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Seeking Recommendations

I study languages because I believe that to communicate effectively in song I must understand the language well enough to know what I'm saying and recognize the nuances and subtleties of the poem. I am well along the path to doing that.

Language is not sufficient. I speak English fluently, yet perhaps there is something missing from my performances of Finzi and Butterworth, a certain something that is certainly there when I sing Copland and Ives; and the difference is not the accent. Nor is the reason as simple as being American.

I must have a thoroughly ingrained feeling for cultural and historical identity. How can I hope to play a Russian general, or a German prince, for example, if I don't understand what it means to be Russian or German, if I don't have within my experential database the references a Russian or German would draw from!

I sing American song well not by virtue of having grown up on American soil (because, technicalities aside, I did not). Rather, from day one I was immersed in American history and culture. All of us who are products of the American educational system have ingrained in us the idea, perhaps romanticized, of the pilgrims seeking freedom from oppression, of independence from a tyrannical monarchy, of western expansion seeking new opportunities, and of struggles between coexisting people of different cultural/racial identities. The underlying themes, what make the salient characteristics of the American spirit, are those of a people who are pioneering, independent, entrepreneurial, and yet struggle with contradictions between their "self-evident" truths and their social truths. True or not, we understand these things instinctively because they've been pounded into us from an early age.

I want to emulate that kind of understanding when I sing roles/songs from Russia, Germany, Austria, Italy, England, Spain, etc. The way to start — besides language, of course — is, I think, to learn their histories. And this is where you come in: I want your recommendations, if you have any.

I'm going to start with Russia. I learned last year that I need to focus on one language/culture at a time, so learning Russian history would complement my current fascination with the language, music, literature, and poetry. I want to read Orlando Figes' cultural history, which sounds tailor-made to my needs, only it only goes as far back as the early nineteenth century. Seeing as how American cultural identity extends back to the pilgrims when our history is only about 400 years old, focusing only on the past 200 years or Russian history seems a mockery of its great past. Can any of you recommend any comprehensive histories of Russia? Something that can help me understand where the Russian people come from, what drives them, what their essential character or spirit is?

Next I think would be either Germany or Italy. Any ideas there? Or perhaps of other regions of the world that could be of use to me? Any recommendations, however tangential they may seem, are welcome.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 22nd, 2008 12:31 am (UTC)
Mind Travels
You didn't pay enough attention when I told you about Steinbeck's Travels With Charlie, in which he discussed cultural heritage. He concluded, in part, that while the Americans have a distinct national spirit, such a feeling is lacking, fractured or fragmented in the nationals of everywhere else. The United States wasn't troubled by class warfare to the extent other civilizations were.

The United States has (or had and is losing) a single and singular heritage. Russia has multiple heritages, from the slavish imitation of Parisian fashion to the willingness to suicide with a pistol in the chance they might win a stick of gum or other prize equally trivial. They are wild and conflicted.

There are no Italians: there are Sicilians, Romans and so on. Who you are depends on which city you came from. Until fairly recently there was no national language but the languages of the different regions were similar enough that they could communicate reasonably well. Then, too, different regions of the country were conquered by the armies of different nations.

You might say the people of the United States are like the chimera, creatures constructed from different animals (cultures) who are alike because they are completely different from the parts they inherited.
Aug. 22nd, 2008 12:54 am (UTC)
Re: Mind Travels
It's, um, amusing when you make comments like this. I've read Travels with Charley, fwiw, and lots of other Steinbeck. Never mind that his assertion is wrong. My own experience with music, art, and literature tells me so.

I know these broad generalizations. I want in depth background.

A German has a very distinct cultural identity. It may come from distinct sources, but there is no mistaking the Germanic spirit for the French.

For all its political disunity, there is still a distinct Italian spirit. As different as a Neapolitan is from a Venecian is from a Calabrese, they all have far more in common than they do with the French or the Germans.

The Russian may have several heritages. The core Russian people are probably the ones from around Kiev some 700 or so years ago, with intrusions from the Caucasian steppes and the Balkans. Or something like that. The Parisian interest did not come into the picture until the nineteenth century. Your caricature of the Russian people does not help me.

These distinct national characters are quite easily identifiable in the arts. It's not enough, though, to be able to identify it and what about it makes it distinct from the others. I need to be able to understand its roots, where it comes from.

I'm not looking for broad generalizations. I know those. I want to be convincing in the characters I portray, not simply ape a stereotype. Do you have any helpful recommendations?
Aug. 22nd, 2008 01:15 am (UTC)
Re: Mind Travels
Helpful recommendations for a time-consuming and, very likely, futile task. Nope, I'm fresh out.
Aug. 22nd, 2008 01:40 am (UTC)
Re: Mind Travels
Why do you think it's futile?
Aug. 22nd, 2008 02:09 am (UTC)
Re: Mind Travels
It's one of those "the more answers you get, the more questions you have" projects. You can specialize (become more expert in an ever decreasing field) or generalize (become more aware of an increasing variety of areas) but it's difficult, not to mention time-consuming, to try to internalize a large number of personae without confusing them or giving them superficial treatment.

Of course, you're not trying to do them all at once. You are starting with the Russian persona and, when you succeed to your satisfaction, will consider attempting another. But will you be satisfied with two or three under your belt? Or will you attempt a multitude, knowing that you have to practice each of them in order to maintain proficiency?
Aug. 22nd, 2008 05:46 pm (UTC)
Re: Mind Travels
I am simply trying to gain a sufficient background experience that I can be more aware of a character's cultural, historical, and social heritage and so be better equipped to portray him truthfully on the stage. I am not trying to become an expert in everything.

I will, hopefully, be creating hundreds of characters in my career. But the operatic world is not global. If I gain a thorough understanding of the Slavic, the Teutonic, the Gallic, the Italian, the English, and perhaps the Iberian, I will have more than enough to draw upon. That is not such a daunting task, especially not for one who is trying to be a professional.
Aug. 23rd, 2008 06:49 am (UTC)
Re: Mind Travels
I know enough about Italy, as I've already mentioned, to be aware that there is no single Italian mindset but a fractured variety of subsets of Italian based on city and region. The Teutonic are much the same, a poorly meshed combination from tribes and regions. Omnia Galia was fractured in Julius Caesar's time and has only become more so. Englishmen derive their background from a mixture, basically different from 1066 on, of Angle, Saxon, Norman, Jute, Scotti and invaders from the north and east. Spain may have physically cast out the Moors but they've incorporated their influence into what they are now. Visit Frisia and you might mistake the people for British. Go a little bit north of London and the people don't seem particularly British at all. Within London, you have to know if someone is above or below the salt, as they have the class warfare rift internally.

It's a hodge-podge. And that's just Europe.

You will end up with a compromise Teutonic with, perhaps, only a touch of Prussian with which to build your Wagnerian Viking. But some Vikings were traders and explorers, not pirates and raiders. We get our ideal of hero from Teutonic sources, those troublesome Franks. Perhaps you can learn enough about a few Teutonic sources to be able to build a hero who isn't a caricature but aren't many operatic characterizations caricatures, overstated and bigger than life?

Still, knowing more of the social history of Europe and Eastern Europe can hardly harm you. Seeking knowledge for its own sake is (mostly) always a good thing.

Yes, I do have an idea of what you are trying to do. Yes, a little background knowledge will probably help your portrayals. I couldn't do it; I'm already confused enough. I hope you can. Good luck with your effort.
Aug. 22nd, 2008 12:49 am (UTC)
I think the only comprehensive history of Russia I've read was a History of Russia by one Rambaud; it was published about 1890. Most of what I know I learned from books covering various particular events or episodes of Russian history, such as Solzhenitsyn's works, The Years by V.V. Shulgin, War and Peace, The Russian Revolution by Richard Pipes, I Change Worlds by Anna Louise Strong, and Raymond Massie's Peter the Great.

Every author has his or her axe to grind; Pipes, for instance, is an admirer of the Tsarist regime and displays nothing but contempt for Lenin and his followers. Anna Louise Strong, on the other hand, portrays them much more favorably.

I've also learned much from my collection of maps and atlases (such as this one).

There is a remarkable amount of stuff online; for instance, the KGB^H^H^HFSB Web site has a detailed account of the overthrow and execution of Lavrenty Beria after Stalin's death.
Aug. 22nd, 2008 01:10 am (UTC)
Thank you. This is the sort of thing I'm looking for.

I guess my desire to find a comprehensive history stems from inherent laziness. I want to get it all in one bang. I guess that's a contradiction to my stated goal, though. Developing an in-depth understanding will require more along the lines of what you've been doing.

(I have a feeling I'm going to spend a lot of time on that maps page, btw.)

Incidentally, do you know Римский-Корсаков's setting of "На холмах Грузии"? I only discovered it this past week and am quite eager to learn it now.
Aug. 22nd, 2008 02:31 am (UTC)
Until you start to sing Hawaiian or Taiwanese operas, I don't think I can help you.
Aug. 22nd, 2008 02:53 am (UTC)
How do you cope with things operas such as Carmen which are sung in one language but are full of cultural things from another country? And considering that so much opera is sung in german or italian this might be an important factor.

It would seem to be more fruitful to address a particular time and the people/classes/situations involved for each opera. You can't really generalize about the culture across the huge spectrum of time and geography. Compare the lower east side of manhattan 100 years ago to today of San Francisco in the gold rush days to today or France in the 20th century and the 17th century.

I suggest instead of studying these cultures, try to characterize the situation of each opera that you might be doing and identify references and other sources for each one that you could read and study when the time comes.
Aug. 22nd, 2008 05:53 pm (UTC)
How do you cope with things operas such as Carmen which are sung in one language but are full of cultural things from another country?

I've thought about that. I have no very good answers.

Compare the lower east side of manhattan 100 years ago to today of San Francisco in the gold rush days to today or France in the 20th century and the 17th century.

While the circumstances are starkly different, isn't the general spirit the same? Perhaps moreso in America. Then again, perhaps the answer to that is something I would discover in my studies.

I suggest instead of studying these cultures, try to characterize the situation of each opera that you might be doing and identify references and other sources for each one that you could read and study when the time comes.

Well, of course. But the time hasn't come. In the meantime, shouldn't I be doing something productive? And is learning as much as I can about a people's history and their culture and society at different points in that history detrimental to creating an operatic role? I can't understand how more knowledge would be a bad thing.
Aug. 22nd, 2008 07:18 am (UTC)
Honestly, I think the first thing you should do is take some straight-up acting classes. You can fill your head with all sorts of information about the cultural background and history of all your characters, but without the technique to effectively convey that to an audience, it won't be very useful.

It sounds like much of the struggle you're describing can be addressed with some acting techniques.
Aug. 22nd, 2008 06:00 pm (UTC)
I would very much like to. I almost signed up for some courses last summer, but finances prevented it. Now time is an issue. I can read books on the commute to work, but fitting in an acting class would mean sacrificing the Russian course. Maybe I'm better off with an acting course right now, though.

The next question, then, would be, at what level do I start? I took acting classes in high school. I had an extensive résumé of roles at the high school in Panamá (while I was still in junior high) and later high school and community theater in the US, and won a couple of awards. That said, I probably did not get the sort of grounding that would really help me. Reading the Stanislavsky book, very little is new, yet I do feel something is missing. I am both a better actor and a better singer than I am a singing actor.
Aug. 22nd, 2008 12:34 pm (UTC)
Read Letters from Russia by Astolphe De Custine. My friend just gave it to me. It was written in the 19th Century and still rings true today.

The Icon and the Axe is comprehensive and fascinating, but very dense.

I have others. But I can't think of their titles right now.

Email me, and I will hook you up.

To Quote Tyutchev:

You wouldn't understand Russia just using the intellect
You couldn't measure her using the common scale
She has a special kind of grace
You can only believe in her.
Aug. 22nd, 2008 06:10 pm (UTC)
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )

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