Sunday, March 20, 2011

Taking Artistic Risks

Two recent stories gave me resources to discuss on taking artistic risks. One was last weekend's Metropolitan Opera's broadcast of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, featuring the great German bass René Pape in the title role.  Pape, born in 1964, started to sing the hugely demanding role Godunov as early as 2006, at the relatively young age of 41 or 42.  Obviously, he had taken a certain artistic risks by tackling the role so early in his career, though his deep, rich voice is a perfect fit for this tormented role.

If one can argue that he might should have wait for several more years, then let us not to forget the story of American base George London, who was a great component of Boris Godunov.

As told by Opera News magazine, George London sung Godunov at the Met for the first time at the even younger age of thirty-two.  He went on became the first non-Russian singer to be invited to sing Godunov at Moscow's Bolshoi Opera, in 1960, aged 40.  The other artistic risk London took was in Wagner.  In 1958, London performed the leading role of Wotan, in the groundbreaking recording of Richard Wagner's opera Das Rheingold, conducted by Sir Georg Solti, and produced by John Culshaw for Decca.  Again, 38 is a relatively young age for Wotan.  However, the operatic world and London himself must be grateful for his risk-taking decisions, because "in early '60s, shortly after he turned forty, that he began exhibiting signs of vocal distress. The problem was eventually diagnosed as a paralyzed vocal cord, a condition that never improved. London was able to maintain his career only for another few years before he had to retire from singing completely."  He actually retired from singing in 1967, aged 47, almost exactly the age of Pape.

Sure, one can argue that London's paralyzed vocal cord was at least partially due to its early heavy demand, as if Maria Callas' dramatic weight loss contributed to her premature vocal decline.

However, considering what artistic risks Callas had taken over the one and a half decades she was in her vocal prime, we could understand that her premature vocal decline was almost a calculated decision.  Her action told us that she had decided to become a brilliant comet, rather than a slow burning ember.  Many people, opera singers or not, had much longer careers, but made far less impacts and contributions to their respective fields.  Another similar case is Elena Souliotis, who burned even briefer and crushed even more spectacularly but people would always remember who she was.

A DVD La forza del destino made similar case for the risk-taking:
The 35-year-old José Carreras, looking like a teenager, sings the heck out of Don Alvaro, and now in hindsight it's clear that he gave too much.   But what a performance! Since the opera is given complete, it also includes the "Sleale!" duet, which comes dangerously soon after "Solenne in quest'ora" and is therefore usually cut or moved: it is very close to real dramatic tenor territory.  Carreras holds nothing back.  His chemistry with Caballé in the first scene is delightful and they sing beautifully together--and he is just as good in the three duets with baritone Piero Cappuccilli, who sings Don Carlo.

Artistic risks are not confined to how to use one's talent, but also concern how uncomfortable an artist would allow oneself to be, in order to grow.

This leads to the second story.

The wonderful Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu, who withdrew from her Met Opera engagement of Faust:
Ms. Gheorghiu's manager, Jack Mastroianni, said she could not abide the production, which is being directed by Des McAnuff.  Mr. McAnuff has moved the action from its more typical 19th-century setting to the World War I era.

"She felt uncomfortable with the concept," Mr. Mastroianni said.  "She conceives of the work in a more French Romantic way, in the period, as opposed to something being updated."
I can understand Gheorghiu's nervousness in the new approach, which was different from how she was used to.  But, this alone, failed to convince.  Any story, even as Faust, can be interpreted in many setting and angles, and through these trials, a performer could really dive deep into the character.  Her reluctant to stretch is a shame because she has wonderful voice to offer and is an actress with enough fire and temperament to made greater impact to theater.  Her reluctant to take risk, will diminish her statue and made her artistic promise unfulfilled in some ways.

I'm not urging people to push their resources beyond reasonable boundary.  The troubled career of once-promising tenor Rolando Villazón definitely is a cautionary tale.  However, not every risk-takers suffer a crash.  Soprano Leonie Rysanek and mezzo-soprano/soprano Christa Ludwig both took great risks and had very long careers (though both had certain rough patches). 

Risk-taking is part of the game for any kind of artist.  As a painting, I can paint paintings I know would sell endlessly, with the consequence of no artistic growth.  I would try few new things, and sometimes, deliberately make myself uncomfortable and see how far I can go.  I can be only as good as I am willing.

René Pape

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