the unshakable Marschallin

I’m in Toronto, and last night was Rosenkavalier dress rehearsal. I’m singing Marschallin in two concert performances with chamber orchestra this weekend, and the process of learning this monumental score has been overwhelming, joyful, fraught, thoughtful, stressful, beautiful—depends on which day you ask.

Tomorrow night is the first performance, and today is a rest day. I’m staying with some family who live just outside of town. What have I done so far today, after last night’s tiring rehearsal? I woke up late, talked to my husband on Facetime, went downstairs, ate breakfast, chatted with my aunt and uncle; but then, they turned on the TV to the live coverage of James Comey testifying before the Senate about his firing as FBI director. I stayed for five minutes of it, couldn’t stand any more, and fled upstairs. Intensely curious, I spent the next hour constantly refreshing the New York Times live commentary feed, avid to know what was going on but unable to watch.

American politics are so toxic, so boorishly theatrical, and never more than now. I feel like we’re living in some kind of fictional dystopian parallel reality, one where violence, and inciting violence, and utter contempt for nearly everyone, and brazen opportunism, are accepted and celebrated. I passionately want to stay engaged and alert and continue to resist the normalization of awful human behavior, but the public part of all of this exhausts and saddens me. There is so little compassion, so little listening and cooperation, so much yelling and clinging to territory by whatever means necessary. As someone naturally conflict-averse, even the aggressive questioning of Comey in an otherwise interesting and important Senate hearing (by senators whose questions are clearly designed to reinforce their previously-held beliefs and assert dominance, and not to learn anything new) makes me anxious, and I left the room rather than continue to listen.

I’ve always been this way. As an adult, you have to learn to have difficult conversations with people you disagree with, of course; sometimes I win arguments, sometimes not, and most of the time I can have a productive exchange of ideas without thinking of it as a game to be won or lost. But my first reaction to conflict is to try to escape or suppress it. As a kid and a teenager, I (unintentionally) sabotaged relationships and friendships by simply being unable to talk rationally through conflict or a difference of opinion. I would flee, or cry, or both; and then I would reach emotional conclusions in isolation, trying to protect myself from the uncertainties of other people’s feelings and behavior. The hardest part of growing up for me, so far, has been unlearning this habit. I’m not sure that many who know me only as an adult would know how difficult this is for me.

Watching conflict play out every day in the news raises my anxiety every day, even while I know logically that so much of what’s politically toxic now is people asserting dominance and contempt for others in ways that need to be countered aggressively. Hence my reaction today, and most days. I’ve largely avoided TV news since November—somehow, reading rather than watching doesn’t quite raise the same anxiety.

It’s particularly relevant to be thinking about this right now while working on Rosenkavalier, a brilliant piece of theater exploring sensitivity and aggression, among other things. It’s an opera I’ve loved for ages, but when I really got to work learning it, I realized that what I had always loved about it—the gorgeous women’s ensembles, the heartbreaking dignity of the Marschallin as she renounces her young lover, the idealism v. reality of love—are only part of the story. For years, I forgot the looming presence of Baron Ochs, the piece’s villain and boor, the foil to the three smart women singing around him. He flirts inappropriately with everyone, feels entitled to an advantageous marriage and personal enrichment just because of who he is, rips off his employees, doesn’t follow through on contracts, myopically pursues power, and listens to no one. He thinks he’s cutting a great figure while everyone around him is quietly mocking him—but very few people stand up to him outright. He’s got the most singing of any character in the show because he talks over everyone and never shuts up.

In other words, he reminds me uncannily of Trump—a bully enabled by foolish and opportunistic people around him, despised by virtually everyone but also feared for his shamelessness and violence and his bizarre ability to consolidate power in spite of everything.

As I was learning the opera, diving into each character’s background and motivations, trying to understand the nuances of their interactions together, I could examine all this quietly and dispassionately, because I know how the opera ends—the Baron gets his comeuppance. He’s made a fool of, driven out of his engagement, gleefully scolded by a stage full of chorus, humiliated and disgraced. He leaves the stage toward the end of Act III and clears the way for the Marschallin, Octavian, and Sophie to come to terms, kindly and eloquently, with each other and their new relationships, closing with the heartbreaking and cathartic trio that still causes all present to weep—singers, players, audience. It’s the most divine, bittersweet ending of a piece, and it justifies the three previous hours in which we’ve all had to put up with the Baron’s villainy, rudeness, and assault. And it’s the Marschallin who finally manages to get rid of him. Octavian tricks him into his fall from grace, Sophie verbally defies him, but only the Marschallin has the strength and social position to cut through his idiocy and pompous self-regard, make him listen, and finally send him off the stage. In the end, all he can do is repeat her words—“ist halt vorbei” (it’s all over)—before cutting his losses and making his escape.

It’s quite an amazing thing to be on stage and to feel a self-righteous anger and contempt coursing through my (the Marschallin’s) veins… to know that I outrank the hideous Baron, and therefore, when I finally get angry enough and speak clearly enough, he will listen and obey me. I, the Marschallin, can put aside any personal grief and confusion in the moment and Win The Confrontation. The Marschallin is not conflict-averse—she is cutting, intelligent, powerful, aggressive when it’s needed. Since this is something I personally struggle with, and since I’m unlikely ever to get to confront Trump in person and lay his idiocy and villainy at his feet, it’s cathartic to be so powerfully, unshakably strong on stage in the guise of another character.

But still, I’m avoiding TV conflict, and I think it’s because I don’t know how it will end in real life. I would love it if the current administration shattered to a shambles of corruption and impeachment, but we can’t know, now, what the result will be… we can’t know if the bully will win. In the meantime, my soul reels from every blow (metaphorical and otherwise), every assertion of dominance, every hate crime, every obvious political money-grab that costs people’s lives or prospects. I can take pleasure in tracing a satisfactory character arc in a finished story like Rosenkavalier; I reread Harper Lee’s two Finch novels this week and (despite big imperfections in them) fervently rooted for plucky little Scout standing up to racism; I adored watching Wonder Woman kick ass compassionately (seriously, everyone, rush to the theater if you haven’t seen the movie yet). But nonfiction confrontation—especially in politics, especially at this moment—feels dangerous, loaded with meaning and dire malignance, intended to inflict as much hurt as possible. It feels like it could very easily lead to the collapse of our democratic systems, of what social progress has been made since To Kill a Mockingbird was written, to the loss of any real opportunity for all but those at the top of the socioeconomic ladder.

Nonetheless. Exploring this stuff through art (opera, fiction, movies) does make it easier to firm up my own spine a little. In that way, I (and everyone who has ever seen or enjoyed Rosenkavalier) is very lucky. Marschallin’s righteous anger can be mine in real life, too–and indeed we have a responsibility, as she does, to use positions of privilege to enforce our common code of morality and dignity. Let’s all take a cue from Marschallin and #resist.

And then let’s sing that trio one more time.

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