I live by the salt water, and look out every day on a rock where seals sunbathe; my distance vision is impressionistic, the bodies lounging where rock meets wave might as well be mermaids. Traditionally half-fish, half-woman, and drop-dead gorgeous, mermaids, at some point, got confused with the traditionally half-bird, half-woman sirens, whose singing voices were notoriously beautiful. Both animal-woman forms caused shipwrecks, or brought bad luck, although some could bestow boons, as well. In today’s popular imagination, the mermaid/siren is commonly thought of as possessing great physical beauty and an irresistible soprano, and she seems to have lost her danger along the way. Weeki Wachee Springs, in Florida, has been featuring professional mermaids in an underwater stage with glass walls since 1947. There are now mermaid schools in Los Angeles, Montreal, Colorado, and the Philippines, among others. Students pick out a colorful monofin and dive in. Mermaiding is now a verb, a hobby, a job. It seems all fantasy, fetish, and sparkle. But I was interested in a mermaid’s interior life. And now, my friend has become one. A mermaid. So I thought I’d ask her.
Fides Krucker is an internationally acclaimed singer specializing in contemporary vocal repertoire. Based in Toronto, she is also a teacher, writer, and vocal composer. Her current role is the Mermaid in DIVE, a work she co-created with writer Richard Sanger and composer Nik Beeson.
— Julie Trimingham
Fides Krucker singing “The Pearls” from DIVE.
Fides Krucker singing “Lyghea’s Idyll” from DIVE.
Julie Trimingham (JT): Before you were a mermaid, you were a girl in baker’s whites. You’ve told me about arpeggiating in front of your first singing teacher, an Italian soprano who would clasp her left breast, squeeze it, and demand, at the end of your run, Another one for baby Jesus! I love this image. Can you please elaborate?
Fides Krucker (FK): When I was young, hardly twenty, I ran my father’s bakery. This was industrial baking, we made thousands of croissants an hour… flaky, buttery, high-end ones… but it was not glamorous or romantic in any way. Lots of flour in the air and in my hair (which was big and curly at that time). I’d show up for singing lessons still in my baker’s whites…a short sleeved dress, apron, little socks and safety shoes…practical! Maria would actually do what you describe as she taught…the squeeze, the ‘baby Jesus’… What I wish I had done in those first lessons was just imitate the way she sang…not her sound… but her healthy vocal process. She had been taught in Italy and came to Canada as a teenager. She had such an opulent voice, and the real ‘bel canto’ approach. I was only with her a few years as she did not seem ‘intellectual’ enough for my tastes. Silly me! If only I had been ready to understand how healthy she was in her animal body, embodying a sustainable singing technique due to a pure and uninterrupted line of operatic training. She would have been a great mermaid.
JT: The Pastry Chef in DIVE, is she drawn from your life?
FK: There is a pastry chef in the original story, but he is male. Even though the scene is not from my life, when I sing the vowels of all those Italian and French pastries, I take them quite personally! The words taste good! Panettone, tiramisu, cream puffs and eclairs I used to bake and brioches , cannoli and palm-leaves, I simply love to eat…I’m a bit sweet and flaky myself.
I ended up marrying too young (the first time) thanks to a cheesecake I had made and given to a cousin, who gave it to a Sicilian friend…who proposed. I think agreeing to that marriage was how I got myself out of the bakery. I did not know how to say ‘no’ to my father, so accidentally said ‘yes’ to another man. I wasn’t raised by a feminist, you know! I was impulsive and unconscious at that time. It has taken a lifetime to try and change that!
JT: DIVE is based on The Professor and the Siren, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa (http://www.nybooks.com/books/
FK: Oh yes I am! And just at the right time in my life! I am undoing so many things that no longer serve me, and she is part of the undoing.
The mermaid I play in DIVE is amoral. (With the exception of Disney’s Ariel I imagine all sirens and silkies live somewhere outside of human rights and wrongs). She is fun to inhabit, she gets to break all sorts of vocal rules, and she will have a great costume. In the script she tells us that she is Lighea, the daughter of Calliope. No little mermaid here…she is descended from the biggest muse of all.
You know, a mermaid is utterly undomesticated. She is not domiciled. She inhabits the ocean. She lives far beyond of my idea of ‘house’. To bring her to life I have to use this house, my body.
JT: How did you become her?
FK: The mermaid’s songs were a real collaboration between Nik, the composer, and myself. I improvised, singing with wolves and with whales. I imitated their sounds and I let myself be wild…I ululated, howled and shrieked. The mermaid is a stand-in for the parts of me not yet fully present…for the parts of me I have learned to hide because they seem dangerous or threatening to society, to men, to other women. This is not because the sounds I am making are inherently rough or aggressive or damaging…it is because they’re real…and unfettered.
JT: What is the hardest thing about being a mermaid?
FK: Getting past predictable behaviour. I realize how conditioned and patterned I can be. Sometimes I overreact, sometimes I repress. These are not part of the mermaid’s repertoire. She is animal and divine. An extra challenge is that this mermaid appears as jilted girlfriend, pastry shop waitress, barmaid and house keeper, as well as her elemental self. I play them all, and in each of these assigned female roles, there needs to be a little of her pointy teeth and fishy scent.
One thing I dearly love about this mermaid is that when she asks Rosario to come with her under the sea and he says he can’t, she simply slips back into the water and goes about her business. I can feel her sadness, but still, she lets go and returns to her element…swims in what is current.
JT: Are you worried about ocean acidification, or is it only the crustaceans that are complaining?
Yes, I am worried. When I was at college, I took Marine Biology. I thought for a few years that this would be my career. Embodying this big mermaid reminds me of that early passion, takes me out of Toronto, and plunks me back into the ocean. I remember scuba diving at Race Rocks, off the southern tip of Vancouver Island. We were in the water at least twice a week swimming with the extraordinary invertebrate life….colours and shapes galore…sensitive anemones, prickly sea urchins, sluggish sea cucumbers, and masses of bull kelp. Acidification absolutely affects any sea creature that makes a shell. It upsets other processes in virtually all varieties of sea life…reducing an organism’s ability to reproduce, heal, grow and respond to stress. Sea life is sensitive life! We need to listen.
JT: DIVE is set in Mussolini’s Italy. What’s the relationship between fascism and your mermaid?
FK: That’s a great question. Fascism refers to a bundling together in order to find strength. This is a good idea. But the fascism or ‘bundling together of peasants’ in Italy at that time was under the dictatorship of Mussolini.
The mermaid is elemental. She is as wild and powerful as a storm, she has an intrinsic violence. In the way she uses her voice, we can tell that she knows how to reign that violence in. Mussolini just rages and roars. I suggested to the composer that we stretch out his voice to really explore the sounds within his yelled speeches. This made them more musical and more animal all at once. Nik did beautiful work with this stretched vocal material, and I respond as the mermaid to it through my own stretched, nonconforming sounds. Mermaid and Mussolini go toe to toe, howl to howl.
JT: Mermaids can’t spread their legs. What do you make of this?
FK: Heaven! Peace of mind! Power! A different type of intimacy…and maybe a little loneliness?
In ancient Greece a woman’s voice was equated to a woman’s vagina. A physician from that time would say that you could hear when a woman was menstruating, thanks to the sound of her voice. Women were also expected to speak in pleasing tones within the city walls of Athens. Women did not have the vote, could not own property. They were not full citizens. To make loud sound they had to leave civic space. Out in nature or in the suburbs they could engage with the ritualistic female sound called the Ololyga. This high piercing cry would have functioned cathartically, a communal blowing off of steam.
So a mermaid making any sound she pleases…dangerous sound to boot…and not spreading her legs, seems logical and useful to me. Very undomesticated. It makes me want to re-read the Lysistrata. The women in Aristophanes’ play withhold sex as a way to try and secure peace and end the Peloponnesian War. That’s a whole society of women closing one mouth with the hope that the words coming out of the other will be heard and heeded. This strategy has been used in modern times to protest violence and corruption and effect change…Nigeria, Kenya, Togo, South Sudan, Liberia, The Philippines and Colombia.
JT: Mermaids don’t wear clothes.
FK: My voice is an intimate thing. It is my familiar. It knows me and my job is to be naked with it and let it be naked. And then know where I left my clothes!
JT: Your mermaid screams and groans as well as sings.
FK: Screaming is a human survival tool. It sounds alarm. Growling, shrieking, sobbing, whining, these non-verbal sounds express exactly what is going on for us.
JT: When you are singing, where does the song come from?
FK: The place that aches behind my chest. Maybe this is my heart! But it feels more like soul or even a very specific intelligence. It is not always listened to or respected…by me, by others.
The ache is is a disciple of the emotions, learning all of their curves, no matter how painful, or how riskily bright and optimistic. It is devoted to the spaces between the notes on the page.
JT: Diving into the ocean is deep work. What do you think, Mermaid?
FK: This morning, that sentence makes me tired. I am too aware of all the work that needs to be done…in relationships within the family, within society, with the planet itself. For me, a woman with two legs, I am glad that I can go for a vigorous walk and let go of worry for a while.
The mermaid in our piece takes on big things, she represents big things, and even though I try to house her when singing…and many of us are housing these big thoughts and feelings every day…there is only so much any one person can do.
I am so grateful for art…for its ability to point things out and its audacity to imagine…and if that can inspire truthful and hopeful conversation within community, well, that is even better. That’s what I am interested in now…imagining a more expansive and flexible and integrated existence for us all.
— Fides Krucker & Julie Trimingham
Watch a bit of DIVE at http://www.nikbeeson.com/dive/
CDs available at http://www.nikbeeson.com/
Sonic Theatre Performance
July 30 – August 9
Array Music Studio
155 Walnut Avenue, Toronto
Julie Trimingham is a filmmaker and writer. Her first novel, Mockingbird, was released in 2013. Way Elsewhere, a collection of fictional essays, is forthcoming from Lettered Streets Press. She loves writing for Numéro Cinq. Stories she has told at The Moth Story Slam are posted at www.julietrimingham.com.