Friday, April 23, 2010

Roots and Self-Invention

Next week, on the 29th, exactly one month before the opening night, I leave for Fort Worth to start rehearsals, and indeed if the flight gets in on time, I’ll barely have time to drop off my things before I set off to start rehearsing! I’m trying to keep perspective and enjoy all of this as much as I can and not let minutiae interfere with my enjoyment. After all, this is one of my dreams come true. I remembered yesterday that practically ever since I moved to Vermont, I’ve been telling friends “I’m working on this opera....” and every time I’d see one at a gathering, say a few months or a year later, they’d ask “So how is your opera coming along?” and I’d say something reporting on some micro steps I’d taken toward its realization... and so on year after year! I was truly afraid of becoming a broken record, or deeply suspect in my friends’ eyes, pursuing some kind of “impossible dream,” dreading the moment when it would be given up. SO: I was immensely pleased to be able to tell — perhaps surprise — my friends when I could say to them, “Yes, my opera is being produced! In TEXAS!! By a REAL opera company....!”

And truth to tell, I have been overwhelmed by the number of friends who are coming to Fort Worth to be there for the premiere. The outpouring of support and affection has been incredibly moving to me. Actually, it occurred to me it’s a little like attending my own funeral, given the number of people I know who’ll be there!! But it’ll be a New Orleans type funeral: with lots of parties and merriment and joy. But meanwhile — I’ll enjoy the hard work and concentration that will be demanded to put on the show. I’ll have to tell you about the folks at Fort Worth Opera soon: boy am I lucky!

Sidebar -- Roots and Self-invention

I stopped short in the last post of drawing this conclusion between identity and imagination: that you are whom you imagine yourself to be. We imagine ourselves into being. For the most part we are told who we are from birth, and we more or less unconsciously accept and internalize that identity, and in turn tell the world who we are in myriad ways, how we talk, how we dress, walk, eat, behave. But at the same time we also hold in great esteem those individuals who are “self-created.” This may be a reason why actors are simultaneously admired and reviled: they show us, with alarming clarity and utter believability — or is it deception? — that we can step into and out of “roles” or imagined identities. This protean quality has to be one of the reasons why pop stars such as Madonna, Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga command such awe: they self-invent, sometimes seemingly at the drop of a hat, and we believe in them in each incarnation. In this way, art (and artifice) and politics mesh with imagination and identity.

And yet! This Sunday the New York Times published an essay by Richard Taruskin on Stravinsky’s musical, and personal, identity: how Russian was his music, was he himself? It’s a wonderful essay — I always love reading Taruskin; he never fails to be thought-provoking. At a certain point Stravinsky decided to stop identifying his music as “Russian” but yet he could never really be free of his roots, as none of us can be either, ultimately. Rooted, self-invented: so are we all, to varying degrees.

The question of rootedness is one that has vexed me: I was “uprooted” at age five and transplanted in new soil, but with the same caregivers and remnants of the birth culture. I have always felt hybrid, betwixt-and-between. My sense of identification with one group or another has always been tentative, and I have always been suspicious of strong group identification, feeling smothered rather than empowered. And what I saw of crowd behaviors simply disgusted me. Nevertheless I could never escape the desire to “belong” even as I have stood apart. From very early on I was made to feel “other,” and that feeling does not go away easily. Push and pull.

The sense of being an “outsider” is certainly something I share with Arenas: the exile always bears that feeling, especially when exiled in adulthood. And the Outsider or Exile is an enduring theme in art, and in opera. Indeed, Genesis describes man’s being in the cosmos as that of being alienated from paradise, exiled and banned from the Garden of Eden.

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