Dazzles at the Opera “Rosa”
Dec. 24, 2014
“I am the Noisy-Rowdy.”
After the applause Phyllis Blanford provides a remarkable encore at the opera Rosa.
Phyllis Blanford moves across the rehearsal floor like a small black tornado. On her left, her microphone stands. On her right, three ‘horse girls’ dance. A few meters behind hang the intestines, skinned cow heads and other props that will soon play a role in the revival of Rosa – A Horse Drama, Louis Andriessen’s opera which was directed by Peter Greenaway.
When the Opera first launched, Blanford’s performance was the encore. Immediately after the applause and the flowers she appeared in a box high above the stage and recited her lines as if her life depended on it. She began almost unaccompanied and over the course of her reading turned into a Rock singer, backed by bass, organ, and drums. Her contribution was called “rap”, but that label falls short in describing Blanford’s performance. She was so different, so impassioned and driven – something that can’t be said about most rappers.
Now, during the Opera’s revival, Blanford will not be the encore. She’ll perform during the show in her full glory. “Now it’s my turn,” she says. And indeed, it’s her time to shine. For two months she was in daily rehearsals, of all roles. She knew every vocal, all the details of the script, and meanwhile studied modern classical music with composer Louis Andriessen.
After her time with the New York Street Theatre Caravan, Blanford lived more than ten years in Rome. There she ran a restaurant (Phyllis’s Place), where she sang and cooked. She worked as a television and theater actress, and sang in different kinds of bands: gospel, blues, jazz. And always there was some maestro that told her she was abusing her voice. “You’re an opera singer,” they’d say.
Her experience in Amsterdam with the opera Rosa and Louis Andriessen motivated Blanford to take singing lessons for her new incarnation as an opera singer. “I went three or four times a week because I have a big voice, but I had no control over it. When I was on stage with a band I felt as though I kept stabbing my voice in the throat. What blocks it? What blocks it? Now I can go from very low to the tippy top.”
Blanford fought for her dream. In 1996, she auditioned for The Rake’s Progress by Stravinsky, in front of Peter Sellars, Pierre Audi and De Leeuw. Although she could barely read music, she learned the role within a month, but she was still rejected. She sometimes doubted whether she would ever get to sing in a beautiful opera. For a time she even felt so dismal that she stopped singing. The rehearsals for Rosa helped her start believing in herself again.
Her exuberance, seductive air, and spontaneity are only partially genuine. In the dutch art world, as a black woman, she feels like a stain. Where white women have the choice of three stereotypes – whore, mother, and Virgin – the black woman condemned to three other possibilities: “You can choose the earth mother goddess who takes care of everyone. You could also be the erotic odalisque, or finally, you could be the ‘Noisy-Rowdy’ – the blues singer who doesn’t need to be taken quite seriously. The latter, that’s me. Although I’m actually very shy. ”
According to Blanford there are far too few non-white Dutch active in the arts. Therefore, she has a plan for an opera with an exclusive black cast. “I want to collaborate with a composer and a writer to create a mini-opera. The music must, like Gershwin, sound the contemporary movements mixed with the sound of ‘the street’. The subject is people, real people. It is an opera about the bush-people, and the inhabitants of the city, and the Indians.”
Blanford writes her own pieces, and she has also directed others in the past. This multitude of talents may make it difficult to focus on one thing, but Blanford says all the qualities interact in a positive way. For example, in Rosa. While the public thinks the Opera is finished, and perhaps is desperate to leave for a cigarette or a drink, she falls back on her acting knowledge to get her lines to shine in the limelight. “Why are you here? What are you doing?” they wonder. I’ve learned how to relieve those questions with my character to keep viewers engaged.
“In December, I sang in Utrecht the aria of Esmeralda, the female protagonist from Rosa. It was my first show with a live orchestra and I felt sooo small. But just before it was my turn to come on stage, I remembered the person Esmeralda was – her situation and the reason for her to sing this song in the first place. I was so intensely busy with my thoughts that I forgot my nerves and made an effortless start. It almost went wrong: Instead of Esmeralda, I was equally Phyllis! I was so happy when I heard my performance was good.”
Though her performance in Rosa seems like a monologue, Blanford herself sees it as a dialogue. “Even in a monologue you’re talking to someone, even if it’s your own inner-self. The subtext is full of images, fantasies, dreams…and they’re mine too, so I bring the text to life. You can’t memorize and just read the text. I try to connect to the collective unconscious so I can paint a picture for everyone. Even though sometimes it’s a large, scary, empty stage, you just need to open all the doors and let the light in.”