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Io son l’umile ancella…

Today I would like to share a few reflections on the role of the interpreter who embodies great characters and communicate the message encoded in the words and the music to the audience. This task involves many overlapping elements, touches on many aspects of life, and of necessity involves the emotions and the psychology of the singer, as well as those of the audience. The self image of the singer in reference to his own level of artistry, cannot be ignored, even though the inner perception of one’s own performance often has little to do with objective results or with the experience of the audience. Performers can run the gamut from the unjustifiably narcissistic yet not very accomplished performer, to the highly accomplished who, having achieved a superlative artistic level, doubts him/herself, or is even paralyzed by unjustified fear (see Gradus ad Parnassum) . But how do we begin to understand this? Is there a place in music and opera performance for the ego, and if so, what is it? What conclusions could we gather from our studies and experience, and from the teachings of great musicians and performers?

This topic brings to mind the scene when Adriana Lecouvreur presents her artistic credo. Adriana defines her role as that of a humble servant- in the service of Art, and the Creator already a blow to narcissism, because our role as performers is, from the start, secondary. We did not originate the material we perform; the music and the role are certainly not vehicles for self-glorification. If we attemp to use the music to aggrandize ourselves and to carry out glorified practice on stage, our performance will be meaningless. Arrau puts it very clearly: “when the performer concentrates on believing he is better that anyone else, he might then get his worst performance.” Another pitfall comes about when the performer concentrates on his/her own internal experience or her/his own technical needs during performance, “watching herself perform”. Yet, if instead, one dares to go deep into the character, the text and the music, and to give oneself to them wholeheartedly, one can experience a kind of mystical artistic union with the composer and as a result achieve a great rendition. Then and only then can the performer become great: in this communion with the composer through the artwork.

In the words of Adriana:

Io son l’umile ancella

del Genio creator:

ei m’offre la favella,

io la diffondo ai cor…

Del verso io son l’accento,

l’eco del dramma uman,

il fragile strumento

vassallo della man…

Mite, gioconda, atroce,

mi chiamo Fedeltà.

un soffio è la mia voce,

che al novo di morrà…

Is it not revealing that, when the prince asks Adriana what she is searching for, she answers; Truth!!!!? Artistic truth…And yet, how can we pursue artistic truth if we embody a character and there is an element of slitting or unfolding of the self, a sort of channeling that must take place? And where do we leave the ego? Should it be checked out as we enter the stage, or do we need a measure of ego identification or personal power to carry out the performance of the role?

Many famous performers have suffered from anxiety and even from an inferiority complex that has impacted their career through unnecessary suffering. (see The Opera Singer and the Act of Singing: Some Reflexions in The Opera Atelier Blog. We may have heard the stories about Horowitz and Corelli. Janet Baker battled with performance anxiety. Claudio Arrau speaks candidly about his inferiority complex in an interview. On the other end of the spectrum, we find performers at the initial stages of their development who exhibit an exaggerated sense of their own worth and accomplishments. Everyone has at one time or another witnessed this disassociation or contradiction between the self-concept and the actual level of accomplishment. But, as we can see, the self-image of the performer may have little to do with objective accomplishments.

And as Arrau warns, vanity is the most terrible thing; it is what can block an interpreter the most. Let us take into consideration the words of famous musicians and performers as they explain the role of the interpreter and the value of humility. I have chosen Claudio Arrau, Magda Olivero, Dietrich Fischer Diskau, Janet Baker and Joachim Quantz, all of whom have earned an honored place in the musical Parnassus.

• Claudio Arrau

A measure of humility and erasing oneself is needed if one is to become the vessel that Music necessitates.

• Dietrich Fischer Diskau

Listen to the reflections of Fischer Diskau in the documentary below. Here the performer is to seek the meaning of the music, and seek to become one with the composer at the moment the music was created.

(translation in the documentary) “One has to listen to what the music says. Nothing can be done merely with cold calculation. One must be penetrated by the same warmth as that of the composer when he wrote the music. Then and only then comes the true interpreter who with his heart filled with emotion for what he sings will transport you into another sphere.”

The performer interpreter is seeking to become one with the composer, by listening to what the music says, neither imposing anything on the music nor using the music for self-glorification.

Olivero expresses pretty much the same idea. She puts it this way:

• Magda Olivero : The artists have the duty to capture through this music that which the author felt the moment he wrote these notes. It seems absurd, but it is not absurd, because I can say ….. (hard to make out) introspective (work), a work of the mind per erasing oneself and to arrive at it, and for this being humble is very important because it is through being humble that you stop being your own self and become the character. The most beautiful compliment to me was when Cilea told me: you have gone beyond the notes. I had captured that which he felt when he wrote those notes.

Olivero on Traviata

29:34 32:08

Here Baker talks about the performer in transmitting the music, and of getting oneself out of the way.

• Janet Baker

Baker on the subject of inspiration and the role of the self/

(Extracted and copied from the video, please watch the video for exact phrasing) : Being like a sheet of glass which one tries, through integrity and work and keeping up the professional techniques, to keep clean. You keep your glass clean and then if you are lucky, something from this area I have just been talking of , this total absorption of what music does to you, something of that can come through you as a personality, as a human being, which has really nothing to do with you. It comes from somewhere else. You provide the grounding and the groundwork for it. If you’ve done this properly, this magic can come through, and that is what the audience is feeling and the people feel. That is the power of music, it is not you as a human being. It is the power of getting yourself out of the way, in a sense. But also just thinking about the process of transmitting music as a medium…And that kind of power is nothing I think human beings can control. You can direct it through you, if you are lucky.

Joachim Quantz warns:

My last piece of advice for those who want to excel in music is to control his/her vanity.

You can read his passage on vanity in his Versuch, available on several translations.

At the same time that vanity should be kept in check, one needs a good measure of power, presence and self-confidence to be able to portray great characters successfully. If a descent of inspiration or intervention or however you want to call (Socrates’ daimon) is to occur, it must be met by a worthy vessel, by a performer with the presence and power to embody that inspiration. But let most of the power come from the music and the artwork itself; let us keep our glass clean, as Baker proposes, and perfect our craft, so that that something that Baker is talking about, can indeed come through. Let’s become one with the composer and his intention in the moment of creation with insight from within the work, as Olivero and Diskau propose. As performers who have taken upon ourselves to present these works of art and transmit their truth and beauty to the audience, let us be penetrated by their greatness, and let this greatness meet in us what is great within. Let us strive to strike the right individual balance between the internal and the external, between the self and the music, so we may get lost in the music and the work. Then we may become the humble servants of our Art. © 2014 Daniel Daroca/The Opera Atelier

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