What Does It Mean To Be Heroic?

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To those of us for whom opera matters almost as much as life itself--because opera gives us profound insights into life itself--the idea of heroism has a centrality in many masterpieces. Fidelio’s Leonore and Florestan are heroes. So are Brünnhilde and Andrea Chénier. I think Mozart’s Tito belongs in this group although his heroism is more about courageous restraint. In the same category is Gandhi in Philip Glass’s Satyagraha.

There are romantic heroes, those usually tragic figures who are often undone by love gone very wrong. This is a different type of heroism, one in which the person makes a sacrifice that is always emotional and, at times, physical too. The prototype is now onstage at the Met: Goethe and Massenet’s Werther, who kills himself when he cannot have the woman he loves. Cyrano de Bergerac, Don Quixote, Manrico in Il Trovatore and Mario Cavaradossi in Tosca are all romantic heroes. Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore is a romantic hero, even though the opera ends happily. I would say that the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier is a romantic hero in that she accepts certain inevitable facts about her life yet goes beyond herself to make things better for others.

Then there are characters who might be called anti-heroes because of their serious flaws or wrongdoings. Yet they have a heroic dimension that makes us care about them and feel the pain of their personal tragedies. These include figures as diverse as Otello, Peter Grimes, Elektra, Tannhäuser, Simon Boccanegra and Prince Igor.

Two unique cases are Don Giovanni and Carmen, larger-than-life figures who live outside the law, simultaneously transfixing and undoing anyone who gets near them. They are heroes even if we do not want to emulate them. (Below: Gerald Finley as the title character in 'Don Giovanni at the Metropolitan Opera (Photo: Gerald Finley)).

Of course, heroes in opera, theater and literature are characters created by insightful writers and, in opera, made deeper by composers. The real heroes, we need to remind ourselves, are people in everyday life whose heroism too often goes unnoticed and unremarked upon. These include many members of the armed services, as well as firefighters, police officers, teachers, nurses, doctors, and millions of grandparents, parents and children who struggle uncomplainingly and with optimism in the face of unrelenting hardship.

In the larger world, we see heroism in people who agitate non-violently for democracy and civil rights. And those aid workers who go into devastated zones of war and disaster to try to provide succor to those in desperate situations. To this I would add the heroic figures who speak truth to power on the absolutely crucial issue of global warming and the ways that fossil fuels and nuclear fission are recklessly used. They are trying to save us all.

I have been thinking of the nature of heroism after seeing Jonathan Cake as Mark Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, now at New York’s Public Theater. This is my favorite Shakespeare play and it does not come around that often. It is a powerful love story of two sexually vibrant people who also happen to be important political and military figures. They spar and flirt as much as Kate and Petruchio or Beatrice and Benedick but also make passionate love. The play’s writing is beautiful, not as poetic as Romeo and Juliet, but also much more direct in its narrative and trajectory than most of the Bard’s works. And, like the star-crossed lovers from Verona, Antony and Cleopatra each kill themselves when they believe the other has died.

I have seen more than a dozen productions of Antony and Cleopatra. The single best performance I have seen by an actor in any play was Vanessa Redgrave’s Cleopatra in different productions in New York, England and Italy. Because most versions tend to have a famous actress as Cleopatra and an Antony who is a hot-tempered slab of beef, I have never experienced these characters as I did in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s imperfect but mostly wonderful production now at the Public. Finally I understood why Antony’s name comes first in the title. He is the protagonist.

Jonathan Cake is the best Antony I have seen because he captured the character’s complexity and was heroic without excessive swagger and posturing. This Antony is both a lover and a fighter, often at the same time. One could feel his great passion for Cleopatra (Joaquina Kalukango) while also being ready to head into battle if war suddenly erupts. The actor uses his voice to full effect, finding numerous colors in the words and feelings, as would an opera singer. He not only acted, but reacted to the speech and actions of the other actors onstage.

Cake happens to be tall (6’3”/1.91 m), dark and handsome and, at the age of 46, maintains a powerful physique that no “barihunk” can rival. He could easily coast on looks alone, but uses his appearance as a point of entry for creating memorable characterizations. He is equally adept at classical and contemporary roles. A decade ago he played Jason opposite Fiona Shaw’s volcanic Medea and was up to the challenge. I would love to see him do a staged reading of Antony and Cleopatra with Vanessa Redgrave who, though a good fifty years older than Cleopatra, could still work wonders with the part.

After the play, I read Plutarch’s biographical essay about Mark Antony and felt that Cake came very close to evoking this man. I hope that opera singers, especially male ones, have a chance to see Cake in performance to discover how physicality and gesture (and not posing) can convey true heroism.

The most famous opera with these two characters was written by Samuel Barber to open the new Metropolitan Opera House on September 16, 1966. Here is something interesting and pleasurable to try. First, listen to a radio performance of the play from a 2010 BBC production of the play starring David Harewood and Frances Barber. Form images of the heroism of Antony and perhaps other traits for Cleopatra. Then, discover an amazing document: the live radio broadcast of the very first performance at the new Metropolitan Opera House, on September 16, 1966. The complete opening night performance of Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. As you listen, invest the traits you found in the radio play into the two lead characters.

Weigh In: Who are your favorite heroes in opera? And in “real” life?