Spatial Dyslexia As a Window to Cultural Invisibility
“Spatial dyslexia” is a term I first heard during a Richard Crittenden opera workshop in Washington, where I was singing the roles of Neda and Rosalinda in scenes from Pagliacci and Die Fledemaus. After several challenging rehearsals, the choreographer held a special meeting with me to address my significant struggles with the stage directions in the Pagliacci sequence. She was also a movement specialist, and she observed that my body seemed to lack a perception of its own relationship to space. She said, “I can see it when you move in different directions-it’s like a glitch in two connecting brain signals.”
Hence, when I practiced the blocking used to ensure that singers faced out toward the audience, I struggled to judge whether my body was facing right or left. I knew the difference between “Center Stage” and “Downstage” on an intellectual level, but my *body* didn’t know that. For instance, what my brain perceived as stage right would sometimes be what the director perceived as center stage, causing me to be perceived as confused and disoriented. From his perspective, my disability was interfering with fundamental aspects of the scene, the character, and operatic practice.
There were, however, certain aspects to the scene that I felt validated this aspect of my performance. Just before the Neda/Silvio love duet in Act 1, Neda escapes being sexually assaulted by her fellow troupe member, Tonio. After having fought him off with a whip, she encounters Silvio in a deeply distressed and frightened state; which is only exacerbated by a longstanding fear of her husband’s temper. Hence, disorientation could be interpreted as a reaction to severe stress following an attempted rape. I suggested that perhaps Neda was so upset that she didn’t know where she was going. The director answered, “That’s not in the story…”
That’s true, but I have other traits that the character would not have exhibited, such as I am light-skinned with red hair, and she is intended to be Romani. Hence, one could argue that my performance white-washed a character that was written as a person of color. Yet, the director did not ask me to dye my hair or engage in the racist practice of darkening my skin.
Furthermore, while the liberetto doesn’t indicate that Neda is disabled, it never explicitly says that she is ablebodied. Hence, our differing interpretations of what my disorientation could represent (a disoriented, clumsy performer vs. a severely traumatized character) were mitigated by social and bodily experience. It’s not that the director *intended* to be oppressive or that his concern about stage directions wasn’t legitimate, but as a nondisabled musician who grew up with ablebodied privilege, he had been conditioned to accept mainstream expectations of onstage performance and human behavior.
Ultimately, the director’s experience had conditioned him to accept the predominant association between musicality and ability, in which the latter is fused with the former to such an extent that the inclusion of disability in that experience is either discounted or enfreaked. For instance, Alex Lubet writes:
To contemplate disability as an “area” is to render performance, even the ranking of performance, a facet of identity. (This may also apply to sex and sexuality.) Justaposing musicality and disability reveals that the former is often regarded as an opposite of the latter. Musicality is viewed not simply as ability, but an extraordinary ability. Music making, at least at the highest levels, is regarded as requiring an exceptional gift within many social confluences (Lubet, 95).
The disparity between our lived experiences is at least one of the reasons that the director viewed the impression of mental disability as being foreign to the nature of a well-orchestrated opera scene. For me, however, the experience of disability and musicality were inextricable.
As a disabled woman who was conditioned to associate some of my own behaviors with disability rather than conscious choices, I grew up asking myself: “Did that person bump into me because that person was being rude, or did she misjudge the amount of space between our bodies?” “Did that person say that because she was angry, or because she was sad? Does that child remember the directions that his teacher gave him a few minutes ago?
These experiences also applied to my experience of the director’s instructions. At my most defiant and metaphysical, I asked myself, “what *is* center stage? Why do we have to face the audience at all; when in fact people are frequently observed with their backs turned? Does the fact that my voice is slightly more muffled in that position make my voice sound “bad”? Does that auditory difference make my performance inferior, or just different? Although the dichotomy between our perspectives can be largely attributed to situational authority and objectives, some of these differences of perception can be attributed to the cultural invisibility of disabled people’s history and cultural experiences. Public knowledge of the latter would not eliminate the role of ableism in music making, but perhaps it would provide a frame of reference for discussions about the legitimization of disability in performance interpretation.
Another experience of historical invisibility came via admonishments regarding the terminology in Pagliacci’s libretto. As most readers are probably aware, Tonio’s character might be considered a proto-eugenic stereotype of the disabled as lecherous, sexually deviant predators. These perceptions inform his every scene, from his interactions with Neda, to his thwarted attempts at virility, to his attempt to rape Neda and participation in her murder, Tonio is situated as a symbol of violence and primal brutality. Nevertheless, the singer playing Silvio was instructed not to use the term “il gobo” (hunchback) in reference to Tonio, but to substitute the word “schemo” (idiot), because current performance practice was to discard the former as a slur. Notwithstanding the director’s intentions, this change does not mitigate the ableist sentiments that are inherent in the opera’s characterization of Tonio. If anything, the change represents an dominant people groups’ attempt to sanitize an irredeemably ableist caricature. As such, this change in terminology obscures opera’s status as an artifact of the disabled community’s cultural history. And, of course, the suggested substitute of “idiot” simply switches a historical term for a physical disability with one associated with an intellectual impairment.
A similar encounter with ablebodied hegemony concerned a former opera singer who had watched me perform. She suggested that while my bodily comportment was appropriate for Neda, it did not reflect the upper-class background of Rosalinda, whose movements would have been graceful and refined. As a gypsy with no exposure to the domestic and social training that Rosalinda would have been expected to exhibit. Hence, one might argue that the former character was not expected to embody the 19th century ideal of female domesticity that Rosalinda represented.
In addition to the latter ideal, my would-be mentor’s advice reflected 19th century conceptions of the virtuoso musician on contemporary performance: virtuosic performances are intended to suggest an esoteric association between the singer and the Divine. Indeed, and this relationship is often situated as representing the last remnant of man’s lost, Edenic state. Unfortunately, such associations have not been conceived to include the participation of disability in that divine discourse.
Moreover, the exclusion of disability from possible performance interpretations erases the historical presence of disabled people; as if they did not exist or were universally segregated in institutions. While the latter abuse is historically consistent, this practice varied depending on the disabled individual, the disability itself and the affected family. Hence, it is certainly possible for a woman in Rosalinda’s society to have been clumsy or awkward. Hence, aside from the mainstream opera-goers expectation that the actress’ persona will reflect the aesthetic attributes associated with high-style entertainment, it is acceptable to interpret Rosalinda as a disabled woman. Certainly such a representation could expand the music community’s understanding of which behaviors can be accurately associated with people who lived in a particular time period; thus helping to increase the historical visibility of disabled individuals in matters not related directly to their disabled status.
Ultimately, my performance was deemed to pass for that of an ablebodied woman and I was allowed to perform both scenes. The next year my disability was accommodated by placing me in scenes in which the character remained in a stationary position or engaged in limited movement (The love duet from Cendrillion and the card scene from Act III of Carman.) While this was an excellent solution that I encourage other musicians to consider, I also hope that the presence of disabled people in music performance will serve in creating an environment where disability history is acknowledged and our experiences legitimized in performance interpretation.
Hence, my experience as a disabled performer who was attempting to “pass” as an ablebodied character was mediated through expectations of hyper-ability. As Ibby Grace writes of labyrinthian jargon in academia, “This is a giant access problem, especially if the field in question is a field relating to social justice in any way, and most especially if the field is Disability Studies, or even feminism talking about disabled people. It’s a giant access issue any time disabled people are being talked about.” One might argue the absence of disability in musical performance represents the same problem.