Stage Director, writer, actor & librettist Brittany (Bea) Goodwin on entering the opera world by accident and the adventures that ensued.
I first met the brilliant Brittany Goodwin in 2017 while visiting one of her staging rehearsals of “Orlando” presented by Cantanti Project in NYC. I was immediately drawn to her like a magnet and we bonded over her fashion choices. Later that year, Brittany invited me to visit a rehearsal of her staged song cycle “Songs of the Soul Beams”, created with composer Felix Jarrar and presented to much acclaim at BAM and Le poisson rouge. That was it for me. I fell in love with both Felix and Brittany and their hauntingly beautiful music and words. Months later and after several projects together, I decided it was time for 360° of Opera to feature Brittany, her work and her vision.
You come from the theater world. Why opera?
Much like Alice, I fell down the rabbit hole into opera, honestly. It was a gig I took that would change my whole life. I have been welcomed into the opera world with open arms and I feel like I am home.
Opera is the most sensuous form of the arts, I’d say. The most decadent dessert on the menu. How can you not be physically drawn to how magnificent it is? The music hitting and humbling you, reminding you what it is to be alive and having a human experience, as it wraps around your body like a big fur.
I love delving into these stories as I would a play. What is your character’s precircumstance? What is their physical life in this moment? But unlike a play, the music is providing its own narrative as well! So you kind of simultaneously dissect the exposition and the characters wants while figuring out how the music is helping move the story forward while creating a sonic environment. Whew!
This work is really hard. Its not a matter of saying “On system 3, bar whatever, move your arm and raise the glass.” Works for some – not for me. I always want to provide an experience that is ensemble mentality and threading the story together as a unit.
That’s why I quite often start a rehearsal with a movement exercise – Le Coq 7 Levels of Tension, a little Viewpoints – it’s always very informative on where we are at as a group and helps us transition from the outside, hectic city life to the world of the story.
Quite a long while ago I read a memoir written by a blind man, Eavesdropping. In one chapter, he speaks on his experience in going to the opera. The way he spoke about the music and the sensations his entire body experienced was something that I knew I wanted to be a part in providing for people. And I find this to be something that other mediums of performance art can’t necessarily achieve.
As a female artist, what is your commitment to creating change in society & the arts?
In the beginning of your career, you are wild with whimsy and are willing to get your hands wet and messy with any project or prospect of a project that comes your way. And this is a wonderful, educational part of the process that I find to be imperative, albeit tumultuous. I have been transitioning out of that headspace as of late and am really focusing on who I want to be as an artist.
I have made it my mission to write stories for people who are underrepresented and to also unravel thoughts that are tender and a bit taboo. Art is such a powerful tool; the mechanism we cling to in advancing our school of thought and to keep things turning forward. It’s what we gravitate towards when we are sad, when we need answers. All these things hold this immense weight.
It is important for me that these things are done tactfully and respectfully all the while pushing the envelope to facilitate discussion. There’s a very delicate balance between shock treatment and weaving in a political nuance that unfortunately you just have to try and try until you get it right. It’s vulnerable, ya know? Putting it out there and not knowing quite how it will be received. Too abrasive? Too kitschy? Insensitive even?
But that is the risk we must take. It takes courage and might. A lot of reading, a lot of discussion. I don’t sleep a lot. I feel like a Guerrilla Girl. The arts are quite a huge commitment, and the payback, while extremely gratifying, is very low. But some people are born to create, it’s in their bones. I am governed by passion by my very nature. This commitment is a great one, and one I take very seriously. I see where my work can go, the hearts it could touch. And if I don’t, well I must try harder.
You’ve been another artist’s muse before. Has this affected the way you seek inspiration as an artist yourself?
Oh absolutely. My days of modeling and sitting for a particular artist were some of the absolute highlights of developing my artistic lens. I got to see how my body told a story. The control it had. What really read and what looked forced or weird and why.
I can’t go about stage directing or writing without discovering the sensation it needs to provide. When I’m tackling a show with a new cast, one of the first things I ask them is : what is the genre of the story? If it’s a melodrama, that has a particular energy and physical life , if it’s a drama, what color is its pathos? What is the gradient of grey and how do we put that in our bodies and tongues?
If I didn’t have such a strong sense of where I hold my lamentations, my tension, my joy in my very own instrument, I couldn’t help people discover their own. And all that they are capable of showing the world!
The day I met you we bonded over your green vintage coat. Why do you love vintage fashion? How would you describe your style? Could you please illustrate with a few selections from the Shoperatic marketplace?
That green coat is one of my winter staples. I can’t go anywhere without someone complimenting me on it or touching the huge fur.
Vintage fashion has been such a love of mine ever since I can remember. I think it was largely influence by my grandmother- I lived with her a few times throughout my childhood. She had such cool stuff, her bedroom was like a curiosity shop filled with buttons and scarves and HER mother’s sunglasses , pearls , gloves. She was the most beautiful lady in the world, inside and out.
My style is a little quirky. I love being in black – I love dressing in variants of a uniform with really fun, bold accents (big red lips and chunky old gaudy jewelry, huge sunglasses, a head wrap…)
I have and always will be a jumpsuit girl. This may be somewhat derived from laziness, but I never feel sexier than when I am in a garment that clings to my body in such a way that I feel in charge and looking good.
If I could wear one garment every day of my life – walking the dog , getting a coffee… – I would wear THIS with my DM combat boots!
& this piece on Suzanne’s store is just TOO much fun!
What are some exciting opera projects you have coming up? Why should the regular opera audience attend and why should the audience new to opera attend them?
Well, coming up is the world premiere of mine & Felix Jarrar’s TABULA RASA, a new jazz opera about the life of Kiki de Montparnasse. I went to Europe and wrote the libretto. I walked all around Montparnasse and saw where Kiki sang, Man painted, the Dadaists used to meet. There’s a lot of my first person perspective in these lines as a former model/muse as well as an incredible story from history.
I believe everyone regardless of musical preferences should hear this story. Felix has done such a wonderful job setting the words that you don’t feel overwhelmed by the music and straining to hear the words. There is always such a symbiosis to Felix’s music and my words.
Kiki’s story is one of female empowerment and many important, timeless questions are raised: what exactly is the role of a model? Are they an artistic extension of the canvas or a prop? Who truly is creating the art? The subject or the artist?
The cast is a sight to behold, they are spectacular. From conception, we cast this show and wrote the roles for these individuals to originate & I could not be any more humbled by their investment to their stories and the environment we are creating.
Through their incredible efforts, this show has really become something very special and one not to be missed. Its extremely personal; the show is immersive. You will be standing right next to a character in history and there’s something so extremely beautiful about that, about how art can keep people alive.
This summer, I will be back for my third season with dell’Arte Opera Ensemble stage directing the American premier of La Cifra, a Salieri piece. This really is like witnessing a moment in history – the piece has never been done here & I am trying to replicate what it really would look like by studying Comedia dell’arte characters, stock poses and truly capturing the spirit of my piece.
Plus its a super fairytalesque farce with lovable characters and lots of shtick. It will be a very, very fun evening! That runs in August!
What are your hopes for the arts, opera in particular, for the future?
I just want art to get back on track to be intelligent, honest, thought provoking and more inclusive. We have derailed quite a bit. Not only opera, just entertainment in general. I don’t want to be a part of an industry that puts out white washed, predictable products. So many people are rising to their feet to discuss political unrest, social injustice — write about it! Make something, bring it to someone, have groups drink coffee together and edit it! I know funding is hard, God do I know how hard fundraising is, but there are people who are willing to make the commitment for pieces they believe will move the industry, move the world, forward. Its all about making the commitment. The time is now!
For more on Brittany, her work, her style and her future projects, you can follow along on social media at @be_goodwin & @kissesfromkiki.
Brittany’s World Premiere piece Tabula Rasa (composed by Felix Jarrar) is presented by Cantanti Project and runs May 4,5, 11 & 12 as part of NYOA’s 2018 New York Opera Fest. More info at @cantantiproject.
Photos by 360° of Opera (Delfina Valdés Castro / Eugenia Forteza)
Artwork by Laura Benchetrit / Frank Fainer