Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Did you guys ever even WATCH the show?

This entry is for my mother, who believes that I can connect any subject to singing in some way or another. And her subject of choice, because it was playing on TBS on Sunday, is the movie Galaxy Quest.

This movie comes highly recommended from my whole family. It's about the cast of a once-popular science fiction television show, now somewhat washed up and at loose ends. Tim Allen plays Jason Nesmith, who plays Captain Taggart on the show and always upstages his castmates when they make appearances together. Sigourney Weaver is leggy blonde Gwen DeMarco, Jason's one-time girlfriend whose only job on the ship was to repeat the computer ("I have one job on this lousy ship, and it's stupid, but I'm gonna do it!"); Alan Rickman is Alexander Dane, the classically-trained actor who plays Dr. Lazarus, an alien scientist with hilarious headgear. The crew also includes Daryl Mitchell as Tommy Webber, a former child star who drives the ship, and Tony Shalhoub as Fred Kwan, who plays Tech Sergeant Chen.

And then there's Guy, played by Sam Rockwell. Guy's only claim to fame is that he was an extra in Episode 81. He was the unnamed character who got killed to show how dangerous the situation was going to be (this is a paraphrase of his own description). He somehow manages to tag along with the actors when they get transported to an exact replica of their ship, the Enterprise, manned by the Thermians, an alien species on the brink of extinction, led by Mathesar.

Mathesar and his fellow Thermians believe that the old episodes of the show they've been watching are "historical documents"--they re-created the Enterprise solely from watching the fake ship on television. One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the movie is when Jason has to explain to Mathesar that they don't actually know how to crew a spaceship because the whole thing is a lie.

Despite all the years that Jason and his fellow castmates played their roles on Galaxy Quest, they have no idea how the "galaxy" works. Except for Guy. Here's a snippet of dialogue from one of my favorite parts of the movie. The cast has landed on a desert planet to get a reserve Beryllium Sphere (apparently to fuel the ship), and they're watching from behind a rock as a number of adorable little creatures do...well, whatever it is they're doing.

GUY: I don't like this. I don't like this at all.
GWEN: They are so cute.
GUY: Sure, they're cute now. but in a second they're gonna get mean, they're gonna get ugly somehow and there's gonna be a million more of them.
GWEN: (making a move to approach the creatures) Oh, hey there, little guy!
GUY: (pulling her back abruptly) Did you guys ever even watch the show?

Being so wrapped up in how something is done can often obscure what is being done. Gwen could probably have told Guy what she was directed to do, she might have remembered how hot it was on the set the day they filmed a certain episode, but she wouldn't have experienced the terror of this situation. Just like Guy and the Thermians, we refer to our favorite television shows as if what we see is real. We experience it linearly, whereas actors would experience it in the order that they filmed it, or based on what techniques they had to use. The same thing happens with opera and theater. When people would comment on the Northwestern production of The Merry Widow in a similar way, I would counter, "Oh, you mean that part when my voice was about to give out?" or "Oh, yeah, that dance took us hours and hours to learn." We focus so much in how we've put it together that we forget to look at the big picture.

I have spent the last four years becoming intimately and technically acquainted with the art of singing. And because of this, I have also unfortunately become cynical. I'm highly critical, both of myself and of other people, because I know what good singing is supposed to sound like. Not because I always achieve it myself, but because I've been taught what not to do. I can ruin a whole performance for myself by finding one little thing to dislike--the tenor's high notes sound strained and strident, the soprano's diction is weird, yada yada yada. It's awful.

Sometimes when I watch a movie or an opera or a musical, I say to myself, I'd like to live in that world. That's how I think I would have felt about The Merry Widow if it hadn't been so rough on my voice, if I hadn't been constantly worrying about tripping on my train, or forgetting the steps of the can-can. I think one of the hardest things for singers is to stay in the moment and to believe in the action ourselves. We have so many technical things to think about, coordinating stage movement and acting added to all the stuff we have to remember about singing when we get up onstage. But if we could let ourselves get caught up in the action and believe that it's real, even for a few minutes, we'll make the experience more fulfilling not only for the audience, but for ourselves too.
In Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (yes, S-T-R-E-A-T-F-E-I-L-D), Pauline Fossil and her friend Winnifred are both auditioning for Alice in Wonderland; Pauline, who has never been in a play before, says that she would love to be Alice so that she could meet the March Hare and the Queen of Hearts and the Caterpillar. Winnifred needs the money. Jason, Gwen, Alexander, Tommy and Fred continue to keep up their Galaxy Quest personae to make a living, but the Thermians look to them as real-life role models. As the cast members realize that they're really in danger and that it's up to them to save the Thermians from the evil Sarris, they begin to shed the bitterness and cynicism born of years of D-list celebrity status. If they're going to win the day, they have to believe in the reality of the Enterprise and of Galaxy Quest as much as the Thermians do. In order to make opera (with its outlandish plots and unexplainable singing) believable to the unitiated, we, the initiated and trained, have to put ourselves in their shoes. We have to create a world that is so real that the audience forgets that the characters are singing and just sees people and relationships and stories. And to do all of that, we have to believe in it. We have to want to live in that world, however ridiculous it is, because it is important to so many people.

I'm hopeful that eventually I'll stop freaking out about my technique in the middle of a show and let myself just be in the moment. And someday, I'll train myself to just enjoy performances, without criticizing. I think there's hope--when I saw Opera New Jersey's Lucia di Lammermoor, I could find nothing negative to say about Lisette Oropesa's glorious singing and acting. It was perfect.

It's an uphill battle, but the struggle is towards a very important goal, for all of us. And always remember the motto of the ship Enterprise: Never give up. Never surrender.

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