It was said of Cleopatra by Shakespeare’s Enobarbus — ah, to spend one’s days among acquaintance so eloquent! — that age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.
Can there be any doubt that operatic divinities, and most especially the ladies, aspire to the condition of Cleopatra? Trilling into one’s dotage as Lucia, like Lily Pons, creaking up the battlements for one last rheumatic fling as Tosca à la Magda Olivero — such things may no longer be possible. Still, a tall, trim mezzo need never retire her Cherubinos and Octavians (paging Susan Graham!), and while a stratospheric soprano who cut her teeth as Sophie may eventually prefer to move on (Barbara Bonney: “It’s getting harder and harder to keep those jowls up”), Susanna or Pamina may remain congenial company for her until just about lights out. A frail aura and artful maquillage will see a wrinkled Mimì or Butterfly through a long, long Indian summer.
Opera audiences have always tolerated gross discrepancies between the age of a performer and the age of a character. It’s a given. “Teenagers” such as Salome and Siegfried may actually be pushing fifty. But who cares? No real teenager can sing those parts.
Like opera, the world of classical ballet grants some great ones the right not to grow up. Juliet, fourteen, has been danced to acclaim by ballerinas pushing fifty. (Remember Margot Fonteyn?) Farewell performances as Giselle, the dewy peasant lass who expires at her first heartbreak, are commonplace among artists old enough to play her mother (often a rank beginner). As conceived, Giselle starts out as a hot-blooded creature, her Act I capped with a flamboyant public suicide on the point of her lover’s sword. Tamara Toumanova danced the part that way well into her twilight years, her mask as hard and glamorous as that of the wicked Queen in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. That might not fly today, yet antique Giselles hang on. Just play the girl as a wraith who dies decoratively of sheer grief, as is the preference nowadays. Though ankles wobble, the perfume lingers.
To be sure, there are more adventurous career paths. Think of the lambent Leonie Rysanek, who had the sense to exchange Chrysothemis, Salome, Tosca and Strauss’s Empress for Ortrud, Kostelnic?ka, Herodias and Tchaikovsky’s Countess. Ecco un’ artista!
Choice of roles, the malice of rivals, crises of confidence: the parameters of opera stardom make it a bitch for most divas to act their age. Surely actors of the legitimate stage — the phrase is telling — are subject to the same pressures, but their culture deals more harshly with self-delusion. Ask Norma Desmond.
Blink, and yesterday’s ingenue is back, parenting children in their teens if not already on the verge of divorce. Youth’s a stuff will not endure. Past the Shirley Temple/Dakota Fanning stage, you need the chops of the character actor, who in a pinch or on a dare can fake lost youth or far-off age but may never need to. The real question is this: Can you keep working? If youth itself is your stock in trade, the answer will shortly be no.
Opera is a form of theater. Why, then, does theatrical illusion in opera differ so much from theatrical illusion in the playhouse? Music is the key, we exclaim in chorus — but isn’t that cheating? What about music changes the rules so profoundly?
Isn’t it, quite simply, that music creates its own truth? Spoken drama is always an extension — more or less remote — of existence as we know it, but opera is a parallel universe. In our age of little black dresses and Nautilus baritones, we sometimes forget how thoroughly the splendors of a singing voice can override the physical specimen we happen to be looking at. The entire glorious history of recorded opera is predicated on the power of music to conjure up a place, a person, outward action, the secrets of a soul. Forget this, and you ignore what opera is. Show us a powdered Tatyana of sixty summers, and we may not believe our eyes. Let her pour out her heart like springtime, and we’ll believe our ears.