adulthood, the younger famous women I’ve observed grow into themselves publicly. I’m fascinated by them, of course, as almost everyone is… fascinated by the desire they create (in men and women, sexual and not), by the power of that desire, and especially fascinated by women who know what power they wield and can choose to use it or not, can be critical of it, and can choose to reveal their own fragility and dysmorphia (because even the women who embody the ideals don’t escape it–poor Marilyn Monroe). For this production, I’ve been revisiting older musicals that deal with questions of performativity, gender, and the body: Singing in the Rain, Cabaret, Victor/Victoria. After a rehearsal in which the director asked me to be less emotionally naturalistic in one scene, a bit more of a temperamental diva throwing a public tantrum, I went on a glorious bender of clips of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, and actresses from the 1930s–Harlow, Garbo, Shearer–to see how they externalize these attitudes. It was such a fun morning–and a little troubling, because it’s not all an act.
To try to act like one of these women, I have to change, amplify, extenuate, and make more fabulous my whole repertoire of physical movement, and I have to think in a different way. I have to confront and try to put aside any lingering insecurities about my body–and I, like most people, still have those. There are a few opera singers who don’t seem to have any physical hangups, and there are others who I could watch for days–Elina Garanca, Barbara Hannigan–because they have so completely mastered their bodies’ language of dramatic expression, and it’s just so inspiring to see. But these are the exception, not the rule; most of us are always dealing with a certain amount of discomfort, certain old habits of thought, certain dark shadows of dysmorphia. A year ago, I was in a production where I was naked on stage for a short time. Although the idea took some getting used to, in the end, it was strangely easy, because being naked isn’t a type–it’s me. Here, even with the help of impeccably designed and constructed costumes made exactly to my measurements, it’s complicated to mentally and physically transform into a woman who automatically turns heads when entering a room–to forget about all the things I, Katharine, imagine to be barriers to that.
It’s also, of course, one of the major perks of this work! To be always challenged to accept yourself more radically–to celebrate who you are at that moment, in real time, in theatrical time–to leverage your body, mind, and heart, plus your concentration and training, to make time stop–and to be able to borrow the body language, the attitudes, the thoughts and looks and physicality, of people like Garbo, Monroe, or Angelina Jolie that seem so remote from our actual lives, but are of course actual people, performing artists, who are doing a job very similar to mine.
You never know what kind of atmosphere you’ll encounter on a gig. You might end up with colleagues who can see where you are and honor that while still elevating you, as I have here; or you might be unlucky and land with a team or a leader who can only see the ways you’re falling short of their desires or expectations. On this production, I’m feeling especially grateful to the people who don’t treat me like a student but still teach me every moment they can and allow me to blossom physically and mentally into something challenging–this role needs it, and I need it. As a result, and because of my own big commitment to this role in the last year, I know that what I’ll offer on opening night has the potential to be my best work and to influence all future work. That’s an exciting feeling.
Still, I can’t help fantasizing about how awesome it would be to have the look of Rita Hayworth, the personality of Katharine Hepburn, and the voice of Edita Gruberova, to combine all those into one person for my definitive Konstanze! Instead, I’m just myself. That’s going to have to be enough, on this project and always.