The dark art of seduction
When I first started listening to opera I got a list of all the well known mezzo arias and I dutifully went through all of it, picking an aria I enjoyed most musically and listening to many versions then moving on to the next.
After a while the time came to focus on Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix. The main difficulty with interpreting this aria seemed to be the fact that Dalila needs to sound perfectly seductive whilst she’s lying1. So the singer has to both lie and mean it. Then I thought maybe I’m too analytical and this kind of thinking does not work with opera, you can just (just, eh?) be very seductive and leave it at that.
Alas! At long length I found somebody who agrees with me and can explain it. That someone is Thomas Hampson:
It’s worth listening to the whole thing. He makes the great point of what breath is: not yet heard thought. Also the mezzo is very good, neither too lyrical nor too stentorial, just right for this and youthful sounding which might be the hardest thing with this role.
The exercise on this aria also brings up the level of inner exposure a singer is – or isn’t – confident expressing on stage. It’s surely easier to express madness than to express seduction, it’s not anywhere as in your face even when you’re singing a mad scene. I mean we might feel a bit uncomfortable seeing someone lose it on stage but I think we also feel empathy for them for being wronged or for whatever it is that brought them in that state. Seduction is another business altogether, because it’s someone’s deliberate decision.
Depending on how the singer pulls it off you might feel a mix of appreciation and competition (hey, she’s really good at it and on stage too! how did she get so good? what else is she up to?) or you might feel a bit embarrassed if the end result is not quite cutting it (I took time off my day to hear her sizzle and she’s merely warm). Or whatever you feel – but it’s never just oh well, that was quite nice.
It’s harder to separate hotness from the person singing than it is to separate madness. All you need to do to portray madness is get very intense and develop a good stare. The rest is in the music. We know you’re not really mad. Hotness is harder because not only you have to access that which will hypnotise the audience (yet which you are educated not to make use of in polite company) but you also have to be brave enough to deal with the puritanical residue in all of us.
With this aria there’s just no hiding behind singing all the notes in the right order – if you’re not accessing “hot” you’ve failed. If you are, you’re still singing the bad guy. Though, are you? I like Dalila, so I’m on her side. For all I care the opera can end after after she learns his secret. Obviously Hampson agrees:
(By contrast, I think Juditha is way heavy handed with Holofernes2. Ask me again when someone imagines Samson as a contralto.)
But you are singing the bad guy – the perpetrator – who distracts the hero from his heroic deeds, because that is the narrative we’ve all grown up with. So your success is always going to be met with mixed feelings (I like her yet I know I shouldn’t like her quite so much… because… because... = rationalisation time). Yet it’s so easy to like the hero with a clear conscience: behold, he erred but he corrected that error by sacrificing himself to the cause! Hurrah. Well, didn’t Dalila sacrifice herself to her cause? Anyway: it’s not easy feat pulling off a role like this but it’s very exciting when it happens.
- I suppose a case could be made that seduction = lying. Rather persuading, I’d say, compelling the other to see/feel from your perspective. But specifically what I mean is that in order to seduce you need to give/show a bit of yourself, you can’t seduce from a distance as is were. You need to be truthful in the same way in which you do offer fish actual food when you bait them. Let’s just not get into the ulterior motive issue for the moment… (who’s ever completely selfless?). ↩
- somebody needs to stage this scene as bondage. You know Holofernes wants Juditha to tie him to the bed 😀 then it’s just a matter of how sharp is the blade. ↩
Posted on June 14, 2016, in acting in opera, french opera, masterclasses, mezzos & contraltos and tagged ewa plonka, opera masterclasses, samson et dalila, thomas hampson. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.