Saturday, June 18, 2005

So What Happens Now? Where Are We Going To? Don't Ask Anymore...

Hello Diary. I have exactly one month before I return home. Five weeks seems like such a short time to be here. The goal of coming here was not only to learn foreign intellectual property law, but also to blend in, so to speak, with Chinese society to learn how they live. From what I gather so far, their culture is very similar to Jewish culture. Their goals and value systems come before their pursuit for money, and family certainly comes first. Everyone seems to be friendly, with the exception of the occasional uncontrolled giggles I will experience when I walk by certain individuals. A few days ago, using my body language I asked what was so funny; one of the giggling men pointed to my beard. I suppose they don't see long beards in China that often, except on old men, but my beard is black as night on a new moon.

I have come to terms with a few thoughts that I have had on my mind since last week. Specifically, I am referring to the thought I've been having for the past few weeks about pursuing a lifestyle of music and theater. As you know, I used to sing at the Metropolitan Opera as a child, and I have always wondered how to integrate that part of me with the advances that have come with my becoming religious. I've been working on being a baal koreh (one who leads the congregation in prayer), but I've always wondered whether channeling this need into only that was a proper use of the talents I once had. Plus, I am in law school, and the momentum I have built (dare I say tsunami) on this path would certainly conflict with any desire I have to perform. It is not even the singing, the fame, or the excitement of being on stage that attracted me to return to the opera scene; it was the charm of the lifestyle, namely, "the show," where everything is nullified to the purpose of giving the gift of entertainment to the world.

My favorite experiences of the opera were backstage, where things often went wrong. One time the stage caught a guy's tie (of all things) in the fourth act of La Boheme as the stage was fitting into the floor; the curtains opened up, and the guy was still trying to get free. Further, it was times like those, for example, when the city backdrop fell forward and thirty strong men had to grab the ropes and pull the fake buildings back up, or, when the horse carriage ran into the side of the wall in Cavalaria Rusticana while entering onto the stage throwing some of the people off the carriage, or when the stage opened up and split between my legs one day exposing over twenty stories of empty space (all I remember seeing beneath me were the light bulbs from each floor), or when the man dressed in the toy soldier's uniform fell through the stairs and broke his leg -- these are the experiences that stay with me.

In addition, I remember my last performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York when I played a bald-headed monk in Turandot . Prior to going on stage, I couldn't get the bald headed mask to stop popping off my head because my hair underneath was very long, and the glue on my neck wasn't holding the mask on. So the costume people poured rubber cement into the bald mask to keep it from popping off. Actually, I remember the many hours afterwards where women were picking at my hair with bobby pins trying to get the mask off and the glue out of my hair. Experiences like those stay with me, but good or bad, these were the experiences of my youth.

I had an inspiration these last few weeks (few months) to return to the opera, and I am sad to say that the exposure to the Phantom of the Opera movie brought all those dormant feelings back in full force and more, to the point that I was considering returning to the opera and using my childhood connections to pick up where I left off.

The charm of the opera experience was not only in those things above that went wrong, but more so, the charm was in the mentality of all those involved -- the hundreds and thousands of people would put in their full effort day and night to make the production work. I have longed to go back to that and to reconnect with that kind of experience because what I remember from those experiences was that I was part of something bigger than myself. While I am sure I get this same feeling from being religious, sometimes I feel that being religious is limited to being shared between me and G-d, and that the results of my actions when I do a mitzvah (commandment) such as putting on Tefillin or praying are not visible, and are certainly not as tangible as something that you can put a psychological frame around and say "I did this". I suppose perhaps it was the sense of accomplishment that I enjoyed, or the results from all the weeks and months of hard work and practice dedicated to just a few nights of performance. Or, perhaps it was just the lifestyle and the glamour of it all that I enjoyed.

Anyway, I had a long discussion with the Rabbi here in Beijing about the topic of operas, and while I did not let on that I was talking about myself, he told me that operas, especially with women singing in them are completely asur (forbidden) and are not halachically (according to Jewish Law) permissible. As far as I understood, the main issue to me going back to singing in the opera is kol isha (listening to a woman's singing voice). As clearly as I can explain it, G-d set up the world in a way that a woman's voice was naturally meant to arouse a man on many levels. This would be permissible [at times] if a man was with his wife, but otherwise, a man should not listen to the signing voice of other women. My natural reaction to the conversation was "come on Rabbi, do you really expect me to get aroused when I hear a woman's voice?" and the answer as far as I understand it was yes -- a woman's singing voice is meant to have the affect of arousing the male's senses.

I would compare this explanation to the prohibition against touching women, an activity I also don't partake in, although I often wondered why the no-touch policy between men and women had to be so strict after a certain age. My personal feeling is that a person should be able to control himself and separate intimacy from something as simple as a handshake with a member of the opposite sex. However the point that I feel I overlooked is that the nature of a touch between a man and a woman is meant to be intimate. It is a special, sacred thing that should be shared only between a husband and wife, and not cheapened by sharing touch with every person of the opposite sex who holds out their hand to shake yours. While on the one hand a person who shakes the hand of a member of the opposite sex and remains unattracted and unaffected may be described as being controlled, from this explanation, it is my understanding that if this person requires little effort to restrain himself from feeling anything, then this person's senses have been dulled as have been so many other peoples' senses who have cheapened themselves and allowed themselves to touch and to be touched by anyone. Free love isn't so free when you lose the sensation and the pleasure that is supposed to come along with love. Think about it.

This same argument applies to the prohibition against listening to a woman's singing voice. It is meant by its nature to have an affect on a man. For that reason, it is kodosh (holy), which can explain why within Judaism it has been sanctified and separated from the regular and the mundane to be something special. Therefore, for that reason, it is assur (forbidden) for a man to listen to a woman's voice, just as it is forbidden for a man to gaze at a woman's beauty or for a man to touch a woman when they are not married.

For that sad reason, I feel that I have the duty to abstain from pursuing this line of planning my fantasy of somehow and someday returning to the opera scene. This is not the kind of place a frum person should be, unless I learn otherwise. So this desire within me will have to find another way to manifest itself, because this way has seemingly come into contact with G-d's law.


Rowan said...

That's a shame! I know myself how wonderful it is just to perform, and yeah, the performance is the ultimate acheivement of months or more accurately years of training. It's seeing it all come together.

Is there no way you can allow yourself this small pleasure? What about a man's choir? Or, a cast of men only? If onlly part time for the fun of it. I had thoughts that your life might not offer the time required to delve into opera life.

Do you not feel that this value is somewhat outdated? I guess it is hard for me to wrap my brain around the fact that men and women are thought of differently, and though it seems nice that you treasure your wives (it seems), it is disturbing to me in that the shift in societal views on women in the workplace, and equal rights, etc. must make it difficult to live in such a way, does it not? Is it very hard to find a woman for a mate that is as deeply devoted (the last one aside) to your values? I can't think there would be many in the 21st century. (meaning no offense)

Rowan said...

psst! I loved your title, that's one of my favourites! Also interesting twist that you took a line from an operetta that is sung in a woman's voice, well, for the most part anyway, I think Peron also does a refrain to this effect. Ack, doesn't matter, point is,, not irony, what is the word I'm looking for?'s exquisite.