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The Otherness of the self – a presentation in five acts.

This is an english translation of the presentation of my Artistic Research Project ”The Otherness of the Self – how to curate a 17th century opera and sing all the roles yourself.” The Public Defence – Monday, October 12, 2020 – was streamed, and might still be available here (swedish / norwegian).

A huge thanks to the committee: Asbjørn Schaathun, Øystein Elle and Charlotte Engelkes. Thank you for taking my work so seriously. I am forever grateful.

An enormous thanks to my wonderful supervisors Trond Reinholdtsen and Elisabeth Belgrano. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

Act one!

Introduction, background and some context.

It started already in 2011 when theatre historian Magnus Tessing Schneider told me about his theories concerning role doubling in early 17th century opera. He believed that some so-called “singing actors” could do more than one role in a performance for artistic reasons, and not simply for practical ones. Among other things, this was an opportunity to showcase their skills as actors as well as their voice virtuosity.

That summer, Magnus directed a production of L’incoronazione di Poppea (Monteverdi / Busenello) where I had the pleasure to sing one of these ”show cases”. The double role of Octavia and Drusilla – two completely different roles that are usually sung by two completely contrasting singers. Magnus believed that the great diva, the divine Anna Renzi, performed both in the premiere in 1643 and he now wanted to test his hypothesis with me. Thus I became well-acquainted with all three that summer: Octavia, Drusilla and Anna Renzi. Oh, that meeting with Singora Renzi! he who was as much actor as singer and could turn herself into either – she was everything and nothing… It was magical! Just when I thought I knew something about baroque opera came this Renzi and these hefty and contrasting double roles!

Was it because the rapid changes between these two roles evoked a whole new kind of theatricality in me and gave an unpolished vibrancy to the whole opera? Or, was it confirmed for me that some of us thrive on, and may even need the thrill of, jumping between extremes? That this kind of fragmented, split, performer existed also in the 17th century?

Octavia, Anna Renzi and Drusilla. Photo: Björn Ross.

In the research project I am now presenting – to sing all the roles in Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo – I have also taken the ”artistic” role doubling further in my interpretation and drawn it to an extreme.   

I am a singer / musician who has, for the most part, of my career jumped between very different musical styles: improv- and text-based 17th century music as well as complex newly written music.

Yes, I agree that there are similarities between these musical styles, or genres, or whatever you want to call them. For example they both require a flexible larynx and clear voice (at least according to our current taste). However, it’s not the possible similarities between them, but their differences that draws me to them. I feel like I become (at least) two different persons – two Elisabeths.

The two Elisabeths

The Elisabeth who sings the old music, is playful. She gives resistance to her fellow musicians by floating over the beat, she adds, or removes notes a little as she wants. The details arise spontaneously. It is the big picture that is painted.

This is music that we do not quite know how it sounded: Monteverdi, Merula, Strozzi etc. We know a lot and we can guess a lot, but we do not know what it actually sounded like when a singer sang 400 years ago. We do not have their day to day sounds in our ears, our bodies haven’t used their clothes, or eaten their food, all their lives. The composer is dead, so we cannot ask what he, or she, really wanted or if there are any ambiguities in the sheet music we do not understand… Exciting! Makes you curious!

The other Elisabeth, the one who sings new music, aims to do exactly what is written in the notes. She follows the metronome. She listens intently to fellow musicians, without giving too much resistance. The details are in the Details. The concentration is like a laser. We can ask the composer (in this project I met Rolf Wallin, Carola Bauckholt and Helmuth Lachenmann among others) if we can not decipher everything in the notes. No need to guess, we can proceed confidently!

And, now is now. We know where we are and we know how the world sounds, even if we do not always understand it.

The distance between these two Elisabeths is great. One is… here and the other… there. Like two outstretched hands. Between them. Nothing. Nothing? But, if you hold your hands like this for a while, you can feel how it gets hot. There is a magnetic encounter in the nothingness.

Have you ever tried holding your hands like they are holding a ball, but not touching each other. Have you ever felt the magnetic energy between your hands if you concentrate long enough? The warmth and glow that emerges from your body, your self?

And if they meet?

This quote from Karen Barad did not just give me the title of the project. That contact she’s talking about, the one between two or more well-known parts of us, is also a cornerstone of my work.

Physics says that even if we touch something, we can never completely touch it. But in art we can BECOME what we touch. Or as Magnus says about Anna Renzi in Poppea:

Could it be so between me and the roles in Orfeo? That we became each other? Dissolved in Nothing?

Even when I wrote my application 5 years ago, I knew that this would be a big project with many small sub-subjects: baroque opera, commedia dell’arte, physical theater, performance practice, HIP, new music, mythology, the Self and the Other, neuroscience… men! L’orfeo – favola in musica has been both an artistic goal and the pillar that supported everything (and me). That pillar I hold on to now as well.

Act 1. In which we hear about the demigod Orpheus and the tree nymph Eurydice who are in love and enter into marriage.

Act 2

The musician and singer Elisabeth is the one who sings music. Singer-Elisabeth has a long education, crowned with titles in German written on papers with stamps, so I’m very sure I know that.

But who is the actress Elisabeth? She has been by my side since kindergarten, through school days all the way to performances on opera stages.  I have never learned to act, it is something I ”just do”. One of the few acting techniques I can do is connect what I do on stage with a memory. But maybe that’s enough? Actress Fia Adler-Sandblad (länk till intervju) says:

And the contact between body and voice is inevitable for someone who wants to be an actor-singer…

Anna Renzi, as I mentioned earlier, was everything desired from an actor-singer in the early and mid 17th century, when the anonymously-penned “Il Corago” was written. 

One who was the mostly known as “speaking” actress who later became singing actor was Virginia Ramponi-Andreini. She came from the commedia dell’arte troupe I Fedeli, but today is mainly remembered as the one who sang Monteverdi’s first Arianna (from one of the operas that has so tragically disappeared).

So, in my quest of finding my inner 17th century actor singer, I partially connected ”my” L’Orfeo with Commedia dell’arte. Not only because of Andreini and her background, but also because of ”the living body that remembers”, as I started this section with. Commedia dell’arte is body! It is physical with a stylized, strong body language and big gestures.

(If we want to draw it even further, we can talk about the 21st century body remembering the bodies before hers. But we won’t do that here. Just keep it in mind.)

The body thus became an ever more-important tool for me.

Later, I took this further with modern physical acting methods that also connect body and voice; in close collaboration with the physical actor Hanne Dieserud, in workshops with Jon Tombre and Roy Hart and in courses with the aforementioned Fia Adler-Sandblad.

Another tool is in the title of the L’Orfeo: Favola in musica – A story in music. Rendering the story and words of early 17th century opera is almost more important than conveying the music. Monteverdi himself says: Let the words be the master of music, not its slave! I have to tell the story of Orfeo – be the storyteller – more than sing the music!

According to actor Örjan Wiklund, the Storyteller is the one who remembers – the private memory and the collective memory. Through the narrator’s voice and body, we can understand stories that are several 1000 years old. Like the one about Orfeo.

Act 2 – In which joy is turned into tragedy when Messagiera comes with the news that Eurydice has been bitten by a poisonous snake and died.

Act 3

Finding the characters and the story

In the words

The last clip in the film in the last chapter was from one of the very first times I told the story of Orfeo. At that time, only the actor Roger Westberg was my audience. Roger was also the one who taught me that this was a fruitful way to go – to just tell the Story in my own words. At first it was difficult to recount the story in a vivid way, but soon it became one of my main research methods and I told it to everyone who somehow found their way into the project and in all the presentations given at all the seminars and conferences. I also did the performance ”Orfevs” together with the keyboardist Andreas Stensland Løwe who plays certain elements of the music, while I tell the story.

By telling the story over and over again, I made the story mine and the characters then became individuals, humans. Sometimes they happened to get new voices and thereby new personality traits. This meant that they were constantly evolving, maturing, especially given time which allowed them to grow, as we all do. When I came back to the libretto and the music, my voice was integrated into a musical and social order more than 400 years old. The recitar-cantando style really became spoken song.

And I had not only carved people out of the raw material found in the story, I had also given them a sustainable context, a dramaturgy.

In the body

Hanne Dieserud (physical actress with a background in Grotowski and Artaud) and I had, and still have, a deep collaboration. After many conversations about elements feminine and masculine, and love, death… we found the people in different places in my body and I then sang from there.

Orfeo – in the groin and the heart. 

Euridice – in the open chest

Messagiera – the throat, more specifically the crying and anxiety that sits there

Karonte – a stiff hip (the left one)

Speranza – in the forehead (and in one arm)

Proserpina – in the lips

Plutone – in the hands

They became physical beings in me. It was not ”psychology” (that bit I had managed in storytelling and in conversations), but just: send the voice to the groin, the chest or the hip, and we will take it from there!

Act 3 – In which Orpheus tries to reach the realm of Hades – Death. But by the river Styx he is stopped by the ferryman Caronte

Act 4

After the performance Orfevs (with pianist Andreas Stensland Løve) I had the following thoughts: How should I relate to the fact that Orfeo seems to be a self-righteous idiot, who I would never fall for myself, who I actually do not even like? Euridice seems to have no role of her own in this myth – she is an object of his desire and longing. A tool for him to overcome death. And Plutone and Proserpina… It’s hard to see him as anything other than a psychopath who abducted Proserpina for his own pleasure. Does she suffer from the Stockholm syndrome or is she just trying to save her own skin by showing her softest kitten side? ”

Michael Chekhov writes about working with characters: 

My point of departure had, in fact, been myself and my prejudices! I had ”Betrayed my inner laziness”. Embarrassing! Especially Euridice and Proserpina which I had watched with ”a male gaze” and made into sexy weapons without my own will.

Do it again, do it right!

Tell the story from their side! What can I really say about them?

Euridice was a tree nymph – yes, a tree with deep roots down in the fertile, dark earth (all the way down to Hades / death). Euridice means wisdom!

Proserpina / Persefone was the daughter of Demeter – they were powerful women. Many variants of the myth say that Plutone / Hades kidnaps her and takes her by force: he saw her, wanted her, took her. Thus, she is a victim. But some versions of the myth say that the desire was mutual and their love was strong. Not just anyone becomes the Queen of Death!

Both were probably more like the Beyoncé character in Rebecka Ahvenniemi’s opera ”Beyoncé and beyond” (which also became part of this project) – ”… more than the sum of your fantasies…”

And then film artist Wolfgang Lehmann also came into the picture – through his camera I hoped I would see Euridice, Proserpina and myself again. Letting him decide what the film would look like was deliberate. I had to make myself vulnerable and take artistic risks, because I had considered myself too safe and secure in my cause – and that had stopped the process. By taking this artistic risk, I made myself vulnerable and open again. I am so glad I did.

We filmed partly by the Alna River in the beautiful Svartdalsparken in Oslo. The dark water of course made me think of Styx (although it was probably not as scary as the river that divides life from death). This gave Proserpina a calm I had not imagined before; here she found her strength as QUEEN!

The physical memory of bark against my hands and my back, gave me a physical connection to the TREE NYMPH Euridice. She with the deep roots, she who means WISDOM.

When I changed perspective on Euridice, Orfeo also changed. Their love became equal and they both became more human.

The same was true of Proserpina and Plutone. Suddenly he became the one who saw her potential and it was her own choice to stay…

I knew they had more voices than those we hear in the opera created by Monteverdi and Striggio.

The film (A tree with a name) then became a dialogue between me with my feet on the floor and me on the screen. I was my ”Other” my ”the otherness” and ”self,” in dialogue. ”

Act 4 – In which Proserpina, is affected by Orpheus’ lamentations. Plutone promises that Orfeo will be allowed to take Euridice back to life BUT neither of them can turn around before they are both up in the world of the living.

Act 5 – Conclusion?

I have now presented parts of my artistic research project with L’Orfeo.

As a classically trained singer, I am the bearer of a cultural heritage. I’m deeply rooted in that role – the classical baroque and contemporary singer – but I could not have done this project as just her. The standards are too strict. Here my inner actor-singer helped me. Through her, which is actually historically rooted, I gave myself the right, no obligation, to turn around singing norms and sound ideals.

Did I get closer to Anna Renzi and La Florinda and other actor-singers? Well, this is my modern, and quite extreme, take on how a theatrical singer and dual role performer may have worked on stage during the first half of the 17th century. I propose an idea as to how the rapid shifts and the sometimes exaggerated theatricality could perhaps make the stage language more powerful and intuitive than we are used to today. And how this affects the voice to become something else just ”flattering” – that kind of beauty is wholly different.

I also hope that with this project I have contributed to a deeper feeling and understanding of what the early baroque theatrical ”recitar cantando” may have been. The story-telling in song that went so far that in the end you longed for beautiful sound and long melismas at which point bel canto took over completely. It is my message that we singers, musicians, humans have even more in us than what others (agents, conductors, critics) think, and that we should be allowed to define ourselves and make ourselves more autonomous.

To physically feel the difference in the roles in the opera gave me an embodied insight into other individuals. Of course, it has something to do with how I experience my surroundings. How we respond to each other and create each other’s reality in ourselves and how we are reflected in each other.

When the opera ends, Orpheus’ voice is not only his, it bears traces of all he has met, in the realm of the living and in the realm of the dead.Anna Renzi embodied Octavia and Drusilla – made them the same person. They floated in and around her, as Magnus says.

Am I floating, in and around myself?

”Fluidity may have been an integral part of the production itself, Holmertz’s doubling possibly dissolving the distinction between Orfeo and Euridice in the spectator’s mind, uniting the narcissism of the former and the devotion of the latter in one and the same woman.”

No, I’m not dissolved in anything. No, I still experience that I switch between different states and parts of me: New music! Early music! Other music! Otherness!  The ”actor-singer” – she, this new-old role, gave my fragmented artistic personality a unifying voice and my own private ”fach.” A compartment that I decide for myself.

This project has made me an expert at singing all the roles in Orfeo! My hottest expert tips for one-woman L’Orfeo:

  • Break the rules!
  • Make yourself vulnerable!
  • Let the characters sing through your body.
  • Trust your memory.
  • Try to see yourself through the eyes of others.

I am NOT different than when I started. Not the same.

”The otherness of the self” was impossible to grasp. It was already there – including in the meeting with our own voices – how we hear it inside us, and how we sound out. Also our ”I” which is created in the meeting of others. Over and over again…

Finally, if I return to the question ”Who is the actor, Elisabeth?” One who with her body, her impulses, her memories shapes another? Well… Who is the actor, the singer, the musician, the storyteller? An artist? In the best case. Who is the artist? One that gives us a different picture of reality? One who doubts, asks questions? Is it the one who through the art is researching? Looking for opportunities to change ourselves? Change the world? René Jacobs says this about artists believing they can change the world:

… It’s beautiful said, albeit a little demotivating. I say, let us always want to change the world! Let us be the singer, the musician, the poet, the shaman, the artist, the GOD Orfeo!

Translation: Paul Kirby


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