Sara Elisabeth Holmertz

The Otherness of Self

The female characters


I am Euridice - I danced with the wind in my hair. I danced, and I needed no one but myself. Until he saw me and I disappeared into his heart, into his life and became His. His love and my love has made my wishes to be his wishes. When he looks at me, I know who I am: His. And without me, he is no one.

Despite being the ”innamorata” of the opera, we only hear her sing twice; she sings a beautiful, but short, song, and then she dies. We hear her once again, just before she dies again. Adriana Cavarero writes about silent women on stage in general, and dying women on stage in particular. Even though the women she talks about appears in later melodramas like Tosca, Carmen, and Turandot, we can maybe apply some of her reasoning to Euridice - a woman sings, and then she dies.

”There is drama that, like all drama in the western canon, seems to narrate many variants on the usual patriarchal story: having been enamored, betrayed, mocked, tricked, and having gone mad, a woman dies".FN Am I going too far with this? I am being oversensitive? Euridice is neither mad, over sexual or suffering from pneumonia, she is just a girl. But, she sings and then she dies. Twice. 

Cavarero also says: ”the most stereotypical models of the female sex - namely, the stereotype according to which, in her erotic function as seductress, as an object to the masculine desire, the woman appears first of all as a body and as an inarticulate voice. She must be beautiful, but she must not speak” FN

Even if we don’t see or hear her, we hear about her. She is the life and light of Orfeo.

 "Euridice, however”, Susan McClary writes ”is an untouched maiden. If her speech were too compelling, her innocence might well come into question (how did she learn to manipulate - or even to express - desire?). The librettist, Striggio, already creates a kind of speaking voice of Euridice, as she begins, haltingly with ’I cannot say, ’ then tells Orfeo her heart is with him and he must look to himself for answers. Monteverdi has the difficult task of creating music for this moment that is lovely yet self-deprecating, that lacks rhetorical force but that charms us all the more for the lack”. FN

A young girl, whose most important task is to love Orfeo. To see him, and be the subject of his divinity. Her voice must sound open. Because she is young, innocent and vulnerable, otherwise she wouldn’t be appropriate to someone like the renaissance hero Orfeo.FN

She was painfully easy to find and painfully difficult to sing. I am not a tree nymph, but I have been a young girl. With our modern preconceptions, she appears too innocent and too young to be getting married. At the same time: as McClary argues, she IS written like this.  So I chose to go ”all in” and personate her as the young woman she is.

Proserpina, as I will come back to, is a married woman who can use sexual rhetoric to get what she wants (she is, after all, a married woman). FN

Her voice can’t be too strong. It comes from her chest, from her heart. Open. Airy. Clear and clean. Her body is Open.

Some of the texts below are variations of what I’ve discussed earlier in the reflection. My work on L’Orfeo has taken place on parallel levels: The words, the characters, and the music. Normally, I would combine the three parameters in one single process, but I decided to separate them so that I could be in control of what was going on in each of the respective processes.

Messagera/The Messenger:

I am the messenger. I was just there. I just have to be the one who had to say it. I do not want to say it. The words from my mouth are like knives that kill.

Tired, bitter, heavy, tired, bitter, heavy, tired, bitter, heavy.

Anger, rage, resentment. Anger, rage, resentment.

Back and forth. Back and forth.

Dead, death. Blackness.

Tired, bitter, heavy, tired bitter, heavy, tired…


I thought he was very far from myself, but he was very easy to find. Too easy. How did we find each other? Was he inside me all the time? 

For a few seconds, he was Otherness. I didn’t know that I had the gruff and harsh character of Caronte - the ferryman in me. He was the Other while I was the Same.


We found his voice in my left hip. His body can almost...not...stand...up... (like me before my coffee in the morning.)


The title of the project is ”The otherness of the self”. If I want to Find the Otherness, I should at least have a clue about what the Self is.

Is it neurons?

”a persistent illusion created by a multitude of interrelated cognitive modules in the brain” Dan Zahavi FN


Is it something we do or build?

”Being a self is an achievement rather than a given, and therefore also something that one can fail at. Selves are not born, but arise in a process of social experience and interchange. Indeed, many would consider the self as a construction, something more a matter of politics and culture than of science and nature” Dan Zahavi FN


Is it something we feel?

”The ideas of self-consciousness, self-expression, self-presentation and self-fashioning do not exhaust the conceptual problems awaiting a historian of the Renaissance self, or better, of the variety of ’Renaissance selves’. Self-knowledge, self-confidence, self-cultivation, self-examination and self-reliance also deserve to be considered. So does self-respect, an idea which was usually formulated in this period in terms of ’honor’.”Peter Burke FN



-in other words, man is an enigma to himself” C.G Jung FN


These quotes illustrate challenges in the process of working on the characters’ selves. I experienced over and over again how fleeting their personalities and selves were. One moment I was certain I’ve met their true selves, only to have to begin from the beginning in the next. Yes, they are as enigmatic now as they were before I started.



What is A Role

From early 17th century: from French rôle, from obsolete French roule ‘roll’, referring originally to the roll of paper on which the actor's part was written”.FN

Anyone can, in principle, take on any given role. Social roles (parent, teacher, leader…) and well as Roles in a play or opera (like the roles in Orfeo)FN


Grotowski adds to this and, at the same time shows the complexity: ”What is the role? In fact it’s almost always a character’s text, the typed text that is given to the actor. It is also a particular conception of the character, and here again there is a stereotype. Hamlet is an intellectual without greatness, or else a revolutionary who wants to change everything.


What is a Character

Characters are the persons in a drama, play, novel, life. Persons who in turn can play roles.

An opera’s protagonists are of course characters, telling their own stories in their own time. But they are also individuals singing for us here and now, in our time. These are temporalities of different orders.” FN

Ståle Wikshåland, Norwegian musicologist.



The Characters in L’ORFEO (and their roles) FN

Orfeo - Hero

Euridice - Innamorata (Lover)

Messagiera - the Messenger

Speranza - The guide

Caronte - The Bad Guy

Proserpina - The Goddess

Plutone - The mighty God

A Shepherd - the Human Mirror

Elisabeth Holmertz is also a character, whos role I play in this project (and sometimes in life.). Her roles in this project are the soprano, the agent of the other roles, the Corago (see chapter 8), the artistic researcher… 


Sometimes I got my roles mixed up, not knowing what or who I should be: the singer or the agent of the characters/roles. This is not a project in which I can hide from myself - ultimately the audience will hear and see Me. Intimidating as it may sound, I believe that I and my self will be quite obvious, even if I try to hide behind the characters and play their roles. Elisabeth Belgrano writes beautifully about this dilemma and how the singer has her self as an instrument. Her words: ”The singer’s paradox consists of allowing the voice its intuition, to be expressive and passionate on stage, yet attempting to remain within conscious physical and emotional control. There is a need for the singer to become aware of the self in this balancing act. Where is I on stage? What does it I mean when I interpret the voice of another being?FN


The common thread in the selves we hear and in L’Orfeo is that they are formed by one person - my self, Elisabeth Holmertz. They were Otherness, but as soon as I touched them and sang like them, they became part of my own self. What happened in that meeting was, hopefully, what Karen Barad is talking about in the quote at the beginning of this chapter.


...who used to be a silly nymph, like Euridice. I was dancing, barefoot, until he saw me. He saw me, he wanted me, he took me. But what is a Life? When I lost the light and the sun, I won him. 

"The truth is I've never fooled anyone. I've let people fool themselves. They didn't bother to find out who and what I was.” Marilyn Monroe FN


As with Euridice, I first thought she and I were Sameness, not Otherness. But this is the queen of Death we are talking about. She is a powerful woman using her sexuality to manipulate and play with her husband. A husband she loves. 

A husband who abducted her…

Into this process, I brought the memory of another production of L’Orfeo, where I sang her part.FN In that production, Proserpina was portrayed as a broken woman in a damaged marriage. Clearly suffering from the Stockholm syndrome, being equally in love with, and afraid of her husband. She is begging her husband to ”please let Euridice go back to the world where there are light and life”. 

So, yes it is easy to read the ”submissive” woman” into the opera when we look at it with our modern eyes. Susan McClary warns us of just doing that: ”many of the ways in which gender is constructed in this music are alien to us and can be recovered only if we know something of the historical context within which they developed. This may seem counterintuitive since many of us are still inclined to believe in the immutability of gender and sexuality. But recent research is beginning to establish that even certain fundamental concepts concerning sexuality have changed radically since the seventeenth century, making it extremely treacherous for us today to depend on what we might assume to be universal experiences of the transhistorical bodyFN

And with that in mind, I tried to see her as a woman just playing with her husband, and her seductive singing is a way to get what she wants. She does feel for Euridice. And she is affected by Orfeo’s lament. But, of course, let’s not get over ourselves with excitement with the ”strong woman” in the 17th-century opera. She did need her sexuality to get what she wanted. Back to McClary: ”A man skilled in oratory was powerful, effective in imposing will in society at large. A woman’s rhetoric was usually understood as seduction, as a manifestation not of intellectual but of sexual power.FN

I didn’t want her to be the victim. She is strong and knows exactly what she wants. Also. There are many versions of the Goddess of Death - Proserpina. She knows the tricks, and she plays them as well as she can.  She is playful, erotic, and in command.

Pluton, is her match, not her superior. In chapter 7 I will go into this dilemma and revelation!

I made her into a Marilyn Monroe-like woman. As with Monroe, it’s so easy to not see past the first image. The seductive and charming temptress - the picture of womanhood. 

Her voice is airy, resembles Euridice’s, but she also uses glissandi and she drops the endnotes giving her phrases a sound of a ”femme fatale”. The consonants almost get lost in her smily singing. Her voice comes from her lips and she doesn’t seem to use any support at all.


Her voice resonates in my lips. Her body moves like a caress.


I am Hope. The last one to abandon you. Even in the darkest darkness, I am there. I am holding your hand, and I make you take one more step. Just one more step. When I leave, all is gone.


I am Caronte - the boatman. From this side to the Other side. The souls of the dead. In my boat. I take them over. Back and forth in the black water. 


The messenger also has a name: Silvia. She is ”the sweetest companion Of fair Euridice:” FN From this we can assume that she also is a tree nymph that normally dances with trees, sings and laughs. But we only meet her when she brings the devastating news of Euridice's death: she is the hated MessengerFN. She might have taken part in the joyful love-feast of Orfeo and Euridice in the scene just before. She might have danced and sung like the other nymphs and shepherds. There is not much information about her personality, neither in the score nor the libretto, so I was free to do what I wanted with her - I could imagine myself in the situation and how I would have reacted, even more than with the others who have a clear story, very different from my story.FN


Her voice comes from my throat. She throws her self on the ground. Losing her body and her mind. 


Hope is more of a sensation than a person FN.” 

La Speranza” is like a white marble statue Soft and hard at the same time.  Her voice is clear as glass, but also tender. As with Messagiera, Speranza gave me the possibility to ”embrace a situation” more than a character. She is a character with a clear purpose (to guide Orfeo to the river Styx), but this is the only thing I know for sure.


Her voice was found in my forehead. Her Body straight, strong and lithe.





The Voice of Reason. The King. The emperor. The kidnapper. The sexy psychopath. Charismatic. Almighty.

Monteverdi has written him for a powerful bass singer. But if I were to sing it like that I would lose power instead of invoking it. I would sound as if I was desperately trying to get someone’s attention. Instead, I chose to not to sing. Plutone doesn’t have to sing in order to be heard. He can speak low, with a smile on his voice, and people and spirits alike will listen and obey.

Meeting a character is like meeting myself. A cliché? Of course, I have to meet myself in order to meet them. I have to meet him in myself. I have to open doors in my mind and open up for his blackness, narcissism, sadism, sexism. Or, the opposite: open myself and show the world the blackness, narcissism, sadism, sexism that resides in me? Because I am nothing like him. Or am I? Like Caronte, Plutone was easy to find and he was a joy to perform.

His voice in my hands. He is relaxed and secure in his body.

A Shepherd

I am the mirror of Orfeo. What he feels, I feel.

The men!



Performing all the roles naturally entails playing both male and female characters. In the premiere of the opera in 1607, all roles were sung by men - Cross-gender was common on stage at this time. Most commonly men playing female roles (especially in the Elizabethan theaters which at this time didn’t allow women on stage at allFN), but, almost as a fetish, women started playing men too… Rosalind Kerr writes about transvestite fetish at the end of the 16th century when women not only could be seen on stage but even dressed as men:

”…when commedia dell’arte actresses took over the transvestite page roles they also questioned the very process of rendering that hierarchize male and female sexual differences. These roles, developed in the all-male erudite theatre, featured the exploits if renegade female characters who adopt male costumes and personae in order to usurp male prerogatives. Dressing up in sumptuous clouting of the male courtier, and impersonating the ideal traits and accomplishments of this new social elite, the actresses were positioned to tease the spectator with their sexual ambiguity and phallic power. In showing off their skill as male impersonators, they also increased their charisma for audience members impressed with their gender ambiguity”.FN


To be a man and a woman at the same time. Is this true Otherness of the Self? Am I touching myself with the idea of how a man feels in my mind? Dressing myself in the concept of ”my” male voice and body? Becoming, not only touching, the Stranger within? It is a thrilling thought. A thrill that might be a sexual fetish? 

The men in this opera do not have qualities that a woman couldn’t have - they are joyous, irritable, calm, grievous.… All very human feelings. What they do have is real power. While the women are subjects of love or desire, messengers or guides, the men are in charge: Orfeo, despite his human flaws, is a semi-god with magical powers; Caronte has the authority to stop the dead at the river Styx (if they don’t have a coin to pay him with, or if they are, like Orfeo, still alive); and Plutone has the ultimate control over the eternal ”life” of the dead.


Nevertheless, the men turned out to be much easier for me to approach than the women. Was it because they were less complex than the females? (In whose eyes?) Was it because I didn’t have to identify myself with them, and therefore didn’t take their actions personally? Was it because their music is ”easier”? (it’s not) Or was it simply liberating to dress myself in their power suits and not give a damn?


(Talking about fetishes. There was also a soprano fetish in the late renaissance/early baroque. The audience loved soprano voices. They even castrated young boys in order to keep their angelic, bright voices. Heroes could be sopranos. Female voices can carry both the young and the old. Both boys and women.)FN


I am Pluton, Hades. The End. Or the beginning, if you want. I am King of Death! My kingdom: The Underworld, where you'll come when life is done with you. It is my onerous task and responsibility to place you in the right place when you get here; eternal bliss, or Hell. 

The shepherds in L’Orfeo, as in most operas from this time, serve as the people, storytellers and echos. I cut most of them, since they don’t bring the story forward.

But I did let a shepherd open the performance. He welcomes the audience and tells them why they are here: to celebrate the wedding of the semi-god Orfeo and Euridice.

The Shepherd was, like Messagiera and Speranza, an opportunity for me to sing from the situation more than through the character - I could be ”myself” in his short aria.


The other characters sang through me, but I sang through Orfeo. 

Not the Otherness of me, but Me.


The singer. The musician. The ShamanFN. The healer. The Lover. The Christ symbol. The one who could give comfort to the wretched just by singing and playing on his lyre. ”Orpheus is as old as story telling itself. He opened his mouth and all of music and all of poetry fell out”FN


Orpheus. Orfeo. Orfevs. He is the only one we’ll meet in this opera who has more than one expression. The others are stereotypes, archetypes.FN Orpheus is happy, in love, sad, devastated, foolish, brave, smart. He is human, and he is a god. Almost like a child in his openness. 

Is he authentic? When I first met him, I thought he was manneristic, full of cliches, and full of himself. But getting to know him made me see a person so close to everything that was/is himself that he almost disappeared in his own presence. His nerves appear to be on the outside of his body judging, by the way, he responses to feelings and emotions.

He is his own Otherness - human and god - but couldn’t see the difference.  He reminds me of a poem by the Swedish poet Thomas Tranströmer:

"Don't be ashamed of being human, be proud! 

Inside you, vault opens behind vault endlessly. 

You will never be complete, that's how it's meant to be.FN


Is it too banal to say that Orfeo sings from his heart? He sings from his heart. And he sings from his groin.


I needed to make the characters in the opera sound and behave as differently as possible. With Hanne Dieserud, as I describe in chapter 4, I worked on techniques and methods found in e.g.Grotowski and Roy Hart. Instead of going too deep into the minds of Orfeo, Euridice et. al, we looked for their body language and their voices and went from there. This method provided a raw and unsentimental way into their minds. It also gave me a humbleness towards them, because I had understood that I wouldn’t really know them. As Artaud says:”… I am well aware that the language of gestures and postures, dance and music, is less capable of analyzing a character, revealing a man’s thoughts, or elucidating states or consciousness clearly and precisely than is verbal language, but whoever said that theater was created to analyze a character, to resolve the conflicts of life and duty, to wrestle with all the problems of a topical and psychological nature that monopolize our contemporary stage?FN

I just had to Do it.



My goals in this part of the project: 

  • Knowing the difference between my self and the self of the characters.
  • Making a clear picture for myself of who the characters are. Why are they different from me?
  • Finding and playing with their body language.
  • Finding and playing with their voices.
  • The tools: My Voice, my Body, my Imagination, my Intuition.


My voices, and their voices together with body language and gestures, were elements I had to explore and figure out. Some of them had voices that were almost like old friends, while others had expressions and sounds I didn't recognize. 

On the one hand, I possessed the power to manipulate their emotional lives, reactions, and personal peculiarities. On the other hand, they are their own personalities with stories I must respect. Neither humans nor gods are as simple as we sometimes wish them to be. We all play different roles trying to fit into different contexts. Like the characters in a play, we have voices that can sound like angels singing in one setting and falling apart in another.

The process of finding all of the Characters/Roles has been long, is ongoing and is probably not over.


Some of the texts below are variations of what I’ve discussed earlier in the reflection. My work on L’Orfeo has taken place on parallel levels: The words, the characters, and the music. Normally, I would combine the three parameters in one single process, but I decided to separate them so that I could be in control of what was going on in each of the respective processes.



I am Orfeo - I am half a human, half a god. A god with magical powers. When I sing, and when I play, it affects your whole being. You change, your thoughts change. Bigger. You become more than what you thought you were. Your world gets more real, and more significant.

I tame wild beasts, and I calm storms.

Chapter 5

- The Characters and You.


Others in Yourself, the Self in the Otherness, the Otherness of The Self.

So, you are trying to charm my heart with your airs and your tears, you poor singer, but compassion does not reside in my soul. 

In this chapter, I will describe my work on finding and interacting with the opera’s characters - how we touched. The most important source of information lies in the score and in the libretto. Apart from that, I used theories from Susan McClary, and methods from Michael Chekhov and Jerzy Grotowski (embodied in workshops with Hanne Dieserud, Fia Adler Sandblad, Jon Tombre, and Roger Westberg)  


Here I am, again, dear forests and beloved meadows, You who are blessed by the same Sun

that made my days into nights.


...Let your soul no more long

For heavenly delight, Thus to abandon your marriage bed. Thank me by no longer desire the sun.  Thank me by staying in our marital bed.





”When two hands touch, there is a sensuality of the flesh, an exchange of warmth, a feeling of pressure, of presence, a proximity of otherness that brings the other nearly as close as oneself. Perhaps closer. And if two hands belong to one person, might this not enliven the uncanny sense of the otherness of the self, a literal holding oneself at a distance in the sensation of contact, the greeting of the stranger within? So much happens in a touch: an infinity of others - other beings, other spaces, other times- are aroused”. FN

Karen Barad. 

Illustration from the chapter "Actor's training 1966". Towards a poor theatre. Grotowski FN

An actor cannot give his audience new revelations by unvaryingly displaying only himself on the stage./…their difference makes them characters. And it will be a good starting point for an actor, in order to grasp the initial idea about the character he is going to perform on the stage, to ask himself:”What is the difference - however subtle or slight this difference may be - between myself and the character as it is described by the playwright?” Checkhov FN

And then, after finding them, I experimented with letting the characters switch roles and sing through each other. I investigated how the words of Caronte sounded in Euridice’s voice - it made her innocence even more vulnerable, but it also gave her darkness (the darkness around her roots?). Caronte’s bitterness even blacker, when I made him sing Euridice’s song. Orfeo’s joyful words in Messagiera’s body becomes a slap in the face. A cruel joke. Proserpina’s own words re-sounding in Plutone’s condescending voice turned her playful manipulation into something truly dangerous.

Because ”We can only see the self through recognition of what is other or not-self. Through being recognized and through recognizing the self of what is not self (other), we dialectically achieve a higher formative self.”FN

Max Van Manen

(Because you can't put up an opera without organizing a nerve-wracking audition with a mandatory piece.)

The story of Proserpina and Plutone - or Persephone and Hades, their Greek names - is an important backdrop to the story of Orfeo. Hades/Plutone, the king of the Underworld, fell in love with the nymph Persephone, daughter of Demeter/Ceres (the goddess of fertility). He abducted Persephone and forced her to stay in the underworld as his Queen. Because eating anything in the underworld would make it almost impossible for her to return back to life, he gave her a pomegranate she couldn’t help but eat. Demeter/Ceres sent Hermes to retrieve her, but because of the pomegranate she had to be in the underworld half the year (winter on earth) and on earth/life the second half (summer on earth)

Plutone/Hades is often described as a beautiful and powerful man. Proserpina/Persephone as a young and lovely nymph.

”Thus we have two temporalities that are not identical, even when they coincide in the performance of an opera, just as a person acting or singing is different from the character he portrays. In this respect, it is no coincidence that the origin of our concept of ”person” is found in the word for the face masks that the Greek actors wore onstage, persona, distinguishing the character as an Other. Even more pertinent is the literal meaning of the word persona: a voice through a mask, from the Latin per (through) and sonare (to sound)

… Thus, when listening to an opera, we hear a person addressing someone who is not there in the present: a voice sounding here and now in a plot for our eyes and ears onstage, and at the same time addressing itself from somewhere beyond the stage itself. Who then is actually speaking to us?”FN

Ståle Wikshåland

The Audition!

"The voice seeks resounding elements. The body, and especially those parts of it already mentioned, is the first and right place for the resonance of the voice. 

'On est createur seulement quand on fait des recherches.' "

(transl. 'We are only creators when we do research')

Grotowski FN



This takes me back to chapter 3 and the voice, room, body connections that Fia and Hanne speak about. Where does the voice come from? Where does it belong? Making my body and the room around me vessels and resonants for the voices of my characters.




Orfeo, I am no longer my own. I am only yours, and my love is yours. 

My heart is yours. The joy in my heart is yours.

My lord, my master, have you heard him? He is calling for his love, for Euridice. Your powers can Help him. Please, let Her go back.

I promise you I will make you love me even more.




Ah bitter fate, ah wicked and cruel destiny, Ah hurtful stars, ah avaricious Heaven.

Esther Maria Bjørneboe