James is away … Henrietta Spalding, Head of Advocacy at Changing Faces, writes a guest blog
After a recent chance meeting with the mezzo opera singer, Alison Wells, last weekend I found myself going along to see a unique opera first at the Tête à Tête Opera Festival at Kings Place in London. It was a performance of an intriguing new work about Stefan Bibrowski, a man born in 1890 with a rare medical condition called hypertrichosis which resulted in his whole body being covered in long hair, giving him the appearance of a lion.
His life experience, as far as we know, was that he was treated as an outcast, rejected by his own family, being exhibited from an early age and becoming known as Lionel, the Lion-Faced Man and had spent many years working as a ‘side show performer’ including with Barnum and Bailey in the United States. I was intrigued: a historical experience of disfigurement that was to be explored through opera, and not only that but had been specifically composed to challenge the audience on how they would view someone who was unusual when they weren’t able to look away.
As a life-long opera fan, I had some degree of trepidation. Contemporary opera would not necessarily be my first choice and on arrival we were given viewfinder goggles to focus our visual gaze on the portrait of Stefan throughout and to prevent us from peeping out at what the director did not want us to see – namely the singer and the musicians. This was somewhat alternative compared to my previous experiences of the wonderful casts, staging and costumes of Puccini and Verdi et al and their fabulous music.
The performance was to last just 21 minutes.. It carefully presented the life of Stefan from his birth to his death, both what is known factually – remarkably little – and the many myths, aspersions and hearsay that have been promulgated around his short life from his father being mauled by a lion which his mother supposedly witnessed whilst pregnant, to his being created by ‘the devil’.
Through a powerful libretto and a dynamic range of voices that the singer as a solo act captured, underpinned by a tremendous score (and not nearly as scarily atonal as I had feared) accompanied by a piano trio, the performance sought to dispel many of those myths simply revealing the very few known biographical facts of Stephan’s life – his date and place of birth. And all the time as we were absorbed in the performance, our attention was focused on his picture and our thoughts. Throughout I was wondering how other members of the audience perhaps less familiar with unusual appearances were responding and what was going through their minds – what was the journey that they were going on in terms of how they saw him, and actually who he was? Did they land up like me realising that in actual fact very little of this gentleman was known at all.
But it seemed to me at least that this experience from over hundred years ago resonates with so many of the pressures that many Changing Faces clients face today in our looks-obsessed world – the assumptions and speculation that people make so often about people with distinctive appearances whether it be around their life prospects or their personal lives and the measures that people often take to fit in and be accepted. Stefan himself with none of the modern treatment options available to him went to the extreme lengths of actually burning off some of his hair.
It was an incredibly powerful depiction and I congratulate CN Lester and Hel Gurney, the composer / director and librettist respectively and Alison too for a brilliantly thought provoking spectacle, and I very much hope that there will be further opportunities to see this work.