12 May 2013

The Haushofmeister’s Diary, Part 20: The Critic Critiqued

Given enough time, I will learn even to play with others:
This is my reaction to an insult directed at “mein gnädiger Herr”
and delivered by the Tenor (Corey Bix).

It has been suggested (if “suggested” is the right term for a remark accompanied by threats of violence) that, when a person compliments me on my performance, I not respond by pointing out all the myriad faults that I found in my own work.

This is difficult to do, but the question is: why do I feel the urge in the first place? Am I poo-poohing the critical judgment of a well-wisher — and if so, why would I do that? It’s rather a nasty way to respond to a kind gesture.

Or else am I fishing for compliments? “Oh, no, really, I think was just terrible, so please tell me even more about how wonderful I really was!”

Really, it’s not only about opera that I’m learning during my time with the Fort Worth Opera Festival. I’m also learning about myself — or trying to.

When I knew I was good: As Oronte in The Misanthrope,
directed by James O. Barnhill.
Brown University, 1980.

In all, I’ve been extremely lucky. I got good notices in all the reviews that mentioned me — and given the relative brevity of my role in Ariadne auf Naxos, it’s rather surprising that any mentioned me at all. And yet I’m able to stand back and say, “Well, yes, it’s a good review, but the critic used to write for me at Opera News, so really he had to say something nice about me.”

Or else, on those occasions when the critic’s estimation of the singers didn’t match my own, one’s confidence in the critic’s assessment of oneself is necessarily weakened. While all the cast got at least a couple of good lines to add to their clipping files, not one critic was as across-the-board enthusiastic about the singers as I was, and a couple of critics even confessed to being underwhelmed by the opera itself. The little voice in my head says, “If that critic can be so wrong about Richard Strauss, why should he be right about Bill Madison’s work?”

Somewhat similarly, when a member of the Ariadne cast goes out of her way to encourage me, I’ve found myself thinking, “Well, yes, but we’re colleagues, so really she had to say that.”

This of course ignores the rules of earlier manifestations of Opera World, when a diva might have gone to the intendant and demanded that a bumbling incompetent amateur Haushofmeister be fired on the spot. (Indeed, in old German, there’s a single word for “bumbling-incompetent-amateur-Haushofmeister” designed to help the diva do just that.) In today’s Opera World, however, we play nicer.

Most often, however, when a colleague has said something generous, I’ve been so caught up in my own neurotic self-criticism that I’ve barely known how to respond, and sometimes have barely managed even a thank you. This is bad strategy, of course, because some day I will want to hear generous words from artists I admire, and they’ll have been persuaded — by me — that it’s not worth the effort.

I haven’t appeared onstage in 30 years, and it’s been even longer since I was reviewed in anything other than a college newspaper. I’m not sure I ever knew how to handle this sort of situation, though I do recall being somewhat more confident of my own abilities back in the days when I did this more often — and did it in my native language, besides. When I played Oronte the poet in Molière’s Misanthrope, I knew damn well that I was good. Now that I’ve been playing the Haushofmeister, I have felt as if I were at constant risk of exposure for fraud.

And not just any exposure. Public exposure. In the pages of the newspapers that so many of my friends and loved ones in North Texas read every day.

It would be easier to endure, I think, if Sue the Dresser forgot to give me my costume and I marched onstage stark naked.

Es geht doch auch anders:
Nico Castel as the Haushofmeister at the Met.

Fortunately, I haven’t been doing this by myself. Stage director David Gately (and, for that matter, conductor Joe Illick) gave me enough space and showed me enough patience that I’ve been able to muddle my way toward something that, in ordinary circumstances, might be considered an interpretation. Mercifully, that interpretation chimes with David’s. Both David and Joe were kind enough never to observe that I never auditioned for this role, and that Darren Woods had only my word for it that I spoke any German at all.

And since the final dress rehearsal, when I skipped an entire speech, thus screwing up the orchestra and singers and obliging me to scramble and ad-lib in German in order to get us back on track, nothing truly terrible has happened. (And even that incident went unnoticed by several people onstage with me — though it did cause the surtitlist, R. Jason Smith, a moment of stress.)

Even more than the costume (designed by Susan Memmett Allred), the wig and makeup design by Steven Bryant, as applied expertly by James P. McGough, gave life to the Haushofmeister I’d envisioned: the amalgamation of every officious European bureaucrat and hotel clerk I’d ever dealt with.

One of my principal inspirations was the Scots nun who ran a pensione in a convent in Fiesole. We constantly ran afoul of her rules. Rather than shaking her finger at us, she’d hold up a finger and then shake her head. (Really, she wasn’t a bad person, just more severe than one expects to find anybody in Italy to be.) An odd sort of Puritan Catholic, the good sister would never have worn anything as ornate as what I’ve worn in Ariadne — and yet when I looked in the mirror I could see her, somehow.

Perhaps more importantly, when I see pictures of myself in the show, I see a real Haushofmeister. Maybe not the world’s finest, and no rival to Nico Castel, but at least the audience isn’t being cheated. People seem to enjoy what I’m doing — or at least the ones who don’t enjoy it have kept their opinions to themselves, for which I’m eternally grateful to them.

Because if I’m sure of anything, it’s this: when I start pointing out the flaws in my performance, the last thing I want to hear is agreement, followed by a detailed accounting of how I am even worse than I thought.

“The day I’m satisfied with one of my own performances is the day I throw in the towel,” Beverly Sills used to say. Herself an acclaimed Zerbinetta, she also used to say, upon receiving a compliment backstage, “Thank you! That’s so nice to hear.” And that was it, period. Maybe there‘s a lesson in there.

To arrive at anything like an objective understanding of my own work, or to feel anything like ease and confidence in the part, would doubtless require five or six performances. Alas, we’ll have only two. And so I find myself craving more of what I never imagined I’d have.


Alex said...

It's hard to remember that the experience of any artistic endeavor is far different for the audience than for the artist... and once you've put something out into the world, it no longer belongs exclusively to you.

Many of my musician friends will obsessively lament performance "problems" -- such as notes they didn't hit quite right or tempos that varied when they should have been steady -- without having any idea how little those things matter in the calculus of enjoying a performance.

That being said, if you can master anything in only six performances, that puts you miles ahead of almost everyone in the freaking world! :)

William V. Madison said...

At the moment I'm inclined to tell myself that, if I had been able to perform the piece six times, then I would have mastered it entirely!

And you make a good point: a performance is different for the audience and the performers. Very often I've found myself happily bobbing beside a singer after a show. I'm completely thrilled and she's still caught up in her own analysis of errors or room for improvement or disagreements with the conductor or stage director, and it's as if we experienced two completely different shows.

Anne said...

she also used to say, upon receiving a compliment backstage, “Thank you! That’s so nice to hear.” And that was it, period. Maybe there‘s a lesson in there.

Yes, Bill. Listen to Mother Sills. Huge wisdom there. No need to cirque the cirques

I would suggest you reread your earlier posts of wonder too . That's a least as true as your emotions now. In fact I would say more so.

What you are feeling now is the other side of the coin and part of the deal in a life of art.

This is the life we have chosen.

Another point is other's opinons do not matter to us really...only to the extent we perhaps agree with them. Then we get mad at others to defend oursleves from that etc...that's the issue. What is our own opinion. That's all that matters, at least emotionally

and btw you looked amazing