Sunday, March 29, 2009

Tosca's Revelations: What Women can learn from the opera and why Men should listen, too

When I first moved to Vienna several years ago I was heavily involved in the Church.  I went to Bible Studies and participated in activities with my Church family.  I was searching for something, for my Self or for God, or both of these at once.  Along this journey I met a missionary named Erwin who helped me refine my faith in singing and in life.

At one of our weekly coffee teaching sessions where we read the Bible and discussed God's will and desires for humanity, Edwin told me it was good that God gave me the gift of a voice but that I would only be serving Him if I used my voice to sing sacred music.  Any music that is not in direct praise of God is inherently harmful to the world, he said. What is opera all about?  Rape, murder, hatred, revenge.  Why proliferate these things into the world?               

His questions forced me to contemplate what I was doing with my life, the nature of good and bad, and the nature individual responsibility.  My response to Edwin's comment has taken a few years and is partly taking the form of my new CD Expressions of Love©2009.  The CD website has more information and commentary about my vision for the project.

Today I realized that I can go a step further in affirming the worth, goodness, and beauty of opera while I was studying the score of Tosca.  The character, the person of Floria Tosca has been on my mind since Maestro pronounced in public that I am 'the Tosca of his dreams'.  The spinto soprano in me was ecstatic.   Tosca is a beautiful, challenging, demanding and rewarding part.  It is a dream role.  But the woman in me held back from claiming Floria as my own. One of Erwin's fears for me those years ago was that if I embodied characters such as Tosca: jealous, a bit vain, tragic and sadly weak in the ways that matter to her survival in the story, that I might go beyond becoming them on stage.  I might BE them in real life.  

In a way, admitting as a woman that I AM Floria Tosca in all of her imperfections as I sing her asks for more faith and trust than Erwin was asking me to exercise in his version of my life by renouncing all but sacred music.  In a way seeing myself AS Floria  or any other strange, imperfect, or tragic woman in opera shows true compassion and curiosity, and requires true humility. 

Stories and fairy tales, I am told, evolved as a means of teaching.  Before people could read they told stories to pass on knowledge from generation to generation.  Indeed the Bible itself in all of its spiritual revelations survived as an oral tradition long before it was proliferated in written form.  

Could it be that opera, even with all its entertaining qualities, is a hidden means of teaching the ones who perform it and listen to it? When I consider closely Erwin's warning, I know that indeed every part I learn has something to teach me as a singer as I become them.  I have to widen my experience and open my heart to the possibilities inherent in their circumstances.  I have to reflect upon what it means to be them, on many levels.  I become them, but not without completely searching for and making room for them in my heart, mind, and soul.  Only with this knowledge of the character can I safely sing their experiences in the context of my own life.

With this Blog Entry I would like to put down two revelations about Giacomo Puccini's opera (and of course Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa's libretto).  I am certain that with time and experience I will learn much much more from Floria, but these two lessons seem to be the most glaringly important to learn from the opera to me right now.

(If you don't know the story of Tosca now would be a good time to learn of it.  I found a good summary at The Metropolitan Opera's website.)

Revelation 1: Jealousy doesn't do any good

It is easy to think that Floria Tosca's story as one of mere jealousy and its consequences. From the beginning of the opera Floria's suspicions color the story green.  For a while I was very annoyed at her because I thought that she was stupid to allow her emotions to rule and to lead her and her lover Cavaradossi into such dire danger.  I vowed to never be that way in real life. But then I saw her reaction as simply an expression of her understanding of love.  She, in all of her apparent intelligence, power and passion, wants to own and control love.  She wants to own the very thing that makes her a fiery and expressive opera singer herself.  Cavaradossi's painting of the Madonna is an expression of love and art, but Floria must, in her insecurity, see herself as the sole source of inspiration in the painter's life.  Because of this she forces him to change his expression of love in compliance with her will.  Tosca, very arrogantly, wants to define love only with her thoughts and imagination.  She cannot let love simply be what it is.

We women can learn from Tosca's mistake by treating each relationship (romantic or otherwise) we have in life as a coming together of life-artists in search of individual ways of expressing love.  We cannot own what another does any more than they can own and dictate what we do in the name of goodness and love.  We can only observe another's actions and sense and appreciate who they are as their very, good, selves.

Cavaradossi was trying to save a life as Tosca heard the rustling of clothes that started her jealous spiral downward.  She lacked the basic trust in life and love to know that the man she loved was a hero.

Revelation 2:  It's not all Tosca's fault

Here's where men can learn a thing or two by observing how Cavaradossi (wrongly, in my opinion) treated Tosca in an attempt to protect her.

If Cavaradossi had out and out told Floria how he was helping Angelotti hide he would have taken the risk that she would tell authorities.  But from what I know of the strengths of Tosca, she would have gladly agreed to help lodge him and bring him to safety.  It was this 'chivalrous' hiding of information from his other self, this arrogant attitude, that Tosca could not help or contribute to the situation, that brought on his demise and hers in the end.  Men must work together with women and vice versa.  No problem is simply a female or male problem.  We can only close the gender gaps in the world by admitting that what we are living is humanity in whole, and that no sex is left alone in the fight for love.

Oh...and by the way, if he couldn't trust Tosca with the desires of his heart and the important goings-on of his life's work, why was he with her in the first place?!

As we, the human race grow stronger, more aware of our responsibilities on this Earth, it is good to see where others went wrong so that we can do the right thing.  

Perhaps I have adopted a soapbox with this entry and if so I think it is okay.  We will only be free of Tosca-and-Cavaradossi-like faults when we see each of them in us.  In all joy and wonder I claim both of these characters as parts of me, and will sing their music with a full and respectful heart, confident that what I am doing is good and beautiful.

Oprah Winfrey said "I believe that every single event in life happens in an opportunity to choose love over fear."  Opera is full of these events and choices, and in the end the music tells us that it all ends up as love anyway.  The story-land world of opera shows me that day by day I must be convinced, like I am when I sing or listen to great music, that love is always the right choice, with trust and faith and honesty right behind.

Thank you Tosca, thank you Cavaradossi, for your beautiful lives, and the music and words that wrote your experience, and that teach us how to be the best we can be.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for choosing a journey of spiritual discovery as opposed to one of religious safety. Spiritual strength is achieved by facing the challenges that the world presents not by hiding from them as "some" religious convictions (not all) dictate.

    When I was in school singing my first Count Almaviva, a colleague of mine singing the same role was afraid that he might be perceived to be as arrogant and selfish as the Count if he allowed himself to fully engage the part. Many singers face this crisis. Thank you for this blog post! I hope many singers will read it!