A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

A Singer’s Notes, 15: Masks

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Gilbert and Sullivan is not my cup of tea. Its style wears a mask.  I can be analytical, and I just can’t place it. Of course it is a send-up of everything from Bellini to the New Year’s concert. I am also convinced there is something serious there which I am not getting. It’s rather like reading The Rape of the Lock: the parody is the pathos, and when you laugh with it, you feel like you are laughing at it. C-R Productions at the Cohoes Music Hall IS my cup of tea. In their recent Mikado I saw a well rehearsed, well thought out, not over-staged production, which helped me with my dilemma. The love story seemed a true thing, the political machinations seemed very familiar indeed, and only the plight of the Katisha left me wondering. Is her distress moving? Is she a cardboard villain? Is the more operatic style she uses an homage or a send-up? Or is the very confusion I have about this the axis on which the show turns? They assembled a cast which, as always, included local artists, pros from New York, and youngsters from conservatories. Every show I have seen with this particular mix has worked well. There is rigor musically, the vitality and freshness of local performers who don’t have to tread the boards every day, and the finish of New York professionals. There is no nonsense in what this theatre does. The shows come across as themselves, not as a concept. There is a sense of company, not a few star turns.  This sense of inclusion is extended to the audience. You get the message that the theater belongs to them.

I’ve just been working on Benjamin Britten’s Abraham and Isaac with my students. Here are the puppets artist Douglas Paisley made for us.

The great thing about these puppets was that they were handled by the singers of the roles with the singers fully visible. One saw the mask and one saw the face of the singer at the same time. I saw at the beginning of the performance eyes switching back and forth from one to the other. By the end the audience seemed to be looking at one thing. The puppets have faces which are impassive. The only manipulation possible was some movement of the head and one human arm which came out through the fabric of the costume. When this is all there is though, it’s a lot. Great puppets are tragic objects. They cannot respond; they must go quietly. I can think of no story better suited to this kind of performance than Abraham and Isaac. Britten’s music always seems to me to be caught in some kind of dead-honest structure, even rigidity, which makes the characters blank out their faces. Peter Grimes becomes the plastic figure of a madman. The governess in The Turn of the Screw becomes the paralyzed face of compulsion. Aschenbach in Death in Venice comes close to a love-death when he abandons his puppet-nature and falls entirely into love. At the climax of our 15-minute opera, one of his most concentrated masterpieces, a great God puppet rises up while the protagonists sang together a chant-like God voice, even more constrained than their human voices. This God is distant, cool, and beautiful. But even at the very beginning the boy Isaac knows that if God has commanded, Abraham will act no matter what the consequence. This is not the story of Agamemnon who sacrifices his daughter for a breeze so he can go kill Trojans. This is a story of a man willing to sacrifice his own son simply because God told him to do it. And more tragically, the story of a God who with a kind of sublime petulance requires this, a God who will not hesitate to sacrifice his own Son, and a God for whom there will be no ram in the thicket to save them at the last. Puppets are the ultimate masks.

I just saw one of my great students play Viola in Twelfth Night, in which play she must impersonate not only the character itself, but a boy version of herself. Virtually the entire role is a mask. That it may be a mask of true love we find out only later, and the character finds out only later. Rosalind, in Shakespeare’s other great comedy of disguise, takes no risks with her masking. Since she is a protean female Falstaff, she can make anything happen that she wants to happen. Viola, as the name implies, is a more reticent girl-boy, and a musical. My student always surprises me. She was straightforward, almost brusque. She did not sing the speeches. They functioned simply. She seemed always to be trying to take off the mask, the mask of gender, the mask of sea-lostness, the mask of modesty. It was impossible for her to do this, so she raised her voice. She went very American on it. No Masterpiece Theatre stuff. The roughness was tender. The tenderness was straight. Another dear student wrote music which comprehended the helplessness of the masks. At the end of a marvellous piece in which the characters on stage joined the musicians off, the girl-boy seemed to wish beyond all resisting to be discovered and, just for a moment, she was what she was.

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