Entführung diaries: Character

Since I arrived in Clermont-Ferrand to begin rehearsals on my first Konstanze (in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail) in the second week of December, so much—in myself, in my singing, in my thinking—has shifted, or begun to shift. I couldn’t have asked for a more focused, attenuated, ambitious work process to bridge this change in the year and point the way forward. A lot of this focus has come from working on such a rich and challenging role, of course. Konstanze is changing me as much as I’m trying to shape her in rehearsal, and I feel so lucky to be here doing this piece in particular, and with this team. But this hasn’t been the only thing working on me.

I keep trying to write a blog post about everything in my mind, and almost four weeks in, plenty of thoughts are coalescing. But it’s a challenge because there’s been so much—so much input and change, so much stimulation, so much that’s been challenging, so many surprising and lovely new friends, so much I want to do and work on and improve before opening night, that I haven’t been able to get it all down. Even though the time here has been stretched, it’s also compressed with all kinds of furious activity. Opera time is not like normal-life time, and my thoughts are spinning out in sympathy.

Finally I have a frame for my thoughts, though, because everything—all the input and output of the last weeks—is boiling down to a common subject: identity.

Generally: how do we define ourselves? What principles do we live by? How do we get comfortable with the person staring back at us in the mirror every day? How does our own sense of self compare with how others perceive us? How many of our choices and desires come from society’s categories of identity (culture, gender, race, language, age, socioeconomic status, religion) and how many are truly individual? When and how is it possible to defy our own expectations of ourselves and others’ of us, to break our identity and make it new?

Personally: what kind of Konstanze am I? What kind of physical body? What kind of musician and singer? What kind of brain/thinker/world citizen? How do all these identities interact with other people’s, and how are they changing?

All of this is swirling around me during these weeks of work. These topics are so huge, and my thinking on them is going at such a crazy pace, that I’m going to have to split this up into a few posts.

First up: KONSTANZE.

A teacher at Mannes long ago (hi, Thomas!) introduced me to a simple but useful way of developing knowledge of a role. Ask yourself: how am I similar to this character? How am I different? I’m thinking about this now in terms of Konstanze, because working on this piece is bringing up a lot of strong feelings, good and bad and in between. Sometimes, I can locate these feelings in my own experience; other times, I’m experiencing them only empathetically, through the character. Either way, they’re so present, and influence me so much, that I find myself needing to know: how am I like her? How am I unlike her? (This can feel super personal. Like, can I really get so angry that I threaten to die? Is that me? Do I really spend half my rage aria wheedling and calculating the effect of my words on the person I’m angriest at? Was there ever a time that I, Katharine, loved someone so much that dying seemed unimportant? Weighty questions!)

Entführung is a simple story that’s full of problematic stereotypes—national, racial, gender. Luckily, it’s also full of contradictions, once you look a bit past the surface. Konstanze herself, despite her name (Konstanze = Constance, Constancy) is a big mess of contradictions, and this, plus her incredibly virtuosic music, makes her hard to cast and hard to characterize subtly. The creative team here—director, conductor, repetiteur, choreographer, light and set and prop wizards—are a probing, thoughtful, risk-taking bunch who want to make this piece as true and emotionally believable as possible, so I feel I’m in good hands as I explore these contradictions. Some of the story’s bold strokes are clichés, but the details tells us a rich and nuanced story about ambiguity, about the realization that love can actually change, about characters questioning the nature of loyalty and choice. Konstanze fears an unknown future in which her identity, which is wrapped up in promises she’s made and assumptions she’s grown up with, no longer have any meaning.

She’s in love with and engaged to Belmonte, a Spanish nobleman. Then everything goes wrong: she gets kidnapped and sold into slavery, along with her sidekick Blondchen and Blondchen’s boyfriend Pedrillo. Luckily, she gets sold into the harem of an unusually liberal-minded man—the Pasha Selim, an enigmatic Turkish figure straight out of an Orientalist fairy tale, a non-singing role, an immensely sympathetic and interesting character. The action starts as Belmonte is attempting a daring (but stupid and ill-planned) rescue, and the Pasha, who loves Konstanze and treats her specially, is beginning to lose patience with her continued resistance to his romantic advances. Lots happens in the opera, but Konstanze’s main preoccupation is her own love triangle. Belmonte is this distant figure who she hasn’t seen in a long time, but one that inspired a fierce attachment. The Pasha, meanwhile, is handsome, rich, and powerful, he loves her, and he’s right in her face asking her (with forbearance, mostly, and understanding) to love him as he loves her. What’s a girl to do?

How am I like Konstanze? How am I not like Konstanze?

Ways I, Katharine, resemble Konstanze: I am loving, idealistic, and live a little in my own world. When I love, I love strongly, almost unreasonably. I also know what temptation is, and I know what a long-distance relationship feels like. I know how strange it can be to love someone but to feel like I hardly know them. I, too, have grown up in a happy and protected situation and then ended up in places and circumstances that were nothing like what I knew. I, too, have had to rethink and question my assumptions, my values, my priorities, my loves, during momentous life shifts. I sometimes take things too seriously, I’m sensitive, I can be hurt a bit too easily; and yet I can also be emotionally quite strong and sure of myself.

Ways I, Katharine, am not like Konstanze: the most important way is that my first couple of big loves were not reciprocated—at least not in the way I wanted them to be, or not for long. In this production, the idea about Konstanze is that she and Belmonte are very young, and this is their first big relationship. They’re barely more than adolescents, absolutely crazed with the wonder and self-effacing passion of a first love, absolutely ready (they think) to do anything for this love; but neither of them has any idea of what it might feel like to be in different circumstances. I, Katharine, had different experiences. I am now in a happy marriage, but I came to it after many years of not trusting, of being devastatingly hurt, of being consequently wary and protective; and I am able to stay happily married because both of us know that love is a changing thing, something you can’t take for granted, and something that will be continually evolving and tested. It’s a choice, an action, not a given or an unbreakable rule. Konstanze spends the opera figuring this out, and at the end sings, chastened, that she will never forget the lessons she’s learned from the wiser Pasha. I didn’t learn this through a reciprocated infatuation and then, um, abduction, slavery, and a steamy love triangle involving a hot foreigner. Just through the normal-people school of hard knocks.

And one other important way I’m not like Konstanze: I don’t do well with absolutes. I’ve learned that as a friend and partner and family member and colleague, I’m never the one to see an issue in black and white. Almost to a fault, I try to understand all sides of an argument, the motivations and pressures of everyone involved, and try to see a middle way through it. I’m a compromiser. Konstanze has not yet learned to compromise–I wonder whether she ever will.

But here’s a super-important way I’ve learned I relate to Konstanze: she is modern as hell. Before there was #metoo, before there was second- and third-wave feminism, there was Entführung, and both female characters—Konstanze and Blondchen—are absolutely feminist in different ways. Konstanze is a woman in such challenging circumstances that she lashes out—in the three mega-arias that make up the first part of the piece, she 1. breaks down inappropriately in public, 2. explores depression, 3. completely explodes in self-destructive anger. She is not happy, but she’s not a stereotype, although she sometimes speaks in 18th-century rhetorical clichés. The music and the shifts in the text tell a story of someone who has more freedom than many women to choose her own path, who frets about the consequences of her choices, and who continually gets the better of the powerful men around her by whatever means necessary. She has more stage time with the Pasha (the handsome, rich, powerful Pasha) than she does with Belmonte, her fiancé, and she seems to have feelings for both men. In the end, it is HER choice that defines the outcome of the opera—she is not a victim, although she starts out (in “Ach, ich liebte”) acting like one.

This has been wonderful to learn. I have known these arias for a long time—too long, maybe—and of course when you prepare arias alone in a practice room, you also consider these questions of character. But working on them dynamically, in the context of the whole opera, with partners on stage, has made me see the piece in a whole new way. It’s been scary, because I’ve had to release a lot of the work I’ve done, a lot of the ideas I’ve had over the years, in favor of the reality of the flesh-and-blood artists and people sharing the process; but it’s also been so immensely, beautifully freeing. My Pasha is a strikingly charismatic French actor, and I am learning so much from him. He is almost shockingly present on stage, and his physicality is so deeply integrated with his ideas, and he is (or seems) totally unafraid; working with him is like an acting lesson every second. My Belmonte has one of the loveliest tenor voices I’ve heard recently, and dancing cheek-to-cheek with him while he sings an aria to me is thrilling in the intensity of sound and sensation—my whole head vibrates sympathetically with his.

The director, too, is changing how I work and how I approach the opera. First, she’s re-thought the spoken texts and the setting of the piece, and without doing any damage to the spirit and musical truth of the original material, she’s updated the story to something modern, nuanced, funny, feminist, and all the more poignant for feeling very real. Even more importantly, from the first rehearsal, she encouraged me to drop all my habits and assumptions about my imaginary Pasha, and instead to really listen to the words coming out of my mouth and other people’s, to let myself be affected by them in real time (even when the words seem over-the-top), to really look at and listen to what others on stage offer me, to react dynamically to that, to allow for silence and confusion, to release the idea of heroism or indignation or any single, easy-to-define emotion… simply to be, to live out a messy situation on stage, and let the music and words unfold from there, reacting as a real person might. The fact that the music goes according to a fixed plan, i.e. what’s in the score, is almost incidental. I am remembering how to be surprised, pained, moved, angered, grieved, and impassioned by this music and by its dramatic context—to be carried through the story in real time as though I, Katharine, were Konstanze, reacting and feeling as she would. Mozart’s music is maybe my favorite to sing, but this role requires a physical/technical preparation and discipline that can be a barrier to spontaneity. But I’m finding the spontaneity again that I had when first beginning work on the piece all those years ago, and this time with so much more knowledge, ability, context, and development.

It’s been absolutely wonderful. And becoming Konstanze has expanded my own sense of identity. She’s teaching me to listen more, to be quieter and more still, to be more compassionate. She is reminding me that I, through her, can be defiant and can express anger, even when it feels unsafe; that I can be simultaneously attracted to and repelled by someone; that tears and laughter are both completely valid reactions to difficulty or confusion, and that neither needs to be hidden or explained away; that I can change my mind, and that I can keep my own counsel above that of others.

And… she’s shaping my feelings about another big part of my identity:

THE BODY.

More tomorrow!