|Posted by [email protected] on April 19, 2012 at 6:35 AM|
When I first found out I was going to play the Queen of the Night, I freaked out a little. Most people would assume it was the fast coloratura and the high F’s giving me nightmares. The role has always been called “virtuosic”, and of course, that is a lot to live up to. But the cause for my immediate anxiety was not singing at all. It was the idea of playing a villain. I’ve never played a villain. I’ve never wanted to play a villain. I’m always the good girl, the innocent heroine; even when I’ve played the jilted wife in both Die Fledermaus and The Marriage of Figaro, I’ve been on the good side of the moral compass. But a villain… That is as far from my comfort zone as I’ve ever ventured to go.
Villain has such a stereotype attached. I attribute it to Disney. The word villain brings to mind Ursula the sea witch and Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, all dark colors and grating laughs so full of malice and sinister design. And who in their right mind would want to be the tentacled sea witch over the beautiful princess longing for love? Never has a little girl run around the house playing pretend as the Evil Queen out to poison Snow White or the Stepmother locking Cinderella in a tower. If I had told my mother that I wanted an Evil Queen costume as a child, she would have thought something was wrong with me! My sisters and I were always the princesses and good girls. Countless Halloweens were passed as Dorothy from Wizard of Oz, Snow White, Belle, Alice from Alice in Wonderland. Little girls don’t choose to be the evil antagonists.
In last year’s production of The Mikado, I played the epitome of heroine. Yum-Yum is the innocent, pretty, young girl, just released from school and seeing the world for the first time. She is naïve to the ways of life and love, a little self-centered as she admires her own beauty and foolishlyoptimistic. At the time, I tried to find layers to her character, but she is exactly what she seems. She doesn’t have a tragic back-story, a past that leads her to question Nanki-Poo’s love or fear the world. Perhaps had she not earned her happy ending, and Nanki-Poo was beheaded, she would have developed darker traits and transform into a more three dimensional person, but the happy couple gets the happily ever after and therefore fulfill their preset roles.
Being a villain is something entirely different. A good villain needs to be insightful and surprisingly intelligent, not just evil for evil’s sake. The Queen of the Night is a grieving mother; her first appearance in the opera, she is lamenting and mourning the loss of her daughter Pamina who has been taken by her enemy Sarastro. She truly loves her daughter, and yet in act two, she tells her daughter that if she doesn’t kill Sarastro, she will disown and abandon her. It makes no sense that the Queen’s attitude would suddenly shift from wanting her daughter returned to disowning her. There are so many more layers to it than that, and to play the Queen and do it successfully, she has to show a much wider array of emotions and a maturity well beyond the innocence of a heroine.
I was terrified with the idea of playing such a complex role, of carrying myself with her regality and confidence, knowing it must exude from every gesture and every expression. I am still anxious. It would be impossible to be calm a week before the show’s opening. But for every nerve, there is anticipation. I am excited to play this role, excited for the challenge and to push myself out of my comfort zone. Every rehearsal I’ve had to learn to be someone I’m not. When heroines were practically branches of my existential self, this has been the opposite extreme. …And yet this has been the most fun I’ve ever had in a show. It’s easy to play someone close to your own self; the difficulty comes in being someone else and finding reasons for their actions, defining and defending their personality and even if you don’t agree with it, portraying it as if you do.
The Queen’s Vengeance aria starts: “The wrath of hell within my breast I cherish/ Death, desperation are the oath I swore”. Michelle Gliottoni-Rodriguez does not agree with a single word, but the Queen needs to be 100% convicted without falter in proclamation. The Queen doesn’t think she’s evil; she might call herself the tortured heroine, but that’s just another layer. And I have to play her that way. I can’t call her evil because she needs motive and reason. She needs a heart somewhere beneath all the darkness. She needs to feel human even if she has super powers, can grab you without a touch from her hands, and appears by thunder and lightning. She needs to be more than a caricature of evil, otherwise she won’t be real.
Next week, The Magic Flute opens. I don’t know when I’ll get to play a villain again; I look too much like the proverbial heroine/princess, and so I will be savoring this show all the more. Compared to everything I’ve done and will do, this might be at the top. A challenge to sing, a challenge to play, always on my toes and anticipating what’s to come. How could I ever grow bored? The biggest joy in performing is being someone you’re not; this time I’m really someone I’m not, and it’s absolutely liberating. Michelle sits back and the Queen emerges, and hopefully, when fully costumed and ready to go, she will truly be a figure worthy of both fear and respect. I doubt it will inspire little girls to want to be sea witches and queens in their games of pretend, but hopefully, it will show that villains are much more than evil.