Behind the signs on the doors they work and the walls tell nothing from room to room. Ten-dollar-a-week stenographers take letters from corporation officers,lawyers, efficiency engineers, and tons of letters go bundled from the building to all ends of the earth. Smiles and tears of each office girl go into the soul of the building just the same as the master-men who rule the building. - Carl Sandburg "Skyscraper"
Are we not the most-blessed, my friends? As we toil away in our fluorescent offices, or listening to people’s orders, or molding little musicians — we have possibilities. We know that the next rehearsal or the next performance will bring us into communion with people who value the same things we do. We get to leave our “skyscrapers” and head back to the bright lights of the stage, bask in the applause, and make beautiful music. Which, usually, makes up for all the time we spend in our day jobs. As I am sure most of you are reading this during your labors, I invite you to share in some post-show glow.
That Post-Show Glow.
So, I went back to work this week.
After a week of singing glorious music with amazing musicians who, in such a short span of time, became irreplaceable as friends and confidantes, I drove home to Philly for a volunteer choir rehearsal at my synagogue.
Now, I love my synagogue job, and the volunteer singers there give their whole heart and soul to the music and I love them for it, but after almost ten full days of these glorious voices ringing in my ears with the sound of Mozart, I felt homesick for Don Giovanni. At the end of the day, I can hardly ask for a better experience than the Chesapeake Chamber Opera gave me last week. I have never felt better cared for as a musician or an actor.
Now that those of you who are going to see it have seen it, I can let the cat out of the bag. In our production of Don Giovanni, after she meets Donna Elvira, Zerlina is completely unwilling. In the Act I finale, the Don very clearly buys drugs off the DJ, puts them in Zerlina’s drink, and she very obviously is nearly unconscious when he drags her bodily off the stage. At other points in the production, he drags her to the door of the party, shoves a tab of ecstasy in her mouth, and then shoves her at Masetto, not to mention the manhandling that happens while trying to maneuver her drugged body out the door.
This production required a lot of trust. Like many women, I have had experiences that reverberate a little too neatly with what we put onstage. While the drugging of Zerlina was actually an idea I put into the director’s head, the execution of it was sometimes extremely scary. Were it not for the perfect trust I had in the amazing director (Jake Feldman), and in Dan Seigel, our Don Giovanni, I doubt I would have made it through with my sense of humor intact. As it was, I needed to have perfect faith in these men to take care of me, even while as an actor I was pushing us to go farther.
In some ways, it’s what made Zerlina’s physical relationship with Masetto (the inimitable Paul Corujo, as mentioned in the previous post) so important as ballast—both for myself as an actress and for Zerlina as a character. Having that loving, supportive relationship was a comfort for me as a person, and utterly necessary for Zerlina’s strength as a character. Zerlina is a conundrum for some—what drives her? Where is her honest emotion? What is she saying to get by and what does she really mean? Being gifted in this production with a plethora of pretty singers meant that there was logic in Zerlina being both drawn to the Don, but also true to her man in the end. We could choose for Zerlina just to have a brief flight of fancy before returning to earth. Making her a JWoww clone, however, added a bit to it that I didn’t see coming until I was standing on stage with my fake tan and “Va, non temere” was coming out of my mouth. Zerlina is clearly picking a fight with Masetto. She is trying as hard as she can to make him jealous because she wants to see him fight with this Don Giovanni dude for her affections. I had a sudden realization at that moment that she never expects Masetto to leave after “Ho capito”. She fully expects him to stay and fight with this random guy–because drama is how she functions–and for them to have make-up sex afterward. It’s when he doesn’t stay she feels thrown through a loop, and it is only through that upset of what is, for her, the natural order of things, that she flirts with being with the Don. That, for me, was actually the most difficult choice in the whole show—I cannot say how happy I was at that flash of inspiration.
The choice for how to play Zerlina after the attempted rape probably should have been the most difficult choice I had to make as an actor, but it was surprisingly easy. This is a girl from the Jersey Shore—under-educated, but plenty street-smart, and knows for a fact that no matter how much she drinks or how hard she parties or however many fights she picks, she wants to be a one-woman man. Don Giovanni tempts her with a different life—one where she is a Manhattan socialite, sophisticated, and desired. But in one party, he shows her what it is to not be valued, and it sends her fleeing right back to Masetto. That’s all the straying she needs to know that she does not want any part of what the Don was offering. Furthermore, when Masetto immediately comforts her after the events in the Act I Finale and is, indeed, very angry on her behalf, that’s all the reason she needs to be faithful for the rest of her life. In this production, for me, “Vedrai, carino” is the equivalent of her marriage vows. She’s going to help him and heal him, the way she wants and needs him to heal her. In fact, for myself and for this production, all of Act II is just Zerlina trying to ensure that she will keep Masetto and that he will trust her again. I was so thankful when, after some debate, we kept in the finale. “Noi, Masetto a casa andiamo a cenar in compagnia” might just sound like grabbing Chinese and settling in to watch TV, but at that moment, it is the most amazing thing in the world to Zerlina—her world is going to eventually get back to normal and after the evening she had, that is everything.
Despite any personal angst it may have caused, putting date rape–something so current and so common and so honestly terrifying–on stage was incredibly gratifying. Statistically speaking, I know what we did resonated with at least one person in the audience, and as an actor I feel incredibly proud. Being able to update a work in a way that a modern audience can relate to viscerally while still remaining perfectly true to the intentions of Mozart and DaPonte is no small achievement, and it was directly a result of having a director and a cast that was willing to go there.
I don’t mean to gush, but sometimes it just happens. At this early stage in a career, sometimes we are lucky just to have the check clear or for our colleagues to know the right notes they’re supposed to sing. But this production was absolutely transcendent. I looked around on opening night and couldn’t understand or believe what I had done to earn the privilege of working with these amazing people. I felt appreciated and understood the entire time—you all know what an incredible feat that often is. We were not only allowed but encouraged to contribute, and that made for a production that felt like it was ours. We had ownership of this beautiful, magnificent thing we put onstage. It is rare that we are asked to challenge ourselves as a matter of course, but in one short week, I was challenged at every turn while still being held and supported by the incredible team Chesapeake Chamber Opera assembled. I cannot thank all of them enough, and there aren’t enough words in the world to express my gratitude at being allowed to create my first Zerlina with them.
Questions? Comments? Spontaneous reviews? Opinions on the staging? Get it in the comments. I’ll be stalking this post to answer your questions.
Many thanks to our hostess, Ms. Ihnen, for allowing me to post here and for being such an amazing part of the cast assembled this week. I couldn’t have written this series without her. (To which, I say, “you’re always welcome at my party, Jessica.” Please continue to follow Jessica’s blog to keep up with her fabulous musings.)
Chesapeake Concert Opera welcomed Jessica for two roles in their 2009-2010 inaugural season: Adina in L’elisir d’amore and Blonde in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Jessica has had the unique delight of also performing Adina in the 2010 Spring season with Center City Opera Theater twice, and with outreach at Opera Camerata. Jessica happily has found that singing the role of Adina four times in one year has made her already cheerful disposition even sunnier!
During her 2009-2010 Apprenticeship at Center City Opera Theater she sang these roles in CCOT’s Opera Encounters series: First Lady, Papagena (Magic Flute), Spirit (Dido and Aeneus), as well as the aforementioned Adina. At Peabody Conservatory she was Die Königin in Die Zauberflöte, Jay/Rooster in The Cunning Little Vixen, and Anna in the Maryland premiere of Dora by Melissa Shiflett.
Not one to back away from new or challenging music, she performed Pierrot Lunaire with the Peabody Camerata, and premiered the role of Patrick Leahy in the nationally recognized Gonzales Cantata which was featured on the Rachel Maddow Show, Fox News, and the Huffington Post, among others. Jessica is proud to continue her affiliation with Gonzales composer Melissa Dunphy and will be premiering a new song cycle by Dunphy in December 2010.