It is a wondrous part of being an opera singer that you get to invent a different life for yourself each time you begin a new production. I am not only referring to the character’s life you invent to play on the stage, but I also mean the person you become off-stage as a result of empathizing with that character, striving to realize that character’s own flesh and mind.
This transformative process is a great part of why I chose a life as an artist – and I’m sure this motive is not unique to me. It is the unique thrill of becoming something that is both a part of me, and yet at the same time something very much other than myself. I am always seeking to become part of the fabric of empathy that stretches between human beings, to understand a little better the human experience. It is this communion between the self and the greater world that we seek to have as artists – a bond we seek to strengthen. When I am on stage, I feel for one moment I have multiplied my life by a factor of a million, shape-shifted for one moment, connected to something much greater than myself. When this happens, I fall in love with what I do all over again and remember why I do it. It’s a self perpetuating drug of sorts, with wonderful effects.
I am struck by the similarities performers share with activists. Activists feel strongly about something deep down and seek to connect with those outside themselves and change minds and hearts for the benefit of others. An artist is performing a similar service to humankind. They do this by holding up a mirror to the public through play, creating a potentially cathartic experience for their audience. Whether they give solace through the beauty of their art, cause reflection on a common truth through laughter, or jar audiences violently awake to an important idea or cause, by showing the world a mask, they help us all experience important and challenging life themes at a safe distance.
This distance, which the theater provides, is important for us to have so that we can better see something for what it truly is. Distance allows for a bird’s eye view of a subject, an objective perspective. It allows the audience to see something at its purest before that audience inevitably projects their own subjective feelings on that object.
EMPATHY IN THE THEATRICAL UNIT
It is not everyday that you are given such a perfect opportunity to play that mirror, to empathize with something so prescient as I recently was able to do. It is a daunting task in these moments to empty yourself; to become that vessel as an actor; to allow yourself to be filled so richly with the life of another person.
Of all the roles I have played thus far, the role of the Refugee in Jonathan Dove’s Flight is a role that has overfilled my heart, and struck me to my core. Playing this role is unlike anything I have played before, and I imagine unlike anything I will ever play again.
The opera is a human tragicomedy set in a timeless amorphous anonymous airport. A limbo space immediately recognizable in our modern world. The trials and foibles of the various people who come to the airport, their individual personalities and wishes all come together into a maelstrom of doubts, fears, love, and desire. It is not until the very end of the opera that we finally see the darker underpinnings of the story. It is as if we are slowly exposing the structural beams of the airport lounge where these characters are being held in limbo, until finally the thin veneer of comedy is completely scraped away, leaving the Refugee on the floor emotionally-bare and forcing audiences to face the harsh reality of his plight; and by extension, the reality of so many people in our current world.
So a little background on this character’s plight in the opera: The Refugee escapes his presumably war-torn or at the very least dire circumstances in his home country along with his twin brother. They pay money to a smuggler and are stowed away in the wheel of a plane supposedly flying to a country where they will find freedom. However, the twin brother falls out of the plane during the flight, and the Refugee lands in the new country alone and without his passport or necessary paperwork, which were all with the brother.
He therefore is hiding out trying not to be found by the immigration officer who has been looking for him at this point in the opera for weeks. He is constantly trying to hide and make new friends to help him, and has clearly not accepted the reality of what happened to him and his brother or remains uncertain.
In the end, he reveals this to all at the airport and to the immigration officer, and he is allowed to stay in the airport destined to never leave, while all the others move on with their lives. The Refugee is left alone to create a life in the limbo of the airport lounge. Neither here, nor there, just nowhere.
Even though twenty years separate us now from the original creation of this opera at Glyndbourne in 1997, it does seem somehow that this character of the Refugee is more clear in our minds today, and his story even more prescient.
The migrant crisis is shaking the Western world in ways previously never experienced and bringing out the best, and sadly the worst in humanity. Fleshing out the role of the Refugee, suddenly his story became much more focused for me personally.
For me that distance with the story of the “refugee” was suddenly shortened. It was no longer thousands of miles away, no longer just a story in a book or magazine, no longer another headline in the daily news or a glimpse as seen through a documentarian lens. I had to become him, or he had to become me. I had to empty myself and make room for this man to allow him to appear on that stage.
This role… this man … the Refugee had touched my heart in a way I had never experienced before while playing a role. As I studied the journeys and lives of various refugees trying to empathize in some small way with their individual stories, I was struck by the horrifying lives they must lead and saddened knowing the appalling way in which parts of the Western world are treating these refugees in turn.
In the opera itself, the treatment of my character by the others in the airport is at best neglectful and at worst downright violent or hateful at times, but still he has hope in the kindness of strangers, appealing to their better humanity. How he still clings to that hope? Asking that question is perhaps most heartbreaking of all.
Refugees face danger, hatred, grief, and loss every day in their efforts to escape their war-torn and poverty-stricken corners of the world. And I think back to how often I may have passed people by in airports and public spaces, who might have been going through similar circumstances, and tried to erase them from my view to save myself the emotional response. It’s a hard reality to face that we are all in some way are culpable of this or have been at different points in our life.
There is a line near the end of the opera that one of the characters in the airport utters, “there is nothing we can do” and with that they gather their belongings and depart. We have all at some point adopted an attitude of “there is nothing we can do” at various points in our day. It is a survival mentality we adopt in order to move forward for better or for worse.
Playing this man, I felt a kind of possession by the character and it forced me to face these facts under the harsh scrutiny of the spotlight. In a very real and visceral way, I was being chastised from the inside for being even in one small way culpable of turning an eye to this conflict, now by the very man I was becoming on stage. I would come home from rehearsal or leave the stage and stare at my face in the mirror for what felt like an eternity. I was being stared back at by the weary eyes of that man, the Refugee. Sometimes I didn’t even see myself anymore, which was a disconcerting experience and one I barely spoke about with my colleagues throughout the process.
Perhaps what struck me the most is that this is happening in our world RIGHT NOW, to people every day. It is a harsh reality for so many people fleeing the war-torn corners of our world: the adversity they must face. The fight. The constant struggle. It is emotionally draining to try to empathize for even one moment with what they have to deal with to survive, let alone live it as they must do day in, day out, year after year.
It was important that I let it hurt, let it puncture my heart. As difficult as it may have felt in the moment, I am so honored and grateful for the experience, and I thank James Darrah, Opera Omaha and all for making it possible for me to play for one brief moment this beautiful man.
I am ultimately so grateful to all my fellow cast mates who were so inspiring; truly a family that I could lean on through this process. I am honored to have shared the stage with each of them.
And thanks to our amazing conductor Chris Rountree (and our incredible musical team of Aaron Breid and Sheldon Miller) who were the glue keeping us musically together in a rather complicated and intricate score and allowing us the space to breathe musical life into these roles. I love my Flight Family, and hope we all meet again really soon to create more beautiful moments together.
To find out more about what YOU can do to help refugees, check out these links to wonderful organizations below: