Wednesday, May 26, 2010

On Being Out

Last October, after one of our performances of Falstaff in Glyndebourne, someone said to me (having spent an entire evening watching me manhandle Nannetta as I portrayed her lover, Fenton), “You are quite convincing as a heterosexual!”. While I know that they meant this as a compliment, and I laughed it off at the time, it touched on a sensitive spot for me. It is not the first time that I have heard a comment like that, and every single time I hear it uttered, I hear the same hint of surprise and awe in that person’s voice.

The moment has stuck in my memory as the season plodded onwards from my sojourn in England, and a couple of moments since have picked at it, causing it to repeatedly place itself in the forefront of my mind. A few months after the Glyndebourne incident, the pianist Stephen Hough wrote this blog post about gay pianists, discussing whether it was possible to tell a pianist’s sexuality from their playing. And then, a few weeks ago, this offensive post purporting that gay actors are not able to play straight was published in Newsweek.

There is a debate about whether a performer should come out – many performers argue that it is important to keep their private lives private so they don't interfere with people’s ability to suspend their disbelief and to buy into their characters more fully as an audience. On the flip side, many people argue that it is important for performers to be open and come out because of their profile, so that they can set positive examples for the rest of the world. I can see both sides of the argument, although (while I do believe in maintaining a sense of privacy) I very obviously fall into the latter camp when it comes to my own life.

I was debating this with a gay friend the other day, who was arguing for the other side, and pointing out that there is a bit of a price to pay in terms of career. I found that, while I would never say that my openness has ever concretely stood in the way of my career, I would say that it has had, in incredibly subtle and hard–to-describe ways, an effect. That comment after my performance in Glyndebourne would never have been uttered were I straight – it would have simply been noted that we had good chemistry and that I had given a convincingly passionate performance. I had to concede to my friend – when it comes to casting, it is important for people to think of the actor or singer in a certain way. In a way, the less a casting director knows, the easier it is to simply assess the artist based on their work. When it comes to my repertoire as a lyric tenor, most of the roles I would be considered for operatically are heterosexual romantic leads. I’m lucky to be in a position where there is nowhere near the same kind of competition and breadth of possibilities that face gay actors.

But all this has me wondering – does it matter? And I find myself vehemently thinking that it should not. Of course, an artist’s personal life and experience informs their artistry, but isn't the point of performing to communicate to as wide an audience as possible, to share part of the common experience of what it is to be human? I think that part of the beauty of music is that it expresses the inexpressible and the indefinable. It heightens emotions that are universally felt and can touch each and every one of us as humans. Why the need to put a performer into a labeled box?

There is a double standard – we easily suspend our disbelief when a 40-year old, white woman plays a 16-year old, virginal, Japanese geisha. We have no problems watching a pudgy, Italian or Mexican tenor wear dark make-up and sing Othello. We can watch endless hours of actors in their mid-to-late 20’s portraying angst-ridden, privileged high-school teenagers on the CW. We know so much about the personal lives of so many heterosexual stars. We know how politically left-leaning Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are and how many children they have had and adopted, we know that Renee Fleming is a divorced mother of two, we know all about Jennifer Aniston’s latest break-up – yet none of that seems to matter when we watch these people’s performances. Nor should it, really.

A young singer asked me the other day on Twitter: “is it harder for us gays in the opera world, getting gigs and such? Not to mention being a tenor and gay?” I wasn’t sure how to answer him in a tweet, but my initial instinct was to say no, it is not harder. That initial reaction is based in the way I try to think artistically – I attempt to be grateful for all of the experiences in my life, doing my best to keep my focus on what opportunities I have had, rather than the ones I didn’t. Yet it’s a question that has been posed to me twice before – once when I was interviewed by the Advocate, and once when I came out to my parents years ago. When I have mentioned this to people, they almost always laugh, saying, “but there are so many gay people in opera!” Sure, in some ways that is true, but more often than not, I look around the room on the first day of an opera rehearsal and note that I am the only gay person in the cast. And while I consider myself lucky to work in an extremely tolerant work-environment, it is a reminder as to why it is that much more important that I perform to the best of my abilities at all times. Hopefully that will show people that a person's sexuality really doesn’t matter – despite the fact that we live in a world and a society in which it seems to.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Barber 2.75

This past month of rehearsals has been a very special experience for me, and I am really looking forward to seeing what happens tonight at our opening performance. I have a feeling it is going to be a giddy, fun, and exciting evening.

I've been trying to figure out how to use my camera in low light - and not with much success yet. This crazy picture is the best that I could do while we were rehearsing in the theater. I know it looks like someone is singing an aria about seeing dead people, but it's actually Jenny singing "Una voce poco fa", if you can believe it. We've all got to start somewhere, right?

Hopefully, tonight's performance won't feel that blurry. I hope instead that we have sharp focus and bubbly energy, so that we can savor every moment we are on stage and show the people who come tonight a really fun time.

A huge toi, toi, toi to all of my amazing colleagues here in Portland. Thanks for the endless laughs, the great working atmosphere, and for helping finally figure out how to really enjoy singing Rossini.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Good Times

If you see the back of my left hand, you'll notice that there are two small wounds that are in a rather unattractive stage of healing at the moment. If I roll up my sleeve far enough, you'll see that I am sporting a bandage covering a much bigger (and slightly deeper) scrape on my elbow. Now, as much I wish I had some dramatic, violent, freakish stage accident story to tell, the truth is a fair bit more embarrassing. At our sitzprobe (our first orchestra rehearsal in the theater), I was chatting with some cast mates, and nearly missed my entrance for the Act I finale. I ran down the length of the theater and hopped up on the stage only to trip and skid spectacularly across half of the set.

What I find remarkable about this every time I look down at my very minor injuries is how relaxed I was when it happened. Rossini causes me stress. Full stop. I have never had an experience with Rossini in which I have not felt tremendous nerves and anxiety. As I have written time and time again here, it is some of the music that I find most challenging to sing. Part of that is the point of this music. In many of the Q and A sessions and interviews we've had here over the past few weeks in order to publicize the opera, a lot of what we have talked about is how virtuosic this music is. It is in the bel canto style, and it is meant to show off the virtuosic extremes of the voice. Virtuosity equals pressure – there is just no way around it. In the past, when I have performed Rossini, I've been anxious, on edge, nervous, and my way of dealing with it is to be hyper-prepared and have a humorless, razor-sharp focus in rehearsal. The idea that I was relaxed enough to be even a little distracted is mind-boggling to me and makes me smile.

My little injuries have gotten me thinking about how there has been a rather unique atmosphere in rehearsals here, though. While we have been working hard (and quite seriously - most of the time), everyone in the room has really seemed focused on the fun of what we do. In the various acting classes I took and theatrical experiences that I had at the theater departments at both Interlochen (back when I actually thought I wanted to be an actor) and the University of Michigan, I found there to be an incredibly conscious effort to maintain a positive energy in the room. It was constantly emphasized that the rehearsal room was a safe haven – a place to explore, take risks, and – most importantly - find the play (i.e. the fun) within the play. Most often in my experience, I've found that, while we are practicing a form of theater, there is little room for this kind of process-oriented, fun work in Opera. As singers, we have been taught during the course of most of our young artist programs the importance of showing up "prepared" on the first day of rehearsal. It has been drilled into us that we have to know every single note and rhythm, be memorized, and have fairly strong ideas about who the characters we portray are and how they should act. Many singers often refer to the first day of rehearsal as the "first day of school", but not with the excitement of students coming back to school after a summer of vacation. Instead, there are the sigh of having to deal with schoolmarms and the dread of preparing for an exam in their tone. From the minute that first rehearsal begins, the pressure is on. Every single "role preparation" discussion or session that I had in my training focused only on what and how much I needed to know for that first day of rehearsal, and, yes, those things are important – when a colleague isn't properly prepared, it can cripple a rehearsal process, making it excruciating. All the same, there are so many more layers to discover in order to make it a great run of performances, and there is a danger in the expectation to be so prepared for that first day – that we close ourselves off to exploring the myriad of possibilities and the fun that lie within the covers of our scores.

What has made this experience so unique is that theater-like emphasis on the positive that I felt when I was young has been really prevalent here in Portland. Our rehearsals have been filled with laughs, smiles, hugs, jokes, and just good fun. We've been blessed with a conductor and director who have both maintained a perfect balance between being being laid-back and focused and a cast full of incredibly supportive, positive, and very funny colleagues. All that has allowed us to find our ways through this piece and come together as a cast quite organically. Every rehearsal has felt like a building block, each run-through has felt like an opportunity, and every note that has been given has only been framed in the positive. It's always been, "why don't you try this instead and see how that works?" Never, "don't do that." It's been a very empowering and fun atmosphere, and I feel that our performances over the next ten days will be quite special as a result. Since our first day of school here, I have gone to rehearsal everyday feeling like the possibilities are limitless and safe enough to try different ones out each day, and it has felt like the pressure is somewhat off. At least, enough for me to feel relaxed and have fun with it – it is a comedy, after all, right?

Incidentally, I'll have you know that despite my sliding across the stage, I didn't miss a beat, and we made our way through the scene just fine, laughing at ourselves the entire time.