Friday, May 22, 2009

The courage to become naked

An amazing series of films are currently being shown at the Nouveau film theatres in the city. They are part of a project, which aims to bring some of the larger and famous opera productions, specifically those that are performed in the Metropolitan in New York, directly onto the doorstep of people who cannot be there and share in the production otherwise. Using the most modern audio-visual technology and equipment these operas are filmed and then broadcast directly from the theatre, making it possible for the viewer to enter first hand into the unique atmosphere of this magnificent opera house and to bask in the delight and wonder of the singing voice.

What is unique about these films is that they, through interviews with the artists and the production team, also take you behind the scenes. In this way you are able to meet the artists close up, to hear their voices, to share in their feelings and listen to their joys and anxieties.

One of the very special moments in one such film was when the interviewer managed to catch up with the French soprano Natalie Dessay just as she was coming off the stage after the first scene of Bellini’s divine opera, La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker). Dessay is a small woman with a marvellous voice and a lively, charming personality. She has become famous and yet does not come across as conceited or snooty - to the contrary, she seems to be a delightful person who is friendly and unpretentious. Listening to her you feel as if she could have been a dear friend living just around the corner from you.

What I recall now is the wonder with which I saw and heard her for the first time; I was touched and impressed by these personal qualities. During this particular backstage interview she gave viewers a glimpse of the secret behind her art. Asked by the interviewer how she felt after the first scene and what it was like to sing Bellini’s moving lyrics, she answered that it was always thrilling, but never easy. To express the range and depth of emotions and feelings that characterises his operas, you have to let go of your own way of dealing with things, make yourself vulnerable and allow the music to touch, penetrate and open up the very core of your being. In her words, you have to risk becoming naked.

In this sense ‘becoming naked’ does not refer to that artificial form of physical exposure or exhibitionism, aimed at shocking or entertaining. Although the physical is never excluded - we are after all em-bodied beings - Dessay’s use of the phrase refers to something more profound. It designates the courage to be open, honest and vulnerable, to disclose one’s true feelings and emotions, even if it means to risk getting hurt, being misunderstood or rejected. It is to show and give more of yourself, to lower the mask behind which you were hiding - often in fear and anxiety. The effect, as with Dessay’s performances, could be a gain in authenticity. In short, becoming naked is to summon the courage to love freely and unconditionally, as did the woman who annointed Jesus with extraordinary, expensive perfume (John 12:3), thereby showing how she valued his worth.

In a highly competitive and individualistic society where fraud, violence, exploitation, suspicion and cynicism are rife, we often don’t achieve as much. This, however, does not deny the enduring importance of the challenge. The courage to become more naked, vulnerable and caring is not an embarrassment; rather, it is a sound asset, and it is key to a more healthy reconciled and human society.

Carel Anthonissen

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