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 living in the flesh and mind of that character.
This transformative process is, after all, a great part of why I choose to live as an artist – and I’m sure this motive is not unique to me. It is the 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 all humans. 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, understood some secret about the universe and connected to something much bigger than myself. When this happens, I fall in love with what I do all over again and remember why I do it.
I am struck by the similarities this motive has with that of 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 or jar audiences 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 is. Distance allows for a certain objectivity. It allows the audience to see something at its purest before that audience inevitably projects their own subjective feelings on that object. Of course, sometimes directorial concepts in a show leads audiences to a specific conclusion, but I feel a performing artist’s job is to make no judgements, to simply allow the truth of their character to come through. It is our job as artists to simply become an empty vessel, to surrender to our character, and let them inhabit our minds and hearts. We hope, as actors, that for one brief moment, we are authentically that character, that person and that the audience might see that.
EMPATHY IN THE THEATRICAL UNIT
It is not everyday that you are given such a perfect opportunity to empty yourself; to become that vessel; 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. In context, the opera is a human tragicomedy with heavy doses of comedy. The antics of the various people who come to the airport, their individual personalities and wishes all come together into a maelstrom of mayhem and madness. 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 this man’s plight.
The role is interesting because there aren’t an excessive amount of clues as to the man if you only read what’s in the libretto, and yet a wealth of possibility is there. Even though twenty years separate us now from the original creation of this opera, it does seem somehow that this role of the Refugee is more clear in our minds today. His story is more prescient than perhaps it seemed a few decades earlier. The migrant crisis is shaking the Western world in ways previously never experienced and bringing out the best and sadly and most scarily of all, the worst in humanity. Fleshing out the role of the Refugee, suddenly his story became much more than a story in a book, no longer just another headline or documentary on TV. I had to become him, or he had to become me. Which way does it happen? Or is it a little of both? It’s hard to say. Either way I had to empty myself and make room for this man to inhabit me for the month it took to create him on 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 and the way they are treating each other and others being held like cattle in holding pens. 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. How he still clings to that hope is beyond me.
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. It’s a hard reality to face that we are all in some way culpable of this. And that we all adopt an attitude of “there is nothing we can do” at various points in our day.
Playing this man, I felt a kind of possession of my soul 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 not helping a fellow man in need, now 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.
So a little background on my character’s plight in the opera: The Refugee escapes his presumably war-torn or dire circumstances in his home country along with his twin brother. They pay money and promised to be smuggled and 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. In the end, all his new friends leave him behind and move on with their lives, and the Refugee is left alone to create a life in the limbo of the airport lounge. Neither here, nor there, just nowhere.
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 do to survive, let alone live it as they must do day in, day out, year after year. Of course, you set your healthy distance and try not to let the emotions get over-involved for the sake of the acting; so that you can remain objective in your portrayal. Too much emotional involvement can cloud the experience for the audience, who ultimately are the ones who must be allowed to connect to the message. However, inevitably, there is only so much resistance one can put up before they crumble under the weight of such a subject. It is precisely this struggle to hold it together that is most compelling for the audience to watch, but it does not mean it was an easy task to perform, especially repeatedly. But it was important that I let myself go there and I am changed for the better through this experience. It was important that I let it hurt, let it puncture my heart. It was necessary. As difficult as it may have felt in the moment, I am so honored and grateful for the experience, and I thank James and Peabody for making it possible for me to become this beautiful character at least for one brief moment in my career.
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, and I am honored to have shared the stage with them, and so grateful to James who brilliantly sculpted this stunning show and inspired us all to dig deep and create something beautiful, grounded, connected. And to our amazing conductor Chris Rountree who was the glue keeping us musically together in a rather complicated and intricate score. 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: