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.