I'm in a production this weekend of two short Menotti operas, "The Medium" and "Amelia goes to the Ball". In "The Medium," I play a grieving mother who comes to the titular character to communicate with her dead daughter. Baba, the Medium, is a fraud but convinces my character and two others in the first act seance that we are speaking with our dead children.
This opera is unrelenting in its grimness. I don't know what Menotti was feeling when he wrote it, but as he was born in Italy before the rise of fascism and has Baba speak of the horrors she's seen in Eastern Europe, namely torture, murder, disease, famine, I imagine that he was writing about the desperation produced by those who lived through witnessing such events and have to make a life for themselves afterwards.
Baba has a daughter and an orphan boy she is raising and uses the two of them to perpetuate her deceptions. There is a scene where Baba has flown into a rage after trying to get the orphan boy, Toby, to admit that he touched her throat during the Act 1 seance to frighten her. He can't speak, and won't admit to having done what he didn't do, and she whips him, screaming at him. It's into this cheerful little family pictorial that the three duped parents enter again. It's very hard to watch this scene, and, I imagine, even harder to do it, especially as both the woman playing Baba and the man playing Toby are the sweetest people imaginable. Every time Baba has to beat Toby and we then have to enter, interrupting the beating, I see the look in the singer who plays Baba's eyes. I can tell it's hard for her to carry on with the scene after having to put herself in this reprehensible place, that of beating a sweet-faced child, and yet she pushes through. She has an intensity that I've seen in very few people in my life. She's not afraid to go to a really ugly place to make the performance real, and it's absolutely hair-raising. She's been struggling a bit as the music is unimaginably hard, atonal in places, dissonant almost always, but I would take the drama over the right notes any day of the week. It's been an important experience for me. It's pushed me to go to a place in my performing that doesn't feel safe, and it's exhilarating. I hope that I get more opportunities to play a character where I'm not merely the comedic relief.