By Amy Owens
I burst out of my dressing room, still floating in the sea of elation that always splashes around the closing of a show. Soon after, the affirmations we singers need came: "Congratulations! You are perfect. Just perfect."
It was meant as a compliment. I tried to smile and be grateful, but instead of buoying me, it landed on my psyche like a pile of bricks. Thousands of heavy, rough, red bricks, each representing a painful moment of my life when I tried to be perfect --and failed. I felt like a fraud. "If they only knew how imperfect I really am...", my brain screamed silently while my face smiled in illusionary acceptance.
The more I thought about it, the less like a compliment it seemed. Typical, for a soprano to muse on a compliment for hours. All of the most impressionable performances I have witnessed or heard about have had an element of imperfection, ugliness even. What makes those “flawed” performances so life changing is the humanity they possess. If we wanted to see perfect performances, we would have computers singing opera. But that's not what opera is about. Opera is about humanity, and humanity is inherently imperfect.
Think of a diamond. A real diamond always has imperfections, and each is unique in clarity, cut, and color. Diamonds that are perfect are synthetic, and while they are certainly beautiful, we don’t pay the big bucks for a diamond made in a lab. It’s not as interesting. It’s not real. Is it strange that we pay more for imperfect diamonds? Perhaps. But it reveals something essential about us: we value realness. Authenticity is priceless.
We love Mimi, Violetta, and Adina, the great heroines of opera, not because they are angels, but because we see something of ourselves in them. They are us, and we are them. They are not perfect, because the word perfect doesn’t apply to human beings. Perfect is a mathematical term. And if perfect doesn’t apply, neither does imperfect. So let's stop smothering the word over everything we do like ketchup. It's a disservice to ourselves, to our art form, and to humanity.
Next time you perform dare to be human, an imperfect yet motivating human. Discipline yourself and train your body to capture the widest range of expression possible, and let that be the purpose of your technique. When you walk through that audition room door or onto that stage, let go of perfection. Dare to be human. In that moment, you will become an artist. And for those that give the compliment, “you were perfect!”, just smile, say thanks, go home and be happy with your perfect imperfections.
“It was a flawed voice. But then Callas sought to capture in her singing not just beauty but a whole humanity, and within her system, the flaws feed the feeling, the sour plangency and the strident defiance becoming aspects of the canto. They were literally defects of her voice; she bent them into advantages of her singing. [Her voice] is what she had. What she made was a musical information of what was happening to her characters, a searching virtuosity. Suffering, delight, humility, hubris, despair, rhapsody — all this was musically appointed, through her use of the voice flying the text upon the notes….”
-Ethan Mordden, speaking of Maria Callas