While researching Italian film and stage director ‘Maestro’ Franco Zeffirelli I happened to watch his last film Callas Forever: an autobiographical film starring Fanny Ardant as the prima donna assoluta and Jeremy Irons as Zeffirelli. The film blurs fact and fiction and is all the more poetic for it.
Set in Paris in the 1977 – Callas’s twilight year – the film meets the diva when her voice has betrayed her after she had squandered her gift in thrall to her lover Aristotle Onassis. Ari had broken Maria’s heart when he deserted her to marry Jackie Kennedy by which time the most dramatic soprano of the 20th century effectively fades to silence.
in Callas Forever Maria is living the life of recluse, popping pills and mourning for the loss of a gift she considered God-given. Her last disastrous 1974 concert appearance in Japan had brought-on crippling stage fright from which the Zeffirelli character tries to lift her with films of her greatest operas dubbed with her greatest past recordings.
As we know, the Callas stage fright proved to be fatal. She died aged fifty-three in 1977 from a suspected overdose of prescription medicine. Watching the dramatisation of her decline in Callas Forever, Ardant mercilessly describes Maria’s agony and the creative deaths she has to die tortured by recordings of the diva in her prime.
Zeffirelli’s film about Maria Callas made me ponder the theory that stage fright is not confined to those who perform in the opera or theatre. I would describe stage fright as a crippling doubt that on this occasion you are incapable of performing a role or task that you have nailed a thousand times before.
I am the first one to admit that I have suffered from stage fright over the years. There were mornings when I opened a blank word document and rewrote a first sentence for the best part of a day. Calling it stage fright sounded a lot more glamorous than anxiety and blind panic.
But that fear that begins with doubting talent and engorges itself into doubting everything is one and the same whether you dress it up as anxiety or stage fright. Conquering stage fright is still a work in progress for me.
After extensive research I can say with confidence that retreating to your dressing room and pulling that blanket of blue with a sinfully black border over your head is neither consolation nor solution. The temptation when you choke in front of an audience is to run and hide. But I do know that on the rare occasions I don’t get up at 7am and go swimming in the Bloomsbury pool is a day wasted.
When performing – or producing work – is your reason for getting up then gifting yourself a lie-in is not an indulgence. It is the white flag of surrender. Isolation might be the natural reaction to a perceived public humiliation but it only allows the voices of doubt in your head a microphone and a bigger venue.
It takes guts to straighten your tie, take a deep breath and get back out there but it is terribly rewarding. I recently met a charming chap for drinks in one of the Inns of Court who gave me five bright ideas for books just by listening to his intelligent conversation.
A symptom of stage fright is a loss of hope which, as it turns out, is like swindling yourself. On any given day, particularly in London, nobody knows what life is going to throw your way. If you allow yourself to believe there is no hope then you’ll probably have your back to it when hope is doing a shimmy and shaking the money tree.
Just by stepping out in London your chances of being pleasantly surprised are multiplied ten fold. However much I complain about living in small Bloomsbury rooms I know that even walking a few steps into WC1 will lift my mood. I had coffee with neighbour Tomster this morning and that bit of chitty-chatty did me more good than having a Mexican stand off with a computer screen for an hour.
There are those in the thespian profession who say that if you don’t have stage fright you’re not feeling the adrenalin that will guarantee a good performance. Granted, a certain amount of modesty about one’s talent is appropriate but I do not think the white heat of fear as one steps up to one’s mark is entirely welcome after so many years in the business. The test of course is whether you feel the fear and move forward or feel it and freeze. On this occasion I choose to move forward. Until next time…