on ambiguity, Donna Anna, and growing up
Sometimes, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, I’d walk through campus on a brooding overcast day and spot the towering steeple of Memorial Church (usually quite imposing, a striking white spire against the brilliant blue of a New England sky) receding into the muted light, its sharp contours softened and made less visible by the texture of the clouds behind. For some reason, I’d feel an unexplainable pang of satisfaction whenever the steeple was the same color as the sky.
What was it about that image of the gently receding spire that I liked so much? I’m still not sure. It’s a lofty wooden affair that always looks like it’s just gotten a fresh coat of white paint. The church itself is brick, dignified and columned and grand, and it anchors one of Harvard’s grassy quads. I’m looking at the church now as I sit on the massive stone steps of Widener library opposite. It’s a windy spring afternoon, and several banks of clouds have already scuttled across the sky; in a short period of watching, I’ve seen the steeple change moods several times according to its backdrop.
The New England sky is different than North Carolina’s. Further south, where I grew up, the sky is often hazy even on sunny days, a diffuse milky wash. The treetops and buildings and sky and landscape seem to blend into each other slightly, as though seen through a filter of pollen and humidity. Whenever I visit home, I find something deeply comforting in the watery quality of the light, the mottled meeting of land and sky, which is a little different than anywhere else I’ve lived.
When I was eighteen, I left North Carolina for Massachusetts. The decision to go to Harvard was complicated, and it still feels strange to tell people where I studied—I struggle with shame about the privilege conferred by that name, a privilege I didn’t necessarily earn and which is denied to most. But even so, I absolutely loved my time there. I loved the rigor of the work and the sincerity of people’s belief in what study and thinking could achieve. I loved the beauty of the old wood and brick and stone, the stunning gardens, the solidity and sense of continuity. I loved especially the friends I made, the struggles we talked about over breakfast or late-night pints of Ben and Jerry’s, the inspiration, the camaraderie, the can-do spirit, the spontaneous chamber music readings at all hours, the sense that anything was possible.
And I loved the crispness of the New England sky. The degree and depth of blue could take my breath away. It seemed to mirror the intensity of my time there: the colors were saturated, the work and music-making were gripping, and I felt extremely strongly about things. I was shy, so the force of my feeling could surprise people when it broke through. Shifts in friendships felt like earthquakes. Reading Middlemarch for the first time felt like a religious conversion (I identified, of course, with Dorothea). I fiercely wept through the last half-hour of the St. Matthew Passion while standing onstage trying to sing the choruses. Nothing could match the joy and pathos of singing the Tallis Lamentations one per part, shaping the sound to our absolute ideal—which I believed was THE absolute ideal, by the way, and anyone who disagreed with me was just plain wrong. I won’t ever forget the adrenaline rush, almost an out-of-body experience, of singing an opera aria with orchestra for the first time (Non più mesta; I was sight-reading, and have never sung it before or since). It was a bubble, it was very privileged, and it was very intense—we were constantly told that we were the brightest and the most talented, the ones who would change the world. I experienced profound disillusionment after I left, but I had no inkling of that at the time, and I’m glad I didn’t. Youthful hubris was helpful. It gave me fire and conviction that got me through a lot of difficult years, even as it dimmed and almost disappeared.
I graduated on a rainy day on the quad facing Memorial Church, probably noticing at some point that the steeple was the same color as the sky. I had decided to pursue singing professionally, and I had a plan—a place in a master’s program at a good conservatory, a scholarship, recognition already for my singing in college, a lot of promise and a lot of hope. I moved to London. There, the skies were oppressively grey most of the time, and although I was getting good training, everything that had seemed clear began to get muddled. I began to panic as I realized how little I really knew about this art form. Very little I had done at Harvard prepared me for the work, discipline, lifestyle, and humility I needed to become a singer; I began to feel, in fact, that those four years had actually put me far behind my new colleagues, and that I would never catch up. Here are a few of the things I learned, slowly and painfully, in the years between then and now.
I learned that singing is fundamentally physical, and that I was uncomfortable with my own physicality.
I learned that intelligence and passion and curiosity can’t make up for a lack of technique.
I learned that you can’t actually weep through performances when you’re being paid to sing in them.
I learned that musical style is not an objective fact but a moving target influenced by taste, time period, and performance traditions, and that building up actual stylistic authority (whether or not it claims “authenticity”) takes a lifetime.
I learned that making money at singing is really, REALLY hard work and subject to heartless chance, and sometimes that leads to resentment and a warped sense of self-worth, no matter how well things seem to be going.
I learned that ideals of sound are totally subjective, and I changed my mind many times about what I wanted to hear and how I wanted to sound.
I learned that rehearsal techniques I valued didn’t translate to other musical contexts, and that I had no idea how to practice.
I learned that a professional singer typically spends more time thinking about travel, trying to stay healthy and comfortable in underpaid, inhospitable circumstances, trying to maintain relationships under very adverse conditions, engaging in cringeworthy self-promotion, writing thousands of emails, learning web design, worrying, and trying to maintain motivation in the face of all these challenges, than actually singing or working on music.
I learned that there’s a lot of abuse and lack of compassion in the performance world, and that my sensitive introverted self needed to grow a thicker skin, learn to recognize toxic behavior, and mount a clearer defense when a confrontation was unavoidable.
I learned that this business has an unhealthy obsession with attraction, but also that attraction is part of what makes music so amazing, and that I had to learn to manage and channel it rather than rejecting or fetishizing it—and that this is VERY complicated.
Basically, everything that seemed sure changed. Every fierce opinion I held had to be re-evaluated. I had to accept that there were no guarantees, that talent didn’t entitle me to a performance career, and that this road was going to be infinitely more difficult than I’d thought. I’m sure many people encounter similar problems as they grow into their adult selves, but rattling off that (partial) list of the ways I was humbled or humiliated after college makes me understand why I’ve been in a perpetual low-grade identity crisis for my whole adult life. Singing is so terribly personal and vulnerable. Connecting your professional identity and its success or failure to your innermost self is so risky, and I knew so little when I began. (I should say that despite all this uncertainty, I was always, and am still, immensely privileged. I didn’t have student loan debt or medical issues or an unsupportive family; I’ve experienced very little systemic discrimination. I have immense respect and compassion for those who face much harder circumstances than I’ve had; the challenges I’m talking about are relative to my micro-bubble.)
These days, my thoughts are much more settled and nuanced than in the past, despite the struggles I sometimes write about here. My health and relationships remain mostly good, for which I’m deeply grateful. I still have very strong feelings about things (which is both an asset and a liability), but now I’m at least aware that I’m not always right and I can’t know everything. Every opinion or experience is subject to bias and misinterpretation; boundaries shift or become porous. And luckily, ambiguity has become more manageable with time. It hasn’t killed me. Instead, it’s made me a much stronger person and performer, and I’ve accepted that it’s a constant. Even as I gain confidence and experience, there are plenty of difficulties that I can still only meet with a sheepish shrug, a sympathetic conversation with a colleague struggling with something similar, a sleepless night or two, the occasional numbing beer after rehearsal, an involuntary grimace as I remember the shame of a misjudgment or mistake. But I’m still here, and I’m still singing.
I find myself thinking about this stuff a lot as I prepare Donna Anna for my first staged production of Don Giovanni. She is both celebrated and castigated for her emotional ambiguity, and I’ve had many discussions and some heated arguments about her over the years. Here’s the short version of her story: she’s a young noblewoman engaged to Don Ottavio, but in the first scene of the opera, she has some kind of offstage encounter with a disguised Don Giovanni in her bedroom—later, she describes it as an attempted rape. He tries to escape; she chases him; her father shows up to defend her; Don Giovanni duels with him and kills him. She spends the rest of the piece trying to find out Giovanni’s real identity and seeking vengeance for her father’s murder, helped, sort of, by Don Ottavio.
I love Donna Anna. I love her music, her pathos, her strength, her fragility, her unflinching denunciation of the man who wronged her. I love her confused, broken reaction to seeing her father’s body, a scene that feels more real, psychologically considered, and cinematically paced to me than most opera before Verdi. I love her queasy harmonic shifts and melodic leaps as she tries to tell the story of what happened in her bedroom. I love that when she finally realizes that her behavior is threatening her relationship with Don Ottavio, she pulls herself together for the exquisite, reassuring caress of Non mi dir, seven of the most perfect minutes of music I’ve ever had the privilege of singing. I love that she—unlike most other heroines of opera or literature—doesn’t just roll over after a shattering experience and retreat into marriage; she asks for more time to recover. I’ve also covered Donna Elvira, and I love her for different reasons, but as I’ve gone deeper into the music and words and motivation of Donna Anna, I just can’t get enough. She fascinates me as Konstanze fascinated me for the whole of last season, but with music and dramaturgy that I find a little more logical, a little less performative and more directly emotional.
But not everyone agrees with me. I’ve seen many stagings of this piece. A common interpretation is that Anna is a narcissistic, emotionally distant rich girl who’s experienced some sort of sexual awakening with Don Giovanni and spends the whole opera trying to cover it up. She’s played as stringing along a hapless, boring fiancé she never loved, babbling insincerely about loyalty to her father to buy herself time. She’s a repressed hypocrite, and her encounter with Don Giovanni was either complicit or else it was—hang on while I throw up in my mouth a little bit—good for her. I find the latter idea so offensive that I have a hard time even repeating it here, but it turns out there’s a heavy weight of misogynistic tradition favoring this interpretation that dates back to the mid-19th century. I read a book (Understanding the Women in Mozart’s Operas, by Kristi Brown-Montesano—the Donna Anna chapter is viewable here) that, in introducing its arguments about Anna, pulls some truly breathtaking quotes from past criticism. Here’s the worst of them:
Anna is an upper-class Spanish lady who has etiquette where her feelings and brains should reside. … Towards all her fellow-creatures she presents a coldly correct personality. If she loves her father it is because the Bible told her so. Her censorious anger against others is a juvenile trait. All men, to her, are beasts, and it would be beneficial to her personal growing-up if she had been pleasantly raped by Don Juan.
—some fuckface called William Mann
I. I just. I can’t.
Brown-Montesano argues that this interpretation isn’t supported by the original source material—the story was well-known by the time Mozart and da Ponte got to it, with numerous theatrical precedents—or by the score and libretto. Even before I encountered the book, I had a strong feeling that the music tells a more positive story about Donna Anna than we often see onstage, and I was happy to read a rigorous musical and textual analysis that supported it. Please do follow the link if you’d like details, as it’s rich with observations about text, harmony, orchestration, and key relationships (among other things) and makes its case very persuasively. My own instinct, both before reading this piece and after, is this: Anna and Ottavio get the most beautiful tunes in the opera. Why would Mozart waste the melting tenderness and nobility of Non mi dir and Dalla sua pace on a hypocrite and a cold fish, respectively? In my opinion, composer and librettist treat both characters with rich, sympathetic complexity. Perhaps Anna isn’t perfectly tactical in her pursuit of justice, and Ottavio is a little Hamlet-like in his indecision, but the opera takes place in the 24 hours just after their universe has crashed down. They are in shock, traumatized, unsure, young, struggling to cope; Anna keeps flashing back to gruesome images of her father’s bleeding body, and Ottavio is preoccupied with the responsibility suddenly thrust upon him. I simply don’t understand how people can listen to Anna’s glorious music and still call her a frigid bitch, or a petty hypocrite, or a scheming liar. But they do—mostly because she deflects questions about marriage. Wouldn’t you, if your father had just been stabbed to death? Brown-Montesano puts it very well:
Her refusal to forget everything that has happened and to join Don Ottavio in an expeditious happy ending has provoked charges of inflexibility, emotional coldness, ulterior motives, and even narcissism. It is possible, however, that critics find Donna Anna’s “unnatural” behavior disturbing because it is also, paradoxically, the most realistic in the opera. Her drama reads against opera’s favorite truism: love heals all—and quickly.
So, obviously, I have strong feelings about this. But I’m very aware, as I prepare the piece, that I may not get to decide what Donna Anna is feeling, now or in any other production. (This role is a lifer, I’m sure of it—I’ll revisit it in the fall with the Orchestra of the 18th Century, and probably again after.) It’s the stage director who gets the final word on these interpretive questions, even if I’m allowed to be part of the conversation. Over the years, I may need to play her in many ways, humanize and breathe life into the music from many perspectives.
It’s a complex story, and although I believe in my own interpretation, I know it’s not the only defensible position. The Donna-Anna-as-hypocrite reading, in which she secretly loves her attacker and lies about her victimhood, is strongly tied to the toxic culture of rape apology, of dismissal of a woman’s story when it goes against a virile hero. Luckily, I think there’s more awareness now, thanks to #metoo and several recent, highly publicized downfalls of Don-Giovanni-like men (and some men that should have fallen but didn’t), that it’s problematic to disbelieve a woman’s words so readily. Maybe we’ll start to see changes in interpretive trends as a result—I hope so. But I suspect there will always be an ambiguous element of #blurredlines to Donna Anna’s story, for better (because it means the material is rich and complex and will continue to feel relevant) or for worse (see above re: rape apologists).
I’m trying to be OK with this. It’s helpful to remind myself once in a while (hello, overactive imagination) that Donna Anna is a fictional character. In real life, of course, lines are blurry more often than not, but luckily for me, I’m not dealing with assault or murder like Donna Anna—just ordinary situations that become upsetting or unclear in a job that carries particularly high emotional risk.
I’m getting better at managing those. As I grow up into my work, my fearful need to control and compartmentalize messy feelings is lessening. When I let go, I can be fully present in a process (artistic or personal) no matter what it feels like. Of course, some harmful behaviors, too often tolerated in the music business, do need clear boundaries and resistance: abuse, emotional manipulation and gaslighting, malicious gossip, narcissism, cruel negligence. But when a problem is less extreme but still uncomfortable—an argument in rehearsal, a bizarre aesthetic choice, a conductor or director who pushes me out of my comfort zone, a comment that seems offensive—I’m trying to wait and listen, suppress my need for immediate answers, and see what can come from it. Usually, I can learn something and grow a little, or a lot. Patience, vulnerability, and compassionate, radical openness are teaching me so much about myself, music, communication, and human nature that I couldn’t see from behind walls of inflexible conviction.
Many of these thoughts were swirling through my head as I walked through Harvard Yard just now. Being back in Cambridge reminded me of the naive clarity of my opinions as an undergraduate. As I walked, I felt a rush of fondness for that earlier version of myself. I was so convinced of so many things! Big things, about music and love and the world, seemed self-evident. I had so little grown-up life experience to teach me differently. When I believed myself wronged, my resentment was implacable and not up for debate (even when my shyness didn’t let me show it—silent grudges are the fiercest, y’all). When I loved, the feeling was long-lasting and uncritical. When I sang, it was with lots of emotion and not enough technique. These things about me haven’t been completely worn down by professionalism and increasing maturity and tolerance of ambiguity.
We don’t get to see fictional operatic characters grow up. We can wonder, but never know for sure, if Konstanze and Donna Anna will be happy with their bumbling tenors in the long run or eventually pursue other loves, make peace with their traumas and temptations, develop a sense of humor. Novels can give us more information: we learn from the epilogue of Middlemarch that Dorothea ages into a happy and stable adulthood after the tumultuous years we experience with her in the book. But operas are usually open-ended, showing us brief, highly dramatic moments in people’s lives, which lets us relate to them in hugely individual, speculative ways. It’s no wonder that I’m drawn to roles like Konstanze and Donna Anna, that I enjoy borrowing their passionate selves for a little while and merging my own experiences with their wonderful music. I had a lot in common with them when I was their age.
As I sat on the Widener steps watching the clouds pass, suddenly the light dimmed and the air cooled, and I noticed with a familiar little stab of satisfaction that the steeple was the same color as the sky. I began to wonder if the sudden receding, the near-disappearance, of a normally imposing, sharp-cornered monument was what had appealed to me all along. In a moment, in the passing of a cloud, the starkly defined border between heaven and earth can become porous, diffuse, less clear—more like the milky North Carolina sky of my childhood, more like the constantly-changing stormy greys of my current home city of Rotterdam. Maybe, even during those intense undergraduate years, I craved a little softness to balance out my extremes—a softness that, despite the overall trend toward strength and stability in my work, I’m glad to be slowly adding back into the mix, one year at a time.
One final anecdote. I’m in Boston to sing the Brahms Requiem. The soprano soloist has just one movement; it’s not a lot of music, but those short minutes are extremely beautiful, critical to the emotional shape of the whole piece, and quite difficult to sing. The concert is with a very good amateur choir led by Jameson Marvin (Jim), who conducted the Harvard choirs for decades and whose music-making was a huge influence on me and a big part of the intensity of my years here. He is a fanatical perfectionist about choral sound and a hilariously ebullient rehearser. He is retiring after this concert, and it’s going to be a big occasion. I was honored that he asked me to travel back to sing, but I’ve also been a tiny bit nervous about it, because after I gratefully accepted the gig, Jim wrote back, “GREAT!!!! So, I’m thinking in movement 5, a tempo of about quarter note = 48 or MAYBE 50!!! Can you do the first phrase in one breath????”
This is a big ask. It’s a looooooooooong phrase. But I agree that the phrase is better in one breath, so I replied: yes, Jim, that’s possible, I’ll do it. As the first rehearsal approached, I practiced the phrase over and over, remembering the force of his personality and my gratitude to him, fearing that I wouldn’t be able to please him if I couldn’t make it. But once we were in the same room together, the music unfolded freely and intuitively. I’m a pro now, and I can handle a tough phrase with grace. A seemingly inflexible requirement about the physicality of breath receded into the instinctual flow of the music: even on the first try, Jim and I could communicate in the moment without words, make small adjustments, inspire each other, and feel out the shape of the piece without fear, this time as professional colleagues rather than as teacher and student.
After last night’s orchestra rehearsal, Kevin Leong, a friend from my undergrad years and a conductor who will take over this choir after Jim retires, gave me a hug and told me how much he had enjoyed my singing. He said that he could still hear in my sound the essence of the singer I was all that time ago, even though my voice has rounded and grown up since—that I hadn’t lost myself in all these years. No comment could possibly have touched me more. I have felt many times that I’ve lost myself, reinvented myself, had to start over, had to reject my past, had to change my body and aesthetic and spirit to meet the external demands of the art form I care so much about. But apparently, something essential about me is still there, and still singing.
Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit;
aber ich will euch wieder sehen
und euer Herz soll sich freuen
und eure Freude soll niemand von euch nehmen.
Now you are sorrowful;
but I shall see you again
and your heart will rejoice
and no one shall take away your joy.