Gidon Saks on Gender in Opera

I’ve recently become involved with Opera on Tap Berlin‘s production of ‘Les Contes d’Hoffmann‘, which is going up on February 20/21 at the Stummfilmkino Delphi in Berlin (get tickets here). In singing the character tenor parts in the show, I’ve been able to experience a completely different kind of singing acting than I’ve experienced before. Sure, I’ve had comedic or light roles before, but nothing that was so heavily movement and acting dependent.

I’m honored to share an interview I conducted with Gidon regarding gender in our production of ‘Les Contes d’Hoffmann’, and on his views about gender in opera.

Working with Gidon Saks has been incredibly fulfilling both on an artistic and personal level. His visions for the production are very clear, and the way that staging rehearsals work are very specific, but also malleable, fluid. He’ll have a specific idea, but then see one of the singers use their natural movements, and he’ll be inspired to change his idea, morphing it into something even more colorful.

Gender has a lot to do with this.

Throughout the production, Gidon has made it clear that almost every character is playing with gender, whether it’s obvious or not. Nicklausse is decidedly gender fluid, Giulietta controls every man on stage, Schlemil walks confidently on stage in a silvery skirt, male corset, and leather bolero, etc. None of the characters are apologizing or capitalizing on their gender variance, and it’s not for shock effect. The opera seems to celebrate gender in all its subtle and complex forms.

As you can imagine, this makes me a bit giddy.

Not only am I allowed to express my gender naturally, but I’m encouraged to.

This is something rare, and invaluable. It creates a safe space for me (and everyone around me) to truly be themselves. For some people in the production, it might be the first time they’ve critically assessed their gender. That in itself is irreplaceable, and I hope that we’ll be able to impart the same experience to the audience during our performances.

If you’re interested, here’s a breakdown of my own characters, and how I’ve been able to use my own gender experience to inform their actions and personalities.

Nathanaël has few lines, but is on stage for almost the entire prologue. He and the other character role seem to have an intimate, albeit absurdist relationship. Through I’m able to express an inherent queerness in movements that feel more like a cis-gender gay man than any of the other characters, but without the specificity. His absurdist nature makes him ambiguous in many ways.

Spalanzani is the creator/father of Olympia (an automaton), and most of the time is running around on stage like a mad scientist. He also has a latent sexuality that reveals itself in snippets, such as humping another character’s leg like an unamused dog, or flexing his muscles for the crowd. He’s probably the most emotionally present of my characters as well, since he cares deeply for his creations, and seems to have some sense of morality. Something that impressed me about developing this character was that Gidon wasn’t afraid to make him sexual. It’s easy to write off Spalanzani as the crazy uncle sort of character, but instead he’s just as complex as the other characters on stage.

Franz is one of my more interesting characters, and definitely the scariest. Although he pretends to be deaf, he seems to be acutely aware of his position within the company he keeps. He is also a sadist. There is a horrifying aspect to his sexuality that seems to change like a chameleon from scene to scene, abusing and manipulating every character he comes into contact with (regardless of gender).

Pitichinaccio is the final character I play, and one that I’m still trying to grasp. He has a wolfish quality about him, and I’m playing him almost as if he is slowly transforming into a werewolf by the end of the opera. He moves in an instinctive, animal way, literally barking at other characters at times. Although he’s not on stage for very long, he has a dramatic death caused by his werewolfism that feels very real to me. His character becomes more and more deranged, more detached, less gendered to me.

I’m so excited and proud to be part of a production that fucks with gender, because gender needs to be fucked with, especially in opera.

See you at the show!