Getting to know Azucena
My dear readers,
I don't know how many of you have ever experienced the singular joy of performing a role onstage, whether opera, MT or straight theatre, but it is almost indescribably fulfilling - at least it is for me. I love all kinds of performance. I've toured the country with a band, sung at large concerts, and even done a couple of independent films, but there's something very specifically exhilarating about the magic of theatre. When you're onstage, in your costume, sweating under the lights, inhabiting the spirit of a character spun by some other artist, connected to your cast-mates by a powerful, almost familial bond, while hundreds of eyes peer back at you from the darkened theatre, there's an electricity in the air - and it is one of my favorite feelings in the world.
Of course, that feeling doesn't come from the ether. It is the culmination of a great deal of very hard work - work that usually starts long before your first rehearsal. Having been raised by professional performers, I was also raised with a very specific set of ethics around performing. Some of the high points:
- When you see the cast list, be gracious whether you came out feeling like a winner or a loser.
- Once you commit to a cast, don't drop out of the show (obvious exceptions for true, unavoidable emergencies).
- Always show up to rehearsals 10 minutes early and already warmed up.
- Be respectful of the director and the stage crew and never engage in side-talk during active rehearsal times.
- Come to the first rehearsal off-book.
That last point is especially important in opera, where you often arrive in town only a week or two before opening night. A singer who arrives unprepared can cause serious problems for the entire production. In opera we also have an additional challenge that musical theatre performers don't often face: we are usually singing in languages that are not our native tongue.
Not everyone approaches the pre-rehearsal process the same way. Some people hate it and have to force themselves to do it. But I'm one of those people who really loves it. In this early stage I don't have to make big, significant choices about my character or my intent or motivation. I don't have to commit to a particular backstory. I can experiment, and maybe try out something unconventional and a little wacky. It's safe, because no one is there to make me feel self-conscious if it just doesn't work.
Right now, I'm at a very exciting stage in my exploration of Azucena (Verdi's Il Trovatore) for the NYDV Role Intensive in August. I've made a working copy of my score and written literal translations between staves. I've started singing some of the larger melodic sections including both of the arias in the second act. I've listened to about 30 different recordings of the opera and I read through the entire text of the role at least once a day, just to get really comfortable with the pronunciation and flow.
Up until now, I've really just been getting to know Azucena. It's like a casual coffee date. I'm checking her out, trying to get a feel for her likes and dislikes, find some commonalities between us. We both know it's about to get really serious. I've started to learn about her secrets and hoo-ey, she's a complicated woman. By this time next week, I'll know more about her motivations and dreams than I do about my own. But right now, I'm still romancing her - bringing her flowers and flirting a little while I wait for her walls to come down.
At this moment, I know the events of Azucena's last days quite well, as well as the story of Azucena's greatest tragedy. Those things belong to what Stanislavsky called the Given Circumstances: "...the plot, the facts, the incidents, the period, the time and place of the action, the way of life...". In other words, these things are directly described or alluded to in the text (not the subtext) of the libretto. The Given Circumstances make up only a small portion of what I can know about Azucena. They represent the immutable part of the role - that which the writers (or in some cases director) etched in stone and which cannot be changed without fundamentally altering the role. But Il Trovatore tells me practically nothing about Azucena's childhood. It tells me nothing of her dreams or of who she has loved. It doesn't even tell me what motivates her choices in the actual stage action. That part is up to me.
But here's the paradox - even though it will be me making all those important choices about Azucena's history and inner life, I don't want to dictate those choices. I prefer - have always preferred, actually - to let Azucena reveal herself to me, one day at a time.