Intentional Inauthenticity: Performing Disabled Bodies, Disabled Bodies Performing

By: Andrew Dell’Antonio (University of Texas at Austin) //

Operatic bodies, like the sounds they dramatize, are generally meant to be beautiful. But like other cultural forms, opera is also used to explore society’s concern with the abnormal, its fear of and fascination with bodies that deviate from a culturally framed “ordinary.” Music-and-disability scholar Blake Howe—whose summary of the relevance of disability readings to music is still the most articulate and useful online resource on the topic—curates an extraordinary database of musical depictions of disability, and operatic roles comprise a large and varied component of that database.

As with gender, various kinds of bodily configurations have been understood differently in different historical and geographical circumstances, and musicians have helped to shape those understandings while also working within them. Each body (and thus every operatically performed body) has unique strengths and weaknesses. Some are understood as compatible with the individual’s social role or with the “authentic” performance of a character, while others are perceived as problematic. For example, a character might wear eyeglasses with no influence on the dramatic flow of the opera, despite the visual impairment that is either acted or real, because eyeglasses are common enough prosthetic devices in contemporary society that they pass unnoticed (or might make a character/singer look bookish, nerdy, or intelligent). Indeed, a singer’s visual impairment might be completely invisible to the audience through the use of contact lenses. But other bodily differences are more explicitly displayed and understood as significant by audiences and artists alike.

 One striking case is that of Rigoletto, the title character of one of Giuseppe Verdi’s most beloved operas. Rigoletto is a jester for the Duke of Mantua. The stage directions tell us he is physically deformed, a hunchback; he is a shared nineteenth-century fantasy (Verdi adapted a play by Victor Hugo) of an earlier European practice of keeping people with physical disabilities as “curiosities” at courts. Rigoletto’s body is described as misshapen, but his mind is also shown to be “twisted”: as in the case of Shakespeare’s Richard III, Rigoletto’s emotional disturbance is portrayed as parallel to his physical deformity, and both of the hunchback’s negative traits are contrasted with the ideal beauty and purity of his daughter Gilda. Rigoletto’s elaborate machinations to have Gilda hate the Duke (who had seduced her and cast her off) and eventually have him murdered result (spoiler alert!) in Gilda’s own fatal injury. Throughout the scene, the storm that rages within his spirit echoes the storm depicted by Verdi’s orchestral canvas. As Rigoletto, Swedish baritone Ingvar Wixell makes full use of performed deformity in conveying the character’s glee at defeating his master, his confusion at hearing the Duke’s voice offstage, and horror at seeing his daughter Gilda dying in his arms. Verdi’s orchestral score emphasizes not only the hunchback’s abrupt mood swings but also their contrast with the ethereal peacefulness and purity of his beautiful daughter.

Ingvar Wixell, with Edita Gruberova as Gilda and Luciano Pavarotti as the Duke, in the final scene from the 1982 movie version of Rigoletto directed by Franco Zeffirelli. The Wiener Philharmoniker is directed by Riccardo Chailly.

Those who argue for the “social model” of disability might point to Rigoletto as someone disabled by his culture—his bodily difference made into a negative quality by a society that stigmatizes that difference. Certainly, however, the baritone who sings the title role in the opera is presumed to be able-bodied. In order to portray Rigoletto “authentically,” he is traditionally asked to engage in what activists have provocatively called “crip-face” (by analogy to the “blackface” of the American minstrelsy tradition).

A video by Florida Grand Opera provides an example of the extremes to which a production will go to make an actor look “appropriately disabled” for the role of Rigoletto.

But there isn’t any choice, is there? Like all dramatic multimedia, opera is performed by extraordinary bodies: the stamina required to sing for two or three hours over a 50-piece orchestra has to be cultivated over decades, which is why young female roles are played by singers two to three times their age, and why the dramatic tenor performing the dashing young hero is more likely to have a child the age of his character. How could a disabled actor effectively sing opera, if such singing requires training analogous to that undertaken by triathletes? 

Baritone Thomas Quasthoff provides an interesting case study: born with an unusual bodily configuration, he was not allowed to study voice at the conservatory in Hanover because his non-standard hands did not permit him to pass the piano-playing requirement. He nonetheless had the resources to study privately and worked hard to develop a vocal technique that critics have praised as “one of the most remarkable … of his generation,” and eventually led to his winning prominent prizes and working with the leading orchestras and ensembles of Europe. Though reduced physical stamina and his own wish not to emphasize his bodily difference have led Quasthoff to stay away from fully staged operatic performances (he specifically turned down an offer to play Rigoletto), he has flourished in song repertories (specializing in German lieder and jazz standards) and sacred music. Just as importantly, he has gained a sterling reputation as a teacher—something many renowned singers cannot accomplish. And Quasthoff has joined equally prominent vocal stars in partly staged renditions that are no more unusual than some of the more fanciful modernizations of operatic warhorses, and arguably more musically stunning. In the below video, Quasthoff plays the Commendatore, whom Don Giovanni murdered in the opening scene of Mozart’s opera of that name, and who returns to invite the title character to dine with him in hell at the close of the drama. The entire three-hour opera builds to this moment of sonic intensity. The semi-staged nature of the performance helps listeners engage with the dynamic orchestral sound that Mozart cultivates.

Thomas Quasthoff is joined by Bryn Terfel as Don Giovanni and René Pape as the servant Leporello in a semi-staged production by Marthe Keller (with the Verbier Festival Orchestra and the Collegiate Chorale conducted by Manfred Honeck) in Verbier, Switzerland, July 20, 2009.

Consciously accommodating bodily difference in operatic performance might also bring new insights to roles that are not explicitly understood as disabled, at least not in established interpretations (though disabled people may have developed their own headcanons in finding resonances with their own experience in such roles). Singer and disabled scholar/activist Meghan Schrader describes her own engagement with stage interpretations of disability that are “well-meaning” but ultimately disempowering to her own lived disabled experience. She observes that we make the assumption that characters who are not specifically described as disabled must be played by non-disabled actor-singers, but given the variety of human experience, there are insights that disabled individuals could bring to nominally non-disabled characters. And indeed, cultural presumption that only non-disabled bodies are “normal” is what leads us to assume that a character not specifically described as disabled must by default be understood—and played—as able-bodied.

Schrader’s points about bodily assumptions resonate with contemporary interpretations of established repertory, which have effectively and provocatively re-imagined roles through purposeful casting of African-Americans as characters who were implicitly imagined as Europeans. One of the most striking examples of alternate operatic casting was Peter Sellars’s choice of African-American twins Herbert and Eugene Perry as Don Giovanni and Leporello in a 1990 movie version of the opera. Such creative re-interpretation can be an important step not only in shaking our complacency about how roles might be understood but also in providing expressive opportunity to a wider variety of individuals.

Here is the same closing scene from Don Giovanni as above, featuring the Perry twins and James Patterson as the Commendatore; the Wiener Symphoniker is conducted by Craig Smith.  Notice the different interplay between the characters and the different prominence of the orchestral commentary.

If we exclusively seek historical authenticity (as shaped by our presumption about bodily “normality”) in our musical-performing choices, we can easily continue to perpetuate social assumptions about the inferiority or inadequacy of certain bodies, and exclude those kinds of bodies from the cultural work of opera. Perhaps it is worthwhile sometimes to be purposefully inauthentic to the past in order to create a more inclusive musicking space for the present and future.

For Discussion

  1. Do you think it’s necessary for the actor playing Rigoletto to be made up to look physically deformed? Can you find online performances in which such makeup isn’t used? How might/does the character change if he is portrayed as able-bodied?
  2. Find—or imagine—one of your favorite roles (operatic or otherwise) cast in a way that emphasizes bodily difference (gender, ability, ethnicity, age) from the “historic original.” How is the role/character changed by the different-body casting? Does it matter whether the actor has the same bodily configuration as the character being portrayed?

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