A singer’s career path is a process that proliferates with the same lifelong devotion of courage and love shared by athletes. We dedicate our lives to a craft that encourages self-examination, awareness of human consciousness and the manner in which we ourselves, and the characters we portray, fit into that balance.
Like an athlete, the processes of a singer encompass many factors, which include muscle training through years of practice, self awareness in order to embody a role, trust in a coach, knowledge of your craft, a team playing spirit with kindness and respect for your colleagues, and finally accepting your victories but learning from your less successful performances in order to improve your craft and skill.
There are also technical building blocks that give the character a sense of reality. Several months before I sang my first Florestan in Germany, I was singing “Werther” in Cape Town, South Africa. I ventured out one day to visit the fort (Castle of Good Hope) where prisoners were jailed and tortured. I didn’t realize at that moment what I was about to experience, but I found myself in an isolation cell. It seemed rather uncomfortable and then, unexpectedly, the tour guide asked someone to close the door.
As the door was closing, the light vanished and darkness filled the room. I began to understand what Florestan had endured. I was in this small isolated chamber for perhaps one minute and instantly started to feel trapped and scared. The blood-stained bricks still had the odor of death, the air was dank and heavy, you could only hear the sound of your own breath and the darkness was such that you could not even see the hand in front of your own face. This was the life that Florestan had endured for two years. This moment inSouth Africa was the beginning of my process into finding the external character.
When I begin to study a character I also look for the internal conflict. Conflict necessitates growth or awareness of one’s self and the world around us. Conflict is also what drives a story and creates exposition and resolution. Taking this one step further, a conflict always defines a flaw in a character’s inner conditioning. It is this inner conditioning which I search for in order to become the character and embody the role. If I can identify with the character’s inner conditioning, and his flaw, which creates the conflict of the drama, I am well underway in creating my portrayal.
The character of Florestan in Fidelio is often thought of as a “flaw-less” character. He is quite a dignified and noble man. He is living in a time, however, where he is imprisoned within his being due to society’s lack of consciousness. Ironically, in order to break out of this sociological “prison” he “dares speak the truth” and is therefore thrown into a real prison as a result of his braveness. It is this very internal character trait that I must be able to identify with in order to understand this man. I will simply say, in short, that I, too, have found myself “locked out” for speaking truths under circumstances where the truth was not wished for, heard or identified. Is this a flaw one may ask? Diplomacy is key in dealing with change. In order to shake up the system one must enter it, find an accepted place well inside its core and then unknowingly create change.
This method of character study is another level that adds to the process which started for me during that brief moment inside a dark dungeon in South Africa. The process goes well beyond discovering and analyzing a character. It is the progression we singers go through which begins at our first lesson and never ends. The process is a euphoric, sometimes painful, always edifying journey into discovering a character, ourselves, our identities, and this process is built upon during every performance.
Steven Harrison, Florestan, Fidelio