Great Performances: What Makes a Good Performer

Yesterday, I had to submit audition material for an opera opportunity. In looking at my different takes of the same aria, what sold me on one particular take over another was my commitment to character, and how I looked more urgent to convey the message in the aria (“Ah, fuggi il traditor” from Don Giovanni by Mozart). That was the take I submitted on video. And speaking of video–I have a friend who sends me videos of her two-year-old who is immensely entertaining. She loves to sing songs and perform for the camera, even dubbing herself “Good Singer” at her tender young age in a display of extraordinary self-confidence! This has led me to reflect on the performers and performances we love. What is it about them that really grabs us? Rather than list general characteristics, I will comment on some performers or performances, ones who are generally regarded as great and others that I particularly like. This is by no means a comprehensive list, only some thoughts off the top of my head.

-Freddie Mercury. Why do we love him? This shy, buck-toothed British-Parsi man who captivated the world before his untimely death? Perhaps because he gave it all went on stage, in great contrast to his offstage personality. He was fierce, unbounded with his emotion. His voice was beyond that of most rock singers, sustaining long, lyrical lines with a range that went quite high for a man. Needless to say, his flamboyant costumes were part of the appeal. He could soar with great passion, croon as though singing a lullaby, or belt out a rock anthem, and we would always believe it.
-The Carol Burnett Show. This classic chestnut of TV not only featured comic geniuses in Carol Burnett, Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman, and Tim Conway, but it had skits that mocked popular culture, day-to-day life, and even well-known films or performances. “Went with the Wind” was probably its most infamous spoof on “Gone with the Wind,” and truly one of the best parodies in television. It never took itself too seriously, well-aware that the mockery was part of the process (Korman could not contain himself in the “Old Man” skits with Conway and always laughed). The sets were lavish, and Burnett’s tacky costumes by Bob Mackie were part of the over-the-top 70s appeal.
-Gil Shaham. One of my absolute favorite violinists (who is a wonderfully nice guy when you meet him offstage), he has the extraordinary ability to communicate with the audience when he plays. He almost seems to angle his violin more toward the audience, as if the violin is speaking with them in a dialogue. This is a quality rarely seen in any other violinist.
-Queen Latifah. The woman has presence. For anyone who has seen the film “Chicago,” her role as Mama Morton steals the scene every time. There is something so grounded and confident about her.
-Oprah Winfrey. True, she has done some acting in her time, but I think of her more as a journalist/TV host. Frank, funny, honest, and inquisitive, her curiosity and rapport with her guests was always personal and unique. When she moved on to later projects, such as “Super Soul Sunday,” she revealed her deeply spiritual side. In being herself, she has revealed that she is a natural performer, someone who is able to convey her appeal and engage the audience.
-Adele. I am not a great fan of Lady Gaga, whom I find an attention-getter and whose musical career and performances strike me as being highly derivative (though I find her quite good when interpreting others’ work, such as in “A Star is Born” and in her album with Tony Bennett.) But Adele is the truly talented one of her generation; by avoiding fuss and feathers, she performs by singing from deep in her soul. Not to mention her natural beauty, which I think was almost more stunning before her weight loss. She has tremendous integrity as an artist, and Grace Jones commented that she would not work with Lady Gaga but with someone like Adele instead.
-Figure skaters–too many to name. Scott Hamilton, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, Johnny Weir, and more. We love watching them glide on the ice, fly through the air, and (in the case of Davis and White) dancing together. The combination of spangly outfits and superhuman movements is captivating.
-Bollywood stars–too many to name. Is it their good looks? Their carefully choreographed dance sequences? The songs (which are, inevitably, dubbed by playback singers)? The beauty of Sridevi, Aishwarya Rai, the charisma of Shah Rukh Khan (who played against type in the poignant, meaningful “My Name is Khan”) and Amitabh Bachchan are all something otherworldly.
-Joao Gilberto. This introverted Brazilian man who often sang in almost a whisper, as though strumming a guitar while sitting by a bedroom window, drew us in to his power by his heartfelt sincerity. Nothing could be simpler than his lyrical melodies sung to a percussive guitar, but they are the most touching songs one could hear. One of his albums would inevitably be a desert island disc, so to speak.

These performers are so varied in their genres and styles. And yet they all hold one thing in common: they touch our feelings and emotions. Who are some of your favorite performers?

The Family Saga: A Universal Theme

In my younger, greener, salad days, I used to be less enthused about books, shows, or movies that were a long family saga, with the complications that come with long drawn-out relationships. I was an only child who grew up far away from relatives, and so it wasn’t as interesting to me. Wasn’t it more fascinating to have different characters who were unrelated? And yet, like so many book-loving girls, I had adored Little Women and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and earlier, children’s books like the Frances series about a little badger with quite an attitude. Now, my current writing project is a retelling of a classic novel which is–though usually considered to be a romance–truly a family saga. What makes family dramas universal?

A large ensemble of characters that we follow overtime is key to this format. While the author or camera might focus primarily on one or two of them, having a variety of characters to choose from helps keep things interesting. “Everybody Loves Raymond” was a show, as the title suggests, about Ray Barone, but we also followed the ups and downs of the other characters, such as his brother Robert and his love life. Once married to Amy, we got another family added into the mix that made things even more funny–the combination of Fred Willard and Georgia Engel as Amy’s parents was a stroke of genius on the part of the casting director. In literature, I don’t think anyone could neglect mentioning Tolstoy, who juggled an encyclopedic cast of characters so skillfully in his epics War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Take that to another level with the current global favorite, My Brilliant Friend (which I’m currently enjoying): it is a saga of multiple families whose lives intertwined in postwar Naples. It is not, however, just one novel–it is the first in a tetralogy, which goes to show how much richness can be mined from this theme. In opera, we have The Marriage of Figaro with its high-low social class reversals and romantic intrigue in the members of the Count’s household. And this is all before we find out who Figaro’s mother is!

Family sagas also give us a longitudinal study, so to speak, of a character or characters over time. How do their relationships change and grow or dissolve? What kinds of sibling alliances form? Or do they not get along at all? Is there an uncle who usurps the family power, much to the chagrin of the nephew (hint: Shakespeare)? Is there a missing parent whose absence is equally an important piece of the equation? The brilliant, understated Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge (and its slightly-weaker sequel, Mr. Bridge) captures the trajectory of a suburban woman in St. Louis between the wars and her relationships with her children. For those of us who grew up with “The Cosby Show,” we got to see Sondra marry Elvin and have twins, Denise go off to college and then to Africa, and even little Rudy grow up. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is not only about Midge Maisel’s standup career, but also her highly educated Jewish family and fractured relationship with her ex-husband and his family.

Family sagas also give us a degree of relatability. We can identify with one or more of the characters, see that we are being treated unjustly or how we are treating someone who is irritating us. The power of literature always helps us understand our world and other people, giving us a bird’s-eye view that we cannot see ourselves.

That I should have neglected this genre is especially foolish in light of the fact that the most holy Hindu book is a family saga: The Mahabharata. Tolstoyan in its scope, it is the story in the form of an epic poem of two families of cousins who are fighting over the throne. Naturally, this has been filmed in different versions for television as well as the cinema; all of Hindu India was engrossed in it in the late 80s, and it has been shown again during the lockdown. British director and playwright Peter Brook co-authored a play on The Mahabharata that was itself made into a movie. But Hinduism is not the only religion to feature family stories as part of its mythology or teachings: it is almost needless to say the Old Testament is full of them. Great mythologies of the world often feature families and nobility. Even today, we are intrigued by these types of stories–consider the success of “Downton Abbey” and our obsession with the British royal family.

The word family is fraught with so much emotion that it cannot help but be an ideal subject for literature. We all have family stories we tell, be they funny, frustrated, or infuriating. Family stories can be comic or tragic, or anything in between. Perhaps the late Erma Bombeck said it best in the title of a book: Family–The Ties that Bind…and Gag!