Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Artist in Exile

I've reached the stage of life in which I find myself, along with many of the friends of my youth, feeling as though I've left the world of familiar things behind. For me, as for them, the formative years were spent simmering in a heady stew of ambition and art which was hardly tempered by the relative difficulty of our circumstances (Soprannie once had to beg for change to get the subway home from her temp job). It's not much of an exaggeration to say that in my youth and young adulthood I lived for beauty, and spent most of my waking hours trying to figure out how I might, given my own particular situation, best be able to reveal it (not create it, because, as a singer, I was an interpretive artist, not a creative one; and perhaps all creation is really the prerogative of God). I lived for the transcendent experience, which did not exactly help my relationships with those around me. I can't imagine how awful I must have been to live with. At the time, however, I thought art excused everything.

For our third wedding anniversary earlier this week, I gave my husband the DVD of Babette's Feast, which we had gotten out of the library and watched a few months ago. I will never tire of this movie. I first saw it in the early 1990s with my voice teacher of the period (a very influential person in my life who has since become an Alexander technique teacher; more about this in another post). Many commentators have noted the film's Catholic and eucharistic themes, but it is also very much a movie about what it means to be an artist.

Babette has had to leave the world of the familiar as a political refugee; indeed, her husband and son have been killed in the French Revolution of 1871. She ends up on the cold, stark, forbidding shores of Jutland, Denmark, as the cook and housekeeper to two pious Calvinist sisters. But it is not revealed until the end of the film that she has also left behind the glittering world in which she was a celebrated artist who practiced her art freely. This sense of personal and artistic exile is something that my friends and I, trained in music and now practicing it less and less as we take on more and more of the responsibilities of family life, are familiar with, and there is a sense of loss as we give up more and more of our art. I, as a lowly adjunct lecturer at a large urban university, teaching one of my department's 27 sections of Music 101, am luckier than many of my friends; I have a socially-approved means of making the transition from being an artist to being something else. Becoming a teacher, in the eyes of the world, seems like a logical step in the life of a semi-obscure musician, while becoming a mother seems like a severe derailment.

Philippa, the sister in Babette's Feast who had once considered a life on the opera stage, tells Babette something beautiful: that in heaven, she will be the artist God has meant her to be. I pray that my friends and I will find a way to understand our own lives in light of this blessing, even if becoming the artists we feel we were meant to be eludes us in this life.


Maclin Horton said...

A great movie. Time to watch it again.

Fallen Sparrow said...

My soprano co-chorister is a big fan; I have never seen it, but will take it under consideration!

Pentimento said...

There's a lovely scene where one of the sisters sings "La ci darem la mano" from Don Giovanni during a voice lesson with a famous French baritone. The complicated feelings suggested by the piece end up making the sisters retreat ever deeper into their father's breakaway Calvinist sect. It is such a humane movie, and also witty.