I’m Uncomfortable

Gabbing about the importance of facing the awkward, the awful, the upending and the just plain weird in the theater with special guest Paul Potenza, artistic associate with Jobsite Theater.

This week Caught in the Act caught up with Paul Potenza, 30-plus-year stage veteran in the Tampa Bay area and artistic associate with our resident theater company, Jobsite Theater, to address a delicate issue: a trend in audiences finding subject matter “objectionable” that didn’t used to bother folks. What’s going on? The conversation led to the bigger topic of theater’s role in provoking audiences towards some greater understanding, some bigger revelation, and why being uncomfortable can be very beneficial despite living in a world dominated by traumatic and uncomfortable content on social media.

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Paul J. Potenza in Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, the first play ever performed in the Off-Center Theater (now the Shimberg Playhouse). Circa 1994. (Photo: Steve Widoff)

PAUL POTENZA: I have this vivid memory of working with my friend and director at the time, Jeff Norton … I was battling with a scene, and, at a certain point in the rehearsal I said, “I’m not really comfortable with how this is going.” Jeff simply replied, “I’m not overly concerned with how comfortable you are right now.” It was fantastic! We worked our way through it, and we moved the play forward. There was progress. It’s important to me to be challenged, whether it be onstage or as an audience member. It’s how we can grow, how we can get better. Better at listening, better at learning and simply sitting next to one another.

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: This title of this blog is “I’m Uncomfortable.” The topic came up after a national conversation about certain theater customers complaining, asking for money back, boycotting shows or writing nasty grams on social media because they didn’t “want to pay good money for [that kind of language], [that political view], [those kinds of characters],” etc. Jobsite typically goes for a least a few of these types of shows on their season, with 1984 being next in line. Will you share your thoughts about why socially and politically challenging theater upsets people so much and why you think it’s necessary (or not) as a part of Jobsite’s mission?

PP: I suppose, historically, arts patrons have, at times, had their way or their “$ay” with what is being done artistically, based on their comfort level, at their venue of choice. People not showing up for shows because of content … well, that’s also been going on since the beginning of time as has being part of something “you just must see”—something trendy and fashionable. If you’re uncomfortable, truly uncomfortable, then I respect that as an individual, but to make it corporate policy? Not so much. I love hands on, open palms, open ears and eyes, face to face. “Those kinds of characters” the anti-heroes, are at the nucleus of the greatest stories ever told onstage. Jobsite, the company, has obligations to its mission statement. Jobsite shares and surveys so many plays among its associates – it’s amazing and exhausting. We’re trying to find great plays. Period. As much of a fan I am about holding hands and happy endings, there is a whole lot more to do onstage. Theater that challenges and upsets might just move you to think, to feel something or see a person or situation or idea in another way. It’s absolutely necessary.

CITA: Over your span of time with Jobsite, what would you rank as the Top 5 “most uncomfortable” works—works that pushed the envelope for audiences’ social, political, and moral assumptions? What value did these pieces have for Tampa audiences and the company itself? Where does 1984 fit compared to these?

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PP: So, the play Blackbird by David Harrower immediately comes to mind. It’s the story of a shocking visit between 27-year-old Una and 55-year-old Ray at his workplace. Fifteen years earlier, he sexually abused her when she was twelve. They had unsuccessfully attempted to run off together. Ray was arrested, found guilty and jailed for three years for statutory rape. After serving his time, he tries to establish a new life for himself with a new career and a new name. Una discovers his whereabouts and tracks him down at this workplace in the break room. And this is where we find the two characters at the top of the play. Very uncomfortable. Why the hell would anyone want to do this play or see this play? It would be much easier to stay at home and watch comfort programing on Netflix. But where is the payoff? The conflict, the energy, the insight into these two people “involved” seems like an insurmountable situation. There’s a door in the room—but why doesn’t either just leave? Because that isn’t what this story is about. It is very easy to simply decide that one person here is the guilty one (and he is), but what would make this now young woman come back to confront him, to experience … god knows what?

Does he deserve a chance at a new life? He served his time. Why does she seek him out now? What is she searching for? Redemption? Revenge? A relationship? We don’t know. The characters don’t even know. The theater, this play, gives you an opportunity to be in that room. It creates a dialogue, and it is UNCOMFORTABLE.

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Topdog/Underdog by Suzi-Lori Parks is a play about two African American brothers struggling to make ends meet. Abandoned by their parents when they were teenagers, Lincoln and Booth, now in their thirties, were forced to learn to survive relying on themselves. Poverty, family relationships and responsibilities, honesty, dishonesty—are just some of the themes in this uncomfortable play. To say that the play does not have a happy ending is an understatement. Life and the cards you’re dealt are sometimes inescapable. You are not going to get the whole story in a 60 second news segment. You don’t get the whole story in a 90-minute play. We do gain some perspective as audience members. We can and do learn in the theater.

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Annapurna by Sharr White is the story of a man and woman who were married twenty years ago and haven’t seen each other since the man, in an alcoholic state, was responsible for a terrible accident with their five-year-old son. Now living alone, off the grid, his ex-wife comes to find him sober and terminally ill. Her mission is to prepare him for a visit from his son. Why? Uncomfortable. As the audience, we have to know: after all this history, did love survive? My god—theater is so beautiful to give us the chance to see and feel inside the hearts of those who hurt, of those who hurt us.

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The Guys by Anne Nelson is based on the true story about a fire captain faced with the responsibility of writing the eulogies for eight of his lost brothers, post 9/11. Uncomfortable. The beauty of this play is the humanity shared with a writer to help the captain capture the truth and personalities of these “regular” guys. A tough swallow, a hard sell … but grace and beauty beyond belief. Uncomfortable on the surface—try telling someone to go see a play about dead firemen. Then, go talk to audience members post-show, and you’ll see people at their best. The play creates so much appreciation for the men, for the shared experience of dealing with 9/11 and for the actors who carry the story.

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Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire is the story of a young husband and wife who tragically and accidentally lost their son while he was innocently chasing the family dog. To witness the near impossible task of how a couple, a family, can or cannot come back from what many would consider the worst loss any human could experience, the loss of a child … that’s uncomfortable.

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In George Orwell’s 1984, the character of Winston Smith is determined to remain human under rather inhuman circumstances. Although I’m drawing up the plot rather simply, there are many parallels to the other plays I’ve mentioned. A human spirit, a well-meaning human spirit, may not always fare well or best in a human world but the difficulties, the divide and the incongruities of them make for great theater and many valuable lessons no matter where you live.

CITA: The play version of 1984 opens April 25. It will hardly be a jolly night at the theater as the audience watches an average citizen interrogated for Thoughtcrimes in a dystopian (read: alarmingly familiar) society. We’re inundated with traumatic stories on an hourly basis, day after day, year after year, thanks to social media, so why continue to use theater as a space to provoke us in ways that social media now does? Why not have each play be a happy escapist fantasy vs. an artistic rendering of a dystopian reality? Tangentially, where do we find hope in 1984? Where do we find hope in being uncomfortable in the theater?

PP: Yes! 1984 opens April 25th, and it will be a jolly night in the theater—if you are open to it. First and foremost, we are absolutely privileged to be in that intimate space. The Shimberg Playhouse is getting better and better technically and aesthetically. Thank you, Straz Center. So, I know that’s not your question but that’s how I feel there … It’s been my theatrical home since the day it opened. I did the first play in that space, then called The Off Center Theater. Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll by Eric Bogosian. Again, I digress. Of course I see all the traumatic stories we are inundated with hour by hour, and it’s easy to say “No way I’m going to go see that play.” I see that horror every day on my phone—yeah, I said phone. You ask why continue to use theater as a space to provoke us in ways that social media now does. Because the theater has a heartbeat, it breathes. At its best, it brings people together to share small magnificent stories. In 1984, the hope is the fact that Winston believes that the human mind must be free. He believed this before he was tortured and forced to let go of that belief, that truth. Don’t let go of live theater—I trust you’ll find truth and perhaps comfort there.

See Winston Smith fight for humanity in Jobsite’s production of 1984, playing April 25-May 20 in The Shimberg Playhouse.

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Guess What? We Have a Brand New Podcast Series—Just for You

It’s time for the big reveal: Act2, the official podcast of the Straz Center, launched last month on Soundcloud.

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Let’s face it. Not everybody reads. Some of you won’t even make it this far. Look, no judgment here. Life’s about adapting, and lots of people would rather pop open Soundcloud on their devices and tune into something cool during their commutes, workouts or workdays. That’s fine by us because it means we get to explore new ways to create digital content and make more fun stuff.

Which brings us to: Act2, our latest creation in our digital content world—the Straz Center podcast. We’ve named it Act2 since it complements this blog, Caught in the Act, as another way to get you behind-the-scenes, on the fringes and everywhere in between. We’ve been dreaming of a podcast since 2014, but, believe it or not, as a non-profit arts organization, we often find ourselves with too many big ideas and not enough time, money and person power to get to everything we want to do. The majority of our web presence and social media engagement is done by three people. Seriously.

However, creativity finds a way. Plus, we knew we needed to add something extra for our non-reading arts-lovers. “I was talking to a co-worker about the blog and all of the cool, unique interviews we have featured there and she mentioned that she doesn’t really have a lot of time to read the blog but would listen to a podcast,” says Digital Marketing Director LeeAnn Douglas. “After speaking to a few more folks, they also mentioned that they listen to podcasts at their desks, in their cars, on the bus. It became apparent that there was this whole demographic that we aren’t reaching with our blog.”

Enter Fred Johnson, a longtime jazz vocalist, percussionist and all-around-cool-guy who almost everybody from West Tampa to Tel Aviv either knows or gigged with at some point in their career. Fred, who was the very first artist to play at The Straz when it opened (as Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center) at 1987, also served as our VP of Education before traveling far afield in other artistic callings in New York, Israel and everywhere in between. He returned in February 2018 as our Artist-in-Residence to cultivate The Straz’s relationships with the community and to start to tell the story of our artistic legacy.

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Fred Johnson

When he got here, Fred said “hey, I can do podcasts. Let’s do a podcast.”

Now here we are, about to publish our third episode of Act2 on Soundcloud.

“For my career, I’ve been an artist and a connector. I build bridges to bring folk together,” says Fred. “One of the most important elements of life is to inspire people to celebrate life together through the arts. We’re in times now where so many people are afraid of each other, so I want us [The Straz] to be welcoming, to be a place where people want to come to learn about each other. A podcast can help do that because it starts a new conversation full of information to empower the community. The community gets to learn about each other, what everybody’s doing artistically, about us and what we do here, through the podcast. It becomes connective tissue.”

LeeAnn agrees. “I love that our digital content is less about selling you a ticket and more about sharing our passion for the arts,” she says. “It gives us an opportunity to talk about all of the things that the Straz Center does that have nothing to do with putting a show on stage. And we’ll entertain requests but can’t guarantee that we’ll discuss it on the podcast. Send a message on Facebook if you want to know something in particular. We got a request to talk about Waitress and guess what? On April 26, we’re publishing a podcast about Waitress.”

“We want to be in folks’ homes and phones developing a real relationship,” says Fred. “I love doing podcasts because I love listening to people and learning about folk. People hunger for beauty, for joy, for connection, for those things that are priceless. The podcast can satisfy that hunger by including all of the richness of what everybody in this community has to offer and then offering that information out to the public. I want people to listen and feel ‘hey, a little of me lives at The Straz. That’s my place.’”

how to find

Join us for Act2 as we release a new podcast every few weeks. Subscribe by finding Act2 on the iTunes Store, the Podcasts app for iOS, or on the Google Play Music app for Android by searching “Straz Center.”

Out, Out Dang Spot

North Carolina soprano Jill Gardner’s musical ancestry and training led her to killing the role of Lady Macbeth.

On Friday the 13th, Opera Tampa unloads quite the murderfest with their debut performance of Verdi’s Macbeth. The bloody story of a Scottish nobleman’s immoral rise to power, Macbeth was for Shakespeare, and here, for Verdi, really a story about the greatest force behind the man: his wife, Lady Macbeth. A tough, almost impossible soprano role, Lady Macbeth demands relentless range and dark psychological depth. “There are few singers who can do this role,” says conductor Andrew Basantz. “Jill can.” He means Jill Gardner, a well-loved Southern soprano who is a Puccini girl with a Verdi habit. She performs for her first time with Opera Tampa in this complex powerhouse role.

Here, we talk with her about her upbringing in the tobacco country of North Carolina and how that led to the opera stage and her deep understanding of what it takes to be successful as one of the most loathed characters in the canon.

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CAUGHT IN THE ACT: We’re both North Carolina girls who experienced an agricultural upbringing. I never worked tobacco, but I did pick peas and butterbeans and shuck corn. You grew up around Tobaccoville, NC, having to pick tobacco in the summer. For people who may not have any idea of the hell that is tobacco farming in North Carolina, especially in the North Carolina summer, paint us a picture of what it was like.

JILL GARDNER: I was born in Winston Salem, North Carolina, but we moved into my great-aunt’s house who died in 1977, still using an outhouse and drawing her water from a well. When she died, we moved into her house. My dad put in a bathroom, made plumbing. My parents were educators. My dad went on to build houses, but in the summertime for six summers of my life, we raised tobacco north of Tobaccoville in Surry County.

It was a family affair in the fact that our family grew it. My grandfather at that time was very much the patriarch of the family, shall we say. My grandmother and her sisters were the ones to string [the tobacco]. They would hang it in the tobacco barn, but we, the cousins, all the other parts of the family, came together when it came time to pick it. It’s labor intensive. Now, we have machines and all these kinds of things to do this, but it was labor intensive. Very hot, very sticky, that process.

But for us, the cool thing was that it was about family. It was a family affair, and on both sides of my family. My grandparents. I got to know three of my great-grandparents as well, in that good old Southern tradition. That generation especially were total agricultural people, so I truly have those roots. That’s, I think, why I love to garden when I’m not on the road.

CITA: For those of you who don’t know, back in this day when Jill and I were growing up, the fall in North Carolina was when the tobacco cured.

JG: Correct.

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A tobacco field in Harnett County, N.C. (Photo: bumeister1 / Flickr)

CITA: Curing tobacco is the most nostalgic smell for me. When I’m in North Carolina, if I smell tobacco curing—and it doesn’t smell like smoke; it smells like very thick fragrant plant leaves mellowing out—it is the most beautiful smell.

JG: Yes, and growing up in Winston where the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Industry was downtown, that was the joy of going downtown, because the whole town smelled of curing tobacco. In Tobaccoville now, the hometown where I grew up, the last remaining R. J. Reynolds plant is still there, so at certain times of the day, you will still get that aroma, which is what’s very cool too. But I do know what you mean about nostalgia. Southern tradition.

CITA: Southern tradition, honey. Let’s talk about how do you get from Tobaccoville to Lady Macbeth, and I want to say too that a lot of people don’t associate North Carolina with this rich arts tradition, which is amazing if you’re from North Carolina, because in Winston-Salem, up around where you were, and then down where I was in Wilmington, the arts are huge. We have had so much artistic contribution, so much artistic output come from North Carolina that the arts – singing, dancing, music – is as inbred in us as tobacco was coming up.

JG: Correct. Very well said.

CITA: Talk a little bit about from Tobaccoville to-

JG: Lady Macbeth.

CITA: Verdi’s’ Lady Macbeth at that.

JG: That’s exactly right. I guess, to go back . . . my mother’s side of the family was very musical. My great-grandmother was a pianist, and she had several brothers and sisters—one was a violinist, another one played another instrument … I can’t remember now—it eludes me a little bit, but they were extremely musical. My mom was taking piano lessons when I was born, and she said I came out of the womb and went straight to the piano bench. I actually knocked my front teeth out on my great-grandmother’s piano bench trying to get up on that thing.

When I was growing up, she said it was very clear I had this passion for music. Also, in this Southern tradition, we would go down to my great-grandmother’s very often to have family reunions. She had 14 children, two of which died, so she oftentimes talked about the fact that she had her children in quartets. They would go around—they were Pentecostal Holiness people—and they would go around and do quartet singing.

When I would go to my great-grandmother’s, we’d end up in the front living room where the piano was, and there’d be 25 of us in there. On Sunday afternoons after you ate, you’d get up in there, and we’d have “church.” We would sing hymns. I can remember sitting between my Grandmother Teva and my great-aunt Bridget. In the southern tradition, the tenors sang the lead, and the women harmonized with the bass, so I learned how to sing harmony from my grandmother and my great-aunt.

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Jill performing the role of Nedda in I Pagliacci at Mill City Summer Opera in 2012.

To fast forward a little bit, it was very clear that music was going to be my passion. I’d studied the violin for five years. I took dance/ballet for almost four years until my body blossomed. [Laughs] You know, we had to move along on that. By the time I got to high school, I was active in my church singing. I did shows in high school like everyone else, but I really didn’t know that I was going to be an opera singer.

Luckily, to go back to what you were talking about, because of the arts history in North Carolina, the North Carolina Arts Council as well as the local Arts Council of Forsyth County are very huge and very instrumental within our state. At that time, my hometown opera company, Piedmont Opera Company, put on productions twice a year. That’s where I saw my first opera, which was Marriage of Figaro.

In my class at that time, one of my assignments was to write a letter, and I wrote—my mother kept this letter after all these years—about having this experience. The last line of that letter says, “I think opera is going to have a big place in my life.”

CITA: How old were you?

JG: I was about sixth grade.

CITA: Wow. So, you were young, but you had—

JG: I made that connection [with opera], but my passion was the piano. By the time I got to high school, I had a little spinet piano in our little 1200-square-foot house, and I would practice four to six hours a day—to the point that my parents at night would say, “Jill, we have to go to bed.” I had this passion for piano, so upon completion of high school, I got a full scholarship to go and study with this teacher who I’d worked with in my senior year, Constance Carroll.

At that time, she was at a private liberal arts college in Shreveport, Louisiana, called Centenary College of Louisiana, so I got a full scholarship as a piano performance major to go to this school. I decided to take a voice minor and formally study voice. I was very fortunate to have a wonderful teacher who allowed my voice to train naturally through really good fundamental technique but to address my voice through repertoire.

Mid-undergrad work, I started entering competitions and won. People were like, “Why aren’t you going to be a singer?” And I was like, “Because I’m going to be a pianist.”

CITA: So then singing was just-

JG: Well, see. I think a part of it, too, is that it was clear that I was a singer, and, like I said, I always sang in church and school shows, and I had leads and the whole nine yards. Maybe it was because of my background; it was never really a thought like so many people have now, because opera is so prevalent in our national scene, to go and be an opera singer. I also think it was because I felt so passionately about the piano, which I still do.

I’m so thankful for my piano background because musically it has given me an advantage to being a singer and to have all of that stylistic and musical history from studying music as long as I did. I take all of that in—particularly to something like Verdi’s Lady Macbeth. I have such respect for that music, for his lines and his phrasing and his articulation and the way that he conceives of this music because of my background.

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Jill performing in Tosca at Mill City Summer Opera in 2014.

I also, because of that background, can learn so much of my music myself. I can teach myself at the piano, and many, many singers can’t. When I talk to singers about that, some of them are very jealous of because they would love to be able to do teach themselves their music.

It was in my undergraduate degree where the idea even arose, and so at the end of that degree, I’d gotten into a couple of schools for graduate work in piano, but I really sort of, as we say in the South, had a Come to Jesus moment. I realized, “This is pretty cool, but I think I would really love to study voice.” So, from there, from Louisiana, I decided to move home and attend the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, to get my master’s degree.

CITA: The University of North Carolina at Greensboro is a highly respected music school. We have a lot of really exceptionally well-trained, very gifted musicians who go through the UNCG music program because it is so well known.

JG: I went there because I knew it was a good school, and by being a North Carolina resident, the tuition was feasible. I also knew I did not want to have a lot of student loan debt. We all have to make decisions as we go down these paths, and it was a really, really, really good decision for me.

CITA: You knew opera was your vocal path?

JG: I knew opera would be my focus, even though I continued to play piano. I’ve now started to do some teaching. That’s what keeps my piano chops up because I can play so much of the repertoire when I am teaching. So, it ended up working out really well. I oftentimes say to younger singers that I meet who I work with through master classes is as soon as you can immerse yourself in a real strong musical background, the stronger you’re going to be from the standpoint of being a singer.

So much of the singing industry now is about how you look, which is important too. I’m not saying it’s not. I think it is important for us to take the responsibility of being physically healthy and able to do anything on the stage from the standpoint of characterization. But, it’s still about the music for me. I’ll never really get to the place to where opera will be just a spectator sport, like a film experience. It’s still about the music for me.

I think for young singers, that’s one of the things that I impress upon them, is to really respect music and work to gain as much musical prowess as you can because that also influences the voice. For me, having had all that background, I think that’s a part of what really has led to my success.

CITA: So let’s talk about Lady Macbeth. This is a tough role.

JG: Oh, my Lord. It’s not for children.

CITA: It’s a demanding role. Lady Macbeth herself, from Shakespeare’s creation to what we’re going to see in your presentation of Verdi’s adaptation of that work, she is a deep, dark character. This really is her play even though it’s called Macbeth and is . . . sort of about him. Do you see yourself as a Lady Macbeth character or was this a stretch for you? Or was it something that you wanted to do, something that you felt that you could come to naturally?

JG: Yeah, well, I guess what I’d say is I went professional as an opera singer in 2005, so I’ve been doing this now for a little over 13 years. It was very clear that the Italian repertoire was going to be one of the main focuses of my singing career. Not that it’s the only focus; I’ve done French repertoire, German repertoire, Czech repertoire, contemporary operas to last season I did my first Blanche DuBois in Streetcar Named Desire, for instance, which I absolutely love. But, it was very clear that the Italian repertoire was going to be my mainstay, and so much of that has been Puccini.

I’ve sung almost all of Puccini’s heroines. The one on the horizon will be Turandot, which I think I will do in the proper time and place. Because of that, it was very clear. I sang Traviata, which is probably one of Verdi’s most famous operas, and a couple of years ago, I did my first Leonora in Il Trovatore.

As the voice has developed, it was very clear that Lady Macbeth was a natural role for me to take on, and the beauty was a director that I had worked with in several different Puccini productions was Jay Lessinger, who was the artistic director of Chautauqua opera for many, many seasons.

Jay approached me. We were talking about possibly doing Tosca in Chautauqua, but he said, “What do you think about Lady Macbeth?” You know, those synergistic moments in life when serendipity just drops into your life, and you go, “What do I think about Lady Macbeth? I’ve been waiting for somebody to say, ‘what do you think about Lady Macbeth?’” It was also a wonderful place for me to try it out for the first time. It was a great director, really good conductor too. In preparing it, I knew I could really accept the vocal challenge.

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Jill performing in Hawai’i Opera Theatre’s 2017 production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Coming to Opera Tampa, like you said, which is my debut here, I’m really thankful to have had [other chances to play her]… From Chitauqua, I then went to Michigan Opera Theater where I did the role with Bernard Uzan directing and Stephen Lord conducting, which was another huge impetus for me, not only dramatically but musically in growing this role, so that I do feel that I bring to Tampa a really fleshed-out Lady Macbeth. Every role we have continues to grow, but she’s very much a part of Jill and my psyche and my being.

To talk about the character, that’s why they call it acting. Does Jill Gardner have dark sides to her? Oh, my Lord! We all have a shadow side, and I think what I really respect about Lady Macbeth is that even from the story of Shakespeare, she was a woman who had huge ambitions, but at that point in time on our planet in our historical journey of humanity, women truly were not allowed to have any place other than a lesser station in life—and she was born with huge ambition.

Lady Macbeth is as much a yang, fire, male-dominated character as Macbeth is the yin, contemplative, deeply empathetic and psychically aware character. So the conflicts within us, I think, are very real and can be understood in today’s life, in today’s society, because I think a lot of people feel that way, particularly as we grapple with gender identity now. We’re going to that level within the human experience on the planet, right?

CITA: Right.

JG: She was a woman who I think was caught in a body and a societal situation which would not allow her to seek the full fulfillment of her desires and ambitions. Her only object, or her only way to achieve [what she wanted] was through marriage—but not just any marriage; she married this man who was a warrior, a soldier, and, to a certain extent, with aspirations of his own. But given the kind of soul that he was, he just did not have that ambizione, which is the very first word I sing. He just doesn’t have it.

CITA: Which means what?

JG: “Ambitious.” To have this ambitious nature. And so she lives her experience through him. If she could do this herself, she would, but she can’t, so she has to live this [ambition] through him. And the interesting thing about their relationship, I think, is that it is extremely intense. I think it is extremely sexual and therefore power-dominated. Although she’s the more aggressive one in the relationship, it’s not that he doesn’t have these desires, too; he’s just the one to question. He’s the one that has much more of an empathetic sense about ‘what are my choices and what are the ramifications of these choices,’ whereas she doesn’t think about that. She just sees the goal and goes for it.

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Jill and Mark Rucker in rehearsal for Opera Tampa’s upcoming production of Macbeth.

With the presence of the witches and that culture also within the story, for me, I think she’s very much aligned with the witches. I think that she herself is a witch and has spent time within that community of women because that was the only place where they could really revel in and express their power. It’s black magic, or it’s the darker elements, but still they were the feminine elements at that time that could not be expressed or understood. So, she lives there with them, and that’s why I think she has the need and the desire to control and gain what she wants.

CITA: Through the means that she has available to her.

JG: Correct.

CITA: You know, it has always bothered me in the plot trajectory that she goes mad at the end, and people say, “She goes crazy because of guilt.” I’m like, “But there’s been no indication that her character would feel guilty.” In your understanding of her in the context of the play, it’s better for me to understand it as she is mad with frustration, not guilt. That everything that she would have done, or could have done if she had been able to . . . things go so sideways for her and her plans because Macbeth is not her, but he is the only tool that she has.

Now, thanks to you, when I see the play again, I will have a different understanding of what might be driving her psychological madness, which is not guilt or feelings of conscience but a sense of “What could have been if had really been able to control this the way that I had wanted to.”

JG: Well, and also, again, the beauty of this from the standpoint of the operatic tradition is Verdi chose to include the understanding that this woman, because she was unfulfilled, like you say. For me, the reason that she goes mad is because her desires for power and ambition lead her to this psychological breakdown, and it’s not lost on me that the key of D flat, which is the key of her very first aria of ambition—the Vieni t’affretta.

Basically, she’s trying to express her desire for Macbeth to rise to the challenge of power and stance, and to burn within his heart these feelings. Then the key of the mad scene, the sleepwalking scene (and I’d like to say something about that) is also in the key of D flat. So therefore, by the time I arrive at that, I musically, psychically and emotionally understand that I go mad from the ambitions of which I am driven.

Verdi chose that same key to link those emotional responses. I think that the point is, in the somnambulant scene, it’s not that she’s mad; she’s sleepwalking. So these people, when they’re in this state, are awake, and they’re awake in a way, in this kind of dream state, that they never achieved in real life, and so that level of awareness and consciousness is there to help her see what she did.

CITA:. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the plot of Macbeth, there is a chain of events set up by witches’ prophecy that arcs toward this sleepwalking scene that Jill is talking about right now where Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking in the most challenging aria of the opera. Verdi set it up this way.

JG: Thank you.

CITA: When he was writing Macbeth he felt so passionately about Shakespeare, so passionately about this story that he wanted a soprano who was able to sing and pull off a vulgar, brutish tone which was unheard of at this time. So we’re talking about a very historically important aria.

JG: What was very unique about this particular character when he wrote her—and if you talk to Italians or if you work with Italians on Macbeth—many of them believe that there is no redeeming quality about Lady Macbeth at all, and if you’re trying to find it, you’re wrong. I love that. I completely understand that because he wanted to be able to have that mirror between the character and the voice. I think that’s also one of the wonderful things about opera, is that we’re not just dramatically portraying the story on the stage; we’re taking it to a new level by adding the music and the voice, right?

For me, as an American and an American woman, there’s a part of me that wants to find – not that I’m trying to necessarily portray this obviously on the stage – but needs to understand the redemptive quality of why she goes here [to the psychological state of the sleepwalking scene].

CITA: Absolutely. And I think it’s an authentic understanding of the human psyche, not just lady Macbeth as a flat character, that she’s a bad seed who wants too much and ends up creating a body count. She was very frustrated by her circumstance because she didn’t have anything the Thane of Cawdor didn’t have or Macbeth himself didn’t have or Duncan didn’t have.

JG: Because women were nothing then.

CITA: She had no way to be her true self, to act on her ambition as a human being. All she could be was background to Macbeth’s life.

JG: Correct, and like on our planet right now, I can look at that power dynamic and understand and have a sense through the present day of what women in her time period felt—the lack of achievement or position or ascension within the culture, or not even those things, just lack of recognition. So, for Jill at this juncture in looking at this character and also that opera is relevant to our current life experiences, this girl [Lady Macbeth] I can really understand in a personal way what led her to her choices. I’ve thought about killing people, I’ll readily admit it to you! [laughs] Never done it, but I’m telling you, I’ve thought about killing people.

Yet, she not only thought about it; she knew she had to do it to get what she wanted. For example, a modern-day revelation of this kind of character, within our TV series world, for me, is Robin Wright on House of Cards. Not that she doesn’t have power or she’s not a modern-day woman, but it’s very clear, given her position even in that situation, she’s still Mrs. Frank Underwood, and she has to work behind the scenes to get her agenda done. That is similar to Lady Macbeth.

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I also think it’s okay that Verdi thought of this character one-dimensionally because there are a lot of people, and there are characters within the operatic canon too, that are just downright evil. I mean, they are the personification of evil, and that’s okay.

CITA: Evil people make great stories.

JG: But see, evil people are often extremely complex, and some of the most evil men have been the most sexually provocative, hot, wonderful men, so you can understand why women were crazy for them. Now, as women evolve and get more of their equality, their equal station in life, they go,”I don’t need that.” Or “That’s not as interesting to me.” But that’s a part of evolution. That’s a part of awareness.

CITA: Exactly. Exactly.

JG: Anyway, I think that for myself, even though there’s a big part of Lady Macbeth that is evil and one-dimensional, I really try to find the humanity in her mad death.

CITA: The villainy has a complexity to it. The intricacy is in there, which I think would be such a gift to a performer because you really can take the role into any little nuances you want. Or not.

JG: The truth is, you realize that she, in her sleepwalking nature, she’s asleep but very aware and conscious to the psychological decisions and choices that she made. That’s what she talks about throughout that entire aria. It’s the “Out, out, damned spot.” It’s the “Una macchia.” It’s seeing Macbeth. It’s seeing the children that they killed. I think if you make opera cathartic, what we as singing actors or actresses are trying to portray on the stage to the audiences that come and see it, for me, I’m wanting them to see at the time what it’s like for somebody to really have a reckoning with what they did with their life.

CITA: I believe, Jill, that when our audiences are at the end of your sleepwalking scene, they will be at that reckoning. There’s no doubt in my mind that you’re going to be able to take them there. We are beyond thrilled.

JG: Well, it’s a terrific cast. I really want to speak to that, too. Mark Rucker returns to Opera Tampa. Mark is a well-loved, well-respected baritone within the opera industry, and this is my first time meeting him and working with him. In addition to being such a terrific singer, he is such sweet and kind man, so we’re having a lot of fun together within the rehearsal process.

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Jill and Mark Rucker in rehearsal for Opera Tampa’s Macbeth.

Our conductor, Andrew Basantz, who I’ve also worked with, is a terrific musician, so I think the Tampa audiences are going to be very happy about that. It’s a very modern presentation. We will be very much in traditional costumes, but it’s a very contemporary, modern set with projections in the back, so I think that audiences who have not seen Macbeth will enjoy that.

It’s Verdi opera at its best. Big choruses. It’s a huge monumental work that’s not often done because of that. So, good on Opera Tampa for bringing it here for the audiences here. That in and of itself is exciting. I hope everyone will look forward to it.

Want to see Opera Tampa’s Macbeth? Get your tickets here.

When Things Get Wyrd, Shake(speare) It Off

Giuseppe Verdi’s version of “more cowbell” looks something like an entire chorus of witches in Macbeth versus the Bard’s three.

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“Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches on the heath” by Théodore Chassériau, 1855.

In 1597, King James of Scotland wrote a work of what he considered to be definitive scholarship: Daemonologie, a paper on witchcraft. James, widely regarded by self and others to be an expert on the subject, knew, without a shred of empirical proof, that witches were real women, usually old and greedy, determined to exact a reckless vengeance on a hapless person. Thus, when he ascended to the British throne as King James I—personally overseeing the English translation of the Bible as well as the torture of women accused of witchcraft—the mighty poet of the day saw a golden opportunity.

William Shakespeare took James’s witch fancy to the page, crafting his typical low-brow, high lyricism into a play about a Scottish king bandied about by the prophecy of three witches plotting upon a heath. The play is full of insider homages to the king as well as a cautionary tale about the need for power and more power. The witches, then, play to the King’s favor; Shakespeare termed them the “Wyrd Sisters,” using the Old English word for “fate” (“wyrd”) that, over time, morphed into the word “weird” and eventually came to a very different meaning.

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The title page of Shakespeare’s play, printed in the Second Folio of 1632 (left) and the poster for the premiere of Verdi’s opera (right).

However, the meaning of the witches in Macbeth, for both Shakespeare and Verdi, remains the same. They are the characters who set the calamity in motion, provide the discordant notes that set the mere mortal mind morally adrift, and they prey upon an audience’s imagination for the supernatural.

Verdi adored Shakespeare’s plays. Even though he read the Bard’s works translated into Italian, he knew he’d eventually turn some of the plays into operas. Macbeth was the first, written when Verdi was 34, later followed by Otello and Falstaff after a ten-year absence from composing. Verdi viewed the witches as the third central character with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth noting, “the witches dominate the drama; everything stems from them … they make up a real character, and one of the greatest importance.”

Veering courageously from convention, Verdi chose to make his witches’ and Lady’s voices rough, dark and devilish—a far cry from the bel canto bravura common for the day. In fact, Macbeth marks the first instance of an opera composer subjecting the voice to the vision of the drama instead of vice versa. As he instructed his librettist: “adopt a sublime diction except for the witches’ choruses, which must be vulgar, yet bizarre and original.”

In an interesting exegesis of the opera, scholar Daniel Albright notes in the Cambridge Opera Journal (2005) that, musically, Lady Macbeth herself takes on the witches’ tonal patterns and singing qualities, essentially inducting her as the final witch of the coven, her fate sealed to a phantom splash of blood on her hand that eventually drives her to her death. This scene, the famous “sleepwalking” scene of the opera, symbolically folds Lady into the witches’ master plan to undo the lives of humans for their own greedy, elderly thrills. Lady, as a witch in her own right, gets sent back to hell, metaphorically speaking, where all witches belong—at least according to King James, whose antics, in retrospect, earned him the nickname, “the wisest fool in Christendom.”

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“The sleepwalking Lady Macbeth” by Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1781-1784.

But, as fate would have it, opera lovers for the past 870 years have thrilled at Verdi’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s wyrd little drama to please the predilections of a new king. Expect the same delight at Opera Tampa’s trip from Birnam Wood and Dunsinane.

 

Want to see Opera Tampa’s production of Macbeth? Get your tickets here.