“With its stylization and its larger-than-life emotions, opera has never been about unbroken narrative or cinematic realism. It is about going in and out of the drama, in and out of realism.”
(Zachary Woolfe, New York Observer; October 5, 2011)
To bridge the gap, to break through the translucent historical and pedestal’d barrier between the stage and the commonplace, is seen as something of a taboo in the classical world. As an artistic audience, we don’t know how to handle incorporation and conversation with the stage world, the world of moral fragility, the world of the dilemma that pries us from any comfortable choice, a world perfect in its scenarios. We like to sit cozy, knowing that these experiences are at a distance, thinking that the stage world couldn’t possibly portray our own daily experience and struggle with the world, meaning and purpose… But it does.
By all of this I simply mean the act of breaking character on stage, a small aside or reaction that emerges from within the production and addresses the outside world. Throughout history there has been disdain circling this issue.
Recently, Metropolitan operatic star René Pape, while acting the role of Méphistophélès (the Devil) in Charles Gounod’s Faust, broke character by parting with the French language and addressed the audience with an aside in English.
Let me paint the picture: It is Act 4, a scene in Marguerite’s garden. She has just sung the famous “Jewel Song” after having received a box covered in jewels, which happened to have been from Faust through Méphistophélès, who is helping Faust gain the love of Marguerite. After Marguerite’s aria Faust and Méphistophélès reenter the stage and begin their recitative. Amid one of his French sighs Méphistophélès (played by René Pape) turns to the audience and says, in English, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” The laughter that followed seemed strained with an underlying current of judgment.
You can see how this would outrage the public, and it did. The concern is duly noted and understandable; classical art should not be tampered with or tarnished. However, allow me to play the part of Méphistophélès’s attorney for a moment (Devil’s advocate, if I may).
The living aesthetician, Arthur C. Danto, rocked the art world in 1981 with the publication of his book “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art.” The mission, as the subtitle suggests, was to create a philosophy of art, which he thought, up to that point, had been slightly ambiguous and undefined. (Claim to fame: That the history of art is finished. A disturbing statement likened to Nietzsche’s “God is dead. And we have killed him”.)
His book was a reaction to the history of art, which in the decades previous to its publication brought what some might consider strange artistic developments and freedoms. He philosophically addresses these controversial pieces of art, namely Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (a urinal with “R. Mutt 1917” written on it), Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes” (a stack of boxes with the logo of the Brillo soap pad brand), among other Avant Garde works.
The pinnacle example is a short, passionate dialogue regarding the statue of a cat that was located in a rotunda on the campus of Columbia University in New York City. For a long time this statue sat there, unmoved, sitting near a staircase. He passed this everyday with little notice. However, one day as Danto walked by he noticed that the statue had been freshly chained to the stair case railing. This provided him a door into the question of where the artworld line is drawn and the ambiguity of the border between art and commonplace.
For Danto, the chained cat could have meant one of two things: an attempt to counteract possible burglaries of the statue, or an attempt by the artist to gift some morsel of artworld status into and onto the commonplace. He chose the latter.
Like the chain, the broken character is an invitation to incorporate the audience in the artistic experience, as a way for the actor to connect their own character to the audience as if to say, “Yes, I am here with you. Let us see the world together. Isn’t this fascinating?”
Of course, it is easy to say that when an actor breaks character they are breaking the tradition and sanctity of that particular artwork. However, under the Dantonian lens it seems that the breaking of one’s character truly is an invitation for involvement, an acceptance between the audience and the artist, a most liberating and inclusive characteristic of art.
Art speaks on behalf of culture, it follows our desires and passions, opening doors, and with such an invitation we as an audience are transcendent up and into the artworld, living, breathing and drinking every morally fragile theme.