In finally getting around to read John Szwed’s biographical portrait of Billie Holiday, I came across a passage that I love, which begins: “The singers we see in performances are not the real persons. Like actors, singers create their identities as artists through words and music. Singers act like singers when they perform, but behave differently in daily life.” (Page 107, if you have the book.)
This is a topic that’s always on my mind, and one that I think a lot of performers and artists struggle with. In fact, it’s a topic that shows up all over this blog, due to much personal struggle with this issue (more on that later). In short, our stage/performer personalities do not match our private personalities, but that has nothing to do with the authenticity of our performances or of whatever an audience member may authentically feel during a performance.
Authenticity is a loaded word, and one that’s largely misunderstood. This artistic dichotomy between public and private “faces” is something that I think the public doesn’t understand and actually has been trained not to understand. (The current media and political climate doesn’t help.)
Personal example: earlier this month, I was part of a performance in an artist’s atelier for the opening of a new exhibition. As an intermezzo, and somewhat unannounced (although alluded to in the written program), I performed Berio’s sequenza iii in the middle of a big crowd. The crowd backed away from me, gave me space, and receptively watched the performance once they realized what was happening. Afterwards, strangers who had engaged in normal conversation with me before the performance seemed to be avoiding me, and gave me timid or half-hearted smiles when they saw me coming over to the bar or to continue conversations…as if I actually were the woman of sequenza iii. As if I were a raging lunatic. As if they had seen “the real me” in the performance.
I think this experience gets to the root of a problem for artists in contemporary society: the assumption that, in order for our performances to be authentic, we need to privately have experience with the emotions or material that we are performing. We need to be that public, stage face all of the time. That the way we are in performance is the way that we are. Period.
I call bullshit.
Anyone who knows me knows that I can be outgoing when I want or need to be, but that my core personality is introverted. I enjoy being alone, and I am, at times, a painfully private person. People in my life, whom I want to believe were offering what they honestly thought was good career advice, have identified my personality as a liability in my career.
How is an artist to handle that? You have a modicum of talent…and you work and practice and train and try to be as good at your job as possible…and you love performing…only to have an artistic director of an organization or a mentor say that your personality is a problem. Or even that it’s holding back your career.
And, circling back to the opening of this entry: I think this obsession with matching an artist’s public and private personality also explains the obsession with artists like Billie Holiday, whose recordings many (incorrectly) view as a mirror of her life, and for that matter figures like Sylvia Plath, whose personal pain and suffering is often an exact match to her writing. The Confessional Poets have done this to us. The overblown artistic personalities of the 20th century have done this to us (Maria Callas…Liberace…). The whole phenomenon goes back much further, easily to the German Romantics, the American and French Revolutions, and the validation of an individual’s unique rights and emotions as opposed to always being part of society as a whole.
This also explains current phenomenon like Anna Netrebko and why she acts the way that she does (we’ve all seen this, right?). Trying to maintain the “diva” personality in private life seems so inauthentic to me. It also takes me back to my grad school days studying classical voice: no one would dare show up to even opera rehearsal without lipstick…regardless of whether you privately enjoy wearing lipstick.
It’s unnecessary. It’s all unnecessary. If your private personality is authentically your stage personality, then own it. Maybe Netrebko really is like that; maybe she secretly wishes she didn’t have to put on that show 24/7. But, please: you be you, and let me be me, authentically, when I’m not doing my job. I love being a raging lunatic on stage and in rehearsal. And I love NOT being a raging lunatic in my everyday life. Your life and personality are always in your art somehow—maybe just not in a one-to-one relationship. This is not a judge of authenticity.
And may I say in conclusion: this Billie Holiday book is dope. Get yourself a copy.