One-Person Shows: Star Vehicles but Compelling Drama?

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There are at least 17 actors required to put on a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (and significantly more for Verdi’s opera, if you count the chorus). That is, unless you’re Alan Cumming and you’re game, inventive, or mad enough to take on all the characters as one person.

Cumming’s performance as a one-man Shakespearean troupe plays on the madness aspect highly. This uncut Macbeth—which openedThursday at the Lincoln Center Festival after a successful run at the National Theatre of Scotland—is set within the confines of a mental institution. The actor is joined by Myra McFadyen and Ali Craig playing hospital staffers who ground his schizophrenic psychoses within the realm of reality. Yet the project, for all intents and purposes, is Cumming’s “baby,” along with codirectors Andrew Goldberg and John Tiffany (the latter of whom had a background in opera before going into theater).

And with such a play making, as Cumming notes, statements about gender, there is a justification surrounding the concept. Audiences in Scotland agreed.

It’s also, obviously, a much more economical choice than hiring a full cast. It's a theme that seems to be recurring at the Lincoln Center Festival this year, notably in one of its operas being a monodrama (Saariaho’s Émilie) and another relying on a cast of two (Guo Wenjing’s Chinese opera Feng Yi Ting).

One-person operas, often going by the fancier moniker of monodramas, deceptively, can have many faces. They can be star vehicles, allowing one singer to shine uninhibited by other characters. They can also afford a performer—and an audience—the opportunity to lose themselves within one character. Take Schoenberg’s Erwartung (composed in 1909 and premiered in 1924) for solo soprano and orchestra, which in the composer’s own words represents "in slow motion everything that occurs during a single second of maximum spiritual excitement, stretching it out to half an hour.”

Thirty-five years after Erwartung's premiere, Poulenc’s 1959 work La voix humaine played a one-sided telephone conversation out in real-time, but allowed for a depth of psychological interpretation as the audience is only privy to half of a life-changing dialogue. On the star vehicle tack, it’s worth noting that the work itself was written for Denise Duval, who also created the role of Thérèse in the composer’s Les mamelles de Tirésias and was also a noted Blanche in his Dialogues des Carmelites. In such a way, the monodrama was also a statement of artistic “ownership” over the French soprano from the composer who made her what she was.

While monodramas were written early on in opera’s history — such as Georg Benda’s 1779 work Pygmalion — it's worth noting that they surged in popularity in the 20th century, a period that in art has been defined by its willingness to experiment and push borders. (“The one thing the world will never have enough of is the outrageous,” said one of the century’s greatest experimentalists, Salvador Dali, who to his credit also noted that “it is necessary to try to make of surrealism something as solid, complete and classic as the works of museums.”).

Last year, New York City Opera gave a kaleidoscopic survey of 20th– and early 21st-century works in their triptych called Monodramas, bookending Erwartung with John Zorn’s La Machine de l’être and Morton Feldman’s Neither. Moving into the new millennium, Opera New Jersey presents two contemporary one-person operas later this month: Gregory Spears’s Our Lady and Tarik O’Regan’s The Wanton Sublime.

But can we call the one-man Macbeth a monodrama? Or is it, by the essence of the Shakespearean source-text, a polydrama? How many voices, how many ghosts plague Cumming’s mental patient onstage? Perhaps that’s where we see another road open to the one-person show, especially in an age where mental afflictions are no longer glossed over, but examined in-depth, whether they’re the ailments of a dethroned despot or the tiger-blood-laced rants of a mid-level movie star. And, in siphoning all of the “noise” down into one voice, you see some interesting nuances jump out.

So take what I suggest here without any trace of Modest Proposal satire: About a year ago, I cheekily said that, if Helen Mirren could ever take on an opera, she would do justice to a Carmen in which she inhabited all four main parts. Mirren or no Mirren, what singer, conductor and director would jump at the chance to transpose the score to fit a single fach and siphon the action of, say, Bizet’s bullring bloodbath, into a single voice? Carmen has certainly been interpreted in every other form, but to see it from a mental hospital or a prison at the nadir of José’s mental stability would be a new, and not unwarranted, light indeed. Directors, singers, conductors: The idea is yours for the taking. Just let me know where you do it so I can show up.