Un Ballo in Maschera has opened at San Diego Opera and the reviews are lauding its merits. And indeed they should. Ballo can be great or it can be an ordeal. This Ballo is top-to-bottom amazing.
We continue with our interview of Ballo star Stephanie Blythe.
Our interview began in part one.
Stephanie Blythe: My dad grew up in Pittsburgh and so whenever our family went on vacation, it was always you had to go and see family, that was the vacation. And we would drive from the Catskills out to Pittsburgh and drive through the Poconos Mountains and I loved it and I just thought the towns had the coolest names, like Lord’s Valley and Promised Land and I’d love to live there. I live one exit from Promised Land, Pennsylvania and when my husband and I decided we had to get out of New York City, that was the only place I wanted to go and I just love small town life, I adore it. I love going to Spankie’s for breakfast in the morning and hearing you know, a bunch of old guys sitting at the bar talking about their day. There’s just something so calming and comforting about that, especially when you live a life that’s always pick up-and-go.
San Diego Reader: And it’s a life that can be — I mean, opera singers can be a little pretentious sometimes. Maybe that’s a perception?
SB: I think that’s a perception. I think it’s easier, look, how am I gonna say this? One of the biggest perceptions about opera is that it’s elitist, and the people who perpetrate this farce are more often the people who want to create some sort of dichotomy so that we’re pushing against something. “We must be elitist and therefore we have to try to make opera into something that’s more accessible and more for the people, it’s not really for the people.”
You see, it’s the exact opposite: opera is for the people. It’s about people. Yes, it’s a high art, but it’s a high art because of what’s involved in it. It is the culmination of every art there is. It’s all in there. And I think that’s in anything; anyone who does a specialized job is seen as an elitist, which is ridiculous If you want to become an opera singer, there are certain things you have to be able to do to be an opera singer: you have to be able to sing in other languages, you have to be able to, in my opinion, read music, you have to be able to act, you have to be able to listen. You have to be able to be part of an ensemble and you can’t be afraid to stand out on your own, and really be naked in front of an audience and that is a specialized art, that is something you have to study to do and because of that, people think it’s elitist.
But I don’t think opera singers are any more elitist than doctors or writers or lawyers or whatever, it’s because it’s specialized art.
And also, there has to be an element of natural talent. Now, I believe everyone can sing and I believe everyone should. I don’t believe there’s a person on the planet that should not use their voice in that way, whether you can carry a tune in a bucket or not. Everyone needs to sing because of what it physically does to the body, you know, it raises endorphins, it makes you breathe in a way you don’t normally breathe, it makes you engage parts of your brain you don’t normally engage, it’s a healthy thing to do. But I don’t believe that everyone should or can sing opera. That doesn’t make me an elitist, that makes me a realist. This is a specialized art form. In the same way that just because I can take a pen to paper, doesn’t mean I’m a writer. There’s a difference between a person who writes and being a writer — same thing with opera.
I think that for the most part, regarding singers being perceived as elitist, there certainly are people in the art form that are less than generous. But I don’t think, even with the worst behavior, that it ever comes from anything intentional; I think it comes mostly from fear. Whenever people act out, it’s because they’re afraid.
All of that behavior is fear: I’m gonna get found out. Somebody’s gonna find out that I’m not as good as I think I am — or they think I am. I’m not prepared. Not being prepared, big reason for people to behave badly. Like, the top reason. And also, I think sometimes people behave badly because they’d rather be dismissed for their behavior than their actual talent or ability. But I think the bulk of the people that I have known in this business are really lovely people; they want to do their very best, they want to further their art form. I think that all of us, no matter what we do in our lifetimes, need to be a champion for what we do and those are the people that I really enjoy being around. I want to be around someone who’s a champion for what they do. And in this interview [earlier in the day about the opera 27] we were just talking about passion and one of the things that Gertrude Stein said was that life is about making romance and I think there’s nothing you can’t have a romance with in your life. You have to treat everything like that person on your fifth date, where you’re just starting to understand that person and they’re starting to get you. That’s the most exciting time and I think we have to treat everything like that.
SDR: That comes across, when you meet someone who does that.
SB: Absolutely, and I think that what we’ve lost as a culture is that desire.
SDR: Right, and that goes along with your “being naked on stage” — giving that performance you gave in the bathroom to the mirror, the one that was truly you, the one that was completely honest and romantic. Now you let the rest of the world see that performance?
SB: It’s terrifying but it's the only way. I was actually watching a little special on Patricia Rutledge, a famous British comedian. She said that the only really great art comes from taking a risk and that’s the truth.
I think art is born of two things: love and risk, that’s all it is. There’s not a single art form that’s not born from love. There just isn’t. If art is born from hate, it’s not art, it’s just hate. But love can take so many unbelievable forms and to really say something, to really be true and honest, that’s the risk, and unless you do that, there’s no point. If you don’t feel that way about what you’re doing in life, what’s the point in doing it?
What I always tell singers is if you are getting into this industry because you want your name in lights and your face on a magazine cover or to sell watches or whatever is, get out of the business, don’t do it, because that’s not what this business should be about. This business is about the person who comes up to you and says: “I was having the worst day today and I came and I heard you sing and I feel better.” That’s what this job is about and when I was younger and doing this, I had a real “Come to Jesus” moment where I went through about 8 years of serious anxiety disorder, really just awful, life anxiety, not singing anxiety. Singing wasn’t a problem, singing was great, singing has never frightened me, performing has never frightened me, it’s released me. It was life, and always my question to myself in the heat of an anxiety attack was “why are you so important?” It was never like little things, never, ever, it was always big things. “Why are you so important?”, “What are you here for?”, “Why is life any different because of your presence?”. The answer I got was you’re here because when you do what you do and when you do it well it can change people’s perceptions of their lives. It makes things better. That’s a really important job.
SDR: It’s all about service isn’t it? Those are two things I look for in a performance: truth and service. Is the performer serving not just the music but the audience? Or is the music serving them, and then the truth falls away.
SB: And you can tell. I’ve often said to singers, I do a fair amount of teaching, and I say to them, why are you singing to a point on the wall, why aren’t you looking people in the eye, why aren’t you telling individuals this story? You’ve got an audience full of people, every single one of them is bringing something to the table, every single one of them has experienced what you are singing about in one form or another because that’s what song and opera and everything, what it’s all about is it’s a reflection of humanity; that’s art, it’s a reflection of humanity.
If you hold up that mirror [with your singing] they’re gonna show you, they’re going to react to you and they’re going to change your perception of how you are singing something, how you are saying something. We singers must open ourselves up like that rather than wearing our hearts on our sleeves and weeping because we’re so moved by how we’re singing. That shuts you off entirely from the audience and then all the audience is doing is looking at somebody crying and going, “wow she’s crying, she must really be moved.” Who the hell cares about that? I want the audience to cry. I want the audience to see and to feel things.