Like Water Off A Duck’s Back

…from the Memoirs of Sandria Verisma

Sandria Verisma emerges through one of many trap doors as a properly earthy Hostess.” –Homily Panther, Orkney Times

Ah, opera,
Circumstantial,
Anecdotal,
Large emotion
Often expressed
Vulnerably...


Orkney Opera, Prokoviev’s Opera, The Fiery Angel. 
Fellow-apprentices working at a famous East Coast Summer Opera Festival balked at the thought of international opera in Orkney but chalked up the insanity of my decision to reckless iconoclasm. I had made a choice – out of the mire of Kirkcaldy and into the bog of smogless Orkney. 

I had been running with Kirkcaldy bohemia while running alongside the Kirkcaldy rich–buying food that I couldn’t afford from Bean and Boo, shopping at Harvey Pickles. Meanwhile, I’d take my nightly bath in a tub in the kitchen where a large cockroach would routinely hold me hostage. Living in Kirkcaldy, for me, was a delusional lifestyle. I was doing nothing more than being poor. That is, until one of the coach/conductors at the Festival mentioned an exciting opportunity in Orkney, a little voice inside me said, “yes.”

There are those who
Speak to that place
In the singer,
Mentors who give
And inspire
With generosity.

I bought a car, threw whatever worldly possessions I had into the back, cuddled my Eeyore of a brindle bull terrier as I set her on top of piles and piles of clothes, and drove over ben and glen to Orkney. I had no idea where I would live or if I would succeed, but I knew I was either headed toward the alienation of anonymity or the joy and insight in being completely alone and unknown.

Singers live for
Singing, and so
Crave reflections
From their mentors
Good or ruthless
The give and take.

I nailed the audition with one more to go. I was asked to learn two Handel arias filled with fioritura lines that would frighten a singer if given a year to learn them. Fortunately, I was too naïve (or stupid) to know that. I was given a week. A week later, I stood on Orkney Opera’s empty stage and sang my little cotton socks off. Within a year, I went from performing in front of a mirror in my tiny Sprung Street apartment to performing substantial roles in a 2500-seat house for a newly-formed international opera company that was getting heaps of attention.

First onstage rehearsal. Innkeeper Scene. The Fiery Angel. Act 1.
I made my entrance through a trap door, not to mention a cough-worthy cloud of smoke. I wore a dirty schmatta with a wig of straggly black hair.

My problem? All that smoke. And so it goes or went; my newest friend smoke and I were asked to rehearse that opening moment about a thousand times. I’m sure I annoyed the conductor, and I can’t say that I blamed him. The business of opera is nearly always white-knuckle stuff, jam-packed with insecure souls trotting about as if, as one friend used to say, they’re the shit. Add to that a budget bleeding cash for a short-lived event, an orchestra with an aggressive union, a.k.a. time-is-ticking, an opera about obsessive compulsion amplified by Catholic hellfire-and-brimstone borne out in an excruciating sing for the leading lady, and we’re in for a bumpy ride. 

By gum, I rode it. I might risk getting asthma, but goddamit, I’d hack my way through it just to hold onto that gig.

And therein lies the rub in the business of performance–the young performer’s dogged desire to hold onto highly-coveted jobs unleashes, well, vampires. 

Direction is
A fertile ground
For the artist.
Yet there are some
Who reap nonsense
For ego’s sake.

Alexei Savage, the great and edgy stage director, wasn’t at all bothered by the number of times I had to emerge from that smoky pit, nor would he consider altering the staging so that I might be spared the conductor’s wrath. A few bars earlier would have solved the problem, but, no, the trap door had to open on the upbeat to my vocal downbeat. Every time I sang that dreaded opening line, I would search for an advocate, come on, a savior. Even a diminutive are-you-all-right-with-all-that-smoke from a concerned conductor, stage director, or carpenter bee would have gone a long way.

Crickets.

I can’t be sure
Really, but they
Sneer behind smiles
Shame dreams in slim
Echo’s power.
It’s easy enough...

My saving grace was that I suffered these little public tortures through anecdotes and sarcasm. I made jokes every time I had to go back under that infernal trap door and revive Frau Blücher lost in smoke and the fanfare of horns. “He… vas… my… …boyfriend!

Not.

Somewhere around the 977th go, I got it right, which meant we did it 33 times more just to make sure it cut deep into my viscera. Meanwhile, I had befriended the assistant stage manager who lived with me in that pit. With every onstage lash from stressed-out male creatives, I’d climb back down into the pit and mutter self-deprecating observations sotto voce. Beth and I would silently howl with laughter. Standard Operating Procedure: offset other people’s ugly vociferations of criticism with a joke, be they divas, conductors, stage directors, or worse, colleagues who always seemed to know more than I could ever know. All those mean people are rife in the opera world, and they suck the life-energy out of you.

...to smash the joy
Fat-shame beauty
Kill the essence.
Something wrong in
Artists having
To be so tough.

Shall I enumerate? There was a virtual minefield of come-ons, physical passes, fat-shaming, petty cattiness, public verbal abuse made justifiable because it came from the mouth of some genius or another. And let’s make a vital point clear, this also happened to male singers coming up the ranks. I well-remember witnessing a moment during a first musical run-thru where a tenor friend was sorely lambasted by a conductor. After the conductor’s tirade, I turned to my friend and whispered, “your turn.”

There is a culture of abuse in the opera world. Is there any wonder why I hung out with the backstage crew–whether getting a quick espresso backstage or laughing endlessly with my dresser over the daily opera crises? I loved to watch the crew on the backstage fly system, running from rope to rope, flying in or flying out a piece of scenery like a wonderfully choreographed ballet. I loved the strapping stagehands who’d move everything from 2-ton set pieces to a teacup. One of the crew members would give me a ride to my apartment in lower Orkney on the back of his Harley. I had no fears riding on the back of that motorcycle with him, even in the heavy traffic of the treacherously narrow Orkney dual carriageway. Everyone in the crew was a happy foil to the arty, presumptive corps egoistes. That’s not to say there weren’t lovely people with whom I spent hours laughing. Not every opera giant I encountered in Opera Orkney was a tall ego packing a zap gun. Still, I often liked to say how amazed I was to discover that in an art form about humanity, there was so little humanity.

The Fiery Angel is a Freudian screed exploring the sexual versus the spiritual in the context of the sixteenth century. That’s a basic assessment, my script reader’s logline. (To assist those readers with content retention problems, I will put all essential characters in the following synopsis in bold.)

The author of the novel on which Prokofiev’s immense orchestral mindscape wandered, Valery Bryusov, was a Symbolist–part of a literary movement that explored hedonism, sexual and religious freedoms, the spiritual in artistic creation, death, dreams, impulses. But there was also an added component of art imitating life to this story–a pretty seedy, real-life drama.

It seems the author Bryusov was hopelessly in love with a woman who was obsessed with an erstwhile lover she referred to as her “angel.” Nina Petrovskaya was in love with another author, Andrei Bely (Nabokov referred to Bely’s novel, Petersburg, as one of the four great novels of the 20th century). In the course of their romance, Bely had a personal crisis, abandoned Petrovskaya, well, not entirely, just enough to drive the 19-year old femme fatale to become obsessive. With Bely there-but-not-there, Bryusov offered himself up as a convenient doormat on which Petrovskaya could stand and sleep. What ensued was a pretty kooky menage á trois of obsession, hedonism, sado-masochism, and, why not? A dash of the Dark Arts.

Now that we know the story-behind-the-story let’s synopsize the fiction–The Fiery Angel. A young woman named Renata meets a young knight, Ruprecht, to whom she recounts a story of a fiery angel(I guess fiery was the 16th-century equivalent of hot–“You’re the devil in disguise.”). The fiery angel looked after Renata as a child and promised he would someday return to her in human form. Ever-eager to find the hot angel, Renata assumed the angel had taken the form of a rakish Count with whom she was having an affair. 

Red flag – rakish Count. 

The Count dumped Renata after a year. But where would we be if Renata had the temperament of a Twitter-mad 20-something and responded, “screw you, I’ll ghost you first?” How much more richly-textured would Quora have been in the sixteenth century?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. After all, this is the 16th-century through the lens of an early 20th-century literary movement with an almighty relish for Decadence en croute. Enlisting the help of Ruprecht, the knight, Renata goes about finding her Count. Sound familiar?

Needless to say, it doesn’t go well. Renata is later denounced and sent to a nunnery by the Grand Inquisitor. This is the location for the final scene where Renata’s madness spreads virally, infecting the nuns in the nunnery. Debauched, the nuns and Renata writhe in obeisance to their new lord, Satan. 

Women. Geez, we forever seem to lack mental fortitude when trying to withstand the seduction of the devil. It occurs to me that so many of the grand operas depict women as either weak (which means they go insane) or strong (which means they’re gonna die). Unless, of course, it’s opera buffo. Then, the woman is either a hag or a cunning vixen able to work herself around the patriarchy. (Could it be that Rosina’s contemporary equivalent could be any one of the former POTUS female accommodators without the aid of bleach?)

Is it any wonder that the opera world still dissembles in hidden agendas that are, if not sexist, inappropriate? There is no standard of decency in the big business of high art. Stuff gets lost. It’s too expensive to worry about those who might suffer in the machinery of keeping high art financially vital. By all means, elevate the powerful diva, the one who can out-sing a jet engine, but do let her know you’re allowing it.

But, I digress. Back to that first rehearsal of The Fiery Angel, Innkeeper’s Scene

When I thought I had achieved the near-perfect entrance, finally silencing the cries from the conductor’s podium, I trotted off to find the director. I was on a mission to understand how that crazy Innkeeper would fit into his production’s overall vision.

I found Alexei out front at the production desk with his set designer Bob Armenia (arguably, this production’s true creative genius). “Alexei, I’d love to have an idea of what you’re looking for for the Innkeeper.”

Alexei turned to Bob and said, flatly, “She’s too pretty.”I walked away from Alexei without an answer, feeling objectified and diminished.

Second rehearsal, Innkeeper Scene, Act 1
For my next run-thru, the Innkeeper’s Pig-Pen veneer was further enhanced–a pock-marked face with a few large warts. Where was Savage going with all of this?

Alexei Savage was a genius; at least, I understood him to be a genius from his legendary work at A.R.T and LaMama. Since I came from a theatre family, I regarded myself an actor, and I was eager for the opportunity to work with a celebrated theatre director, albeit a bit baffled by Alexei’s fashion sense. I couldn’t be sure if those suits made of clashing plaids were worn as a challenge or an irony. But who am I to get on that rant? Outfits were often my armor, tending toward the ridiculous, the lofty, the fashionable, the vintage, etc. Unfortunately, no outfit spared me the public torture that resulted from Alexei Savage’s unfortunate staging of the poor Innkeeper’s entrance. Penance was renewed with each rehearsal. Penance came in the form of repeating those same silly first lines of the Innkeeper, over and over again, until finally, my operatic voice was diminished to a caterwaul. A male cat in heat would have sounded prettier than the poor Innkeeper.

Off I trotted in search of Savage.

“Alexei? From what I look like, I have a vague idea of what you’re looking for, but, uh, I’d love to have a clearer idea of staging.”

Savage turned to Bob Armenia and said, “Sh-she’s still too pretty.”

I got a club foot.

Now, as an outsider reading this, you might think I was asking a lot since it was a small role. But the set for the scene was clearly stylized, and I wanted to perform to the vision, not just stand and sing. Besides, apart from my entrance through that infernal trap door, Savage hadn’t staged anything. 

Whether young or old, 
Real artists have
Too much to say, 
So much to live,
And lastly,
A desire to give.

I recently read something on Facebook, a bold and, I might add, an unchallenged post by an opera agent stating that artists should not express their political opinions on Facebook. Ah, yes, singers should be heard only when they sing. I grasp the point but am concerned by the draconian edge to it. We have come to fear opinion in our ideological dialogue. I don’t fear opinions; I fear ignorance and a culture of violence over discussion.

Explore the opera rep, and you will discover a rich reflection on the injustices rife in our world from Salome onward. Without an intellectual edge, without a perspective, without a voice, the artist is nothing, nor is an opera. Do those who consider themselves part of the machinery that provides opera to its waning crowds understand the future audience demographic the art form must engage in order to remain vital?

The best way to make opera vital is to make it essential. Endorse opinions. Endorse rage against the machine. Become more Brechtian. Be more political. Endorse the most energetic aspects of art. Speak. Give voice. Encourage thought through emotions, insist on empathy. Support singers who aren’t just engaged with what was, but are also involved with what is. There are ties between past and present. Seize them. You don’t have to conceive of angry political productions to do this. You simply have to endorse a value system among artists, one that encourages speaking up through their art, being informed, and engaging passionately.

After all, the arts no longer have the Habsburgs. 

Third rehearsal. Innkeeper Scene. Act 1.
I was beginning to see the light. Factoring in the hair, the tattered gown, the club foot, the pock-marked face, not to mention the imploding set along with the piles of smoke emerging from the trap door as I entered, my God, the proverbial light bulb suddenly switched on.

I was a character in a German Expressionist horror movie.

Suddenly, I was filled with ecstatic quotes, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume,” “Eureka,” “It’s alive!” I simply had to share my discovery with Alexei despite his tireless inability to acknowledge my existence. I skipped over to the production desk, club foot et al., fully-prepared to give another one-sided conversation with Savage, the old college try.

“Alexei!”

As per, Alexei was standing with Bob Armenia. As per, Alexei looked at me as a thing–an upstart woman playing a tertiary role, interrupting the flow of genius.

It was an awkward moment, and, well, I have always resorted to sarcasm when in the mire of social discomfort.

“You know, Alexei, I am so ugly, you might as well put a hump on my back.”

To which Alexei did something quite shockingly uncharacteristic; he turned and looked at me. My jaw dropped, and he smiled. 

Turning to Bob, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “She wants a hump.”

Years later, I told the story of Alexei Savage and the famous hump while sitting in another opera house during a break. A set designer from the current production approached me and said, “Excuse me, did you hear that story from someone?”

“No, that happened to me.” 

“You know that story is a legend?”

And this brings me to Homily Panther and his review of The Fiery Angel and his reference to me. 

Sandria Verisma emerges through one of many trap doors as a properly earthy Hostess.” —Homily Panther, Orkney Times

I wasn’t sure if Homily Panther’s characterization of my performance was a veiled slight or a dismissal. Had he seen the show I was in? You know, the one where I dragged my foot along the ground while often retreating to edges of the stage with paranoic fear? The opening scene that ended in a strange peasant dance evocative of the peasants cresting the hill in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal?

Homily Panther was a wonderfully acerbic critic for the Orkney Times. I imagined him to be a toad-like curmudgeon, wearing a perpetual snarl. In Panther’s reviews, almost everyone (from performer to stage director) was objectified in pithy one-liners that often eluded the reader’s comprehension.

I am reminded of Stanislavski’s book Building a Character, where he remembers one moment as a young actor when he chose to create a critic’s character (and I partially paraphrase…).
Stanislavski, playing the critic, responded to a question from his teacher Tortsov saying, “Ignoramuses are the ones who criticize most.”
Tortsov replied, “You don’t understand anything, and you don’t know how to do anything.”
Unfazed, Stanislavski persisted in his characterization, saying, “It’s the person who does not know how to do anything who teaches.”
Tortsov took the bait, abandoning composure in the heated exchange, “It’s not true that you are a critic…Your bite is not dangerous, but it makes life unbearable.”

It’s a funny passage, and one that I only began to comprehend when I became the victim of critics who lent their opinions in dismissive phrases that made the performer sound bad and the critic sound better. I appreciate that Panther’s reviews appealed to the operagoer, and, after all, the audience was his audience. He was masterful at his craft in many ways, but he seemed to ignore all the hard work. I get it. His was to inform. But, my God, the immensity of work expended to entertain or infuriate? Perhaps, he should have spent his time criticizing the cost of opera rather than those who were the roadkill trying to carry off something that should have taken more than a few weeks to realize?

A critic doesn’t have to bruise to make a point.

Molotov Zazou sings the central role of Renata, overcoming the vocal and physical hurdles with bravado. She recoils neither from bell tones nor from alto foot stomps. She looks attractive and executes Savage’s choreography like an over-achieving college freshman. But it’s never enough. One wishes she could conjure more vocal and theatrical nuance. One craves better diction. One hopes for abandon. One also frets over the vocal challenge and its impact on a tinny voice that wobbles.” —Homily Panther, Orkney Times

Wait a minute, “She looks attractive and executes choreography like an over-achieving college freshman?” I guess it was a plus that she was pretty, but was he saying she mimics rather than creates her own take on a role? I’d have to argue that putting one’s creative stamp on a character is not always so easy, especially when working with directors who approach their craft as auteurs, not directors. And let’s face it, diction? In Fiery Angel? Oh, for heaven’s sake. It’s Prokofieff. Let’s talk Sutherland singing Lucia. (And I thought he gave me a hard time.) 

But the critic’s bite comes after performers have already, long-experienced abuse from any number of people on their way up the opera ladder. At least with the critic, it isn’t personal.

There are others. 
Some voice teachers
Insist on signed contracts
Permitting abuse
Just for the missed
Dotted half note.

Even now, after years of working with young artists, I have watched professional creatives and admin in opera houses abuse the potential value of their seniority by openly dishonoring the young singer. I recall a voice teacher who once said to his wife, “You see, Sandria actually does have a pretty voice.” This was said in front of me as I looked with horror at a phalanx of wind-up phallus toys littering his grand piano. …necessaryIn preservingHigher standards.

The bizness of
Bizness defies
True mentoring,
Subverts passion,
Kills expression.

Eventually, I did find the voice teacher who had the language that spoke to me and who honored my lovely, sometimes angst-ridden, sometimes joyful voice, the voice I used unabashedly as a little girl, singing everywhere and anywhere. This teacher is my master teacher. I consider her to be among the greats because she continues to learn, and moreover, to marvel. Her loving admiration of singers is reminiscent of another significant conductor/coach in my life who used to say a true singer is one with a song in their heart. I have to admit, I lost my voice in opera, and after that, I had to learn to sing again. I could only do so when I finally remembered I had something to say.

Alexei Savage? Genius? Insufferable? Insufferable genius? I don’t know. I was playing a small role, and my experience is just one experience. Was he annoyed by my enthusiasm? Did he ascribe to the idea that there are, indeed, small parts and small actors? God knows, theatre directors who direct the occasional opera tend to have a funny attitude toward singers. It appears there are too many of us. One director, whose name shall remain anonymous, would occasionally confess, “the best actors are silent actors.”

At least, Homily Panther knew my name.

There’s a saying
Among singers
“Like water off a duck’s back.”
You now know why?
I think it’s clear.

Incidentally, at another opera gala, in another time, in another galaxy… 

I stepped on the foot of a man wearing a tuxedo and holding a glass of champagne. Well, more specifically, I drove my stiletto heel into a guy’s foot.

“I’m so sorry!”

“Absolutely, no problem, my foot was in the way.”

When he left, I turned to my friend Anne. “What a nice guy!” 

Anne didn’t comment.

“What’s wrong? You look pale.”

“Sandria, you just stepped on Homily Panther’s foot.”