I had a very heated discussion some years ago with one of my mentors, a rather famous Lied-pianist, on the subject of Don Quixote de la Mancha, as we were preparing a concert that included both the Ravel and Ibert Don Quichotte cycles, toward the end of my baritone phase. I became very disenchanted when he said:
“Don Quixote is a loser! We should know that from the beginning!”
“How would you come to that conclusion? I said impertinently! He wins at the end!”
“In his own mind, perhaps,” said he. “But in reality he lost his mind and everything else.”
And so it felt to me as if I had just realized my father was not a superhero. This man whom I revered my entire musical life, it seems, did not get it at all. His point of view seemed common; I dare say banal. The performance of the cycles seemed unusually perfunctory to me, although he felt we had succeeded in accomplishing what was necessary. That Quixote Incident has remained with me for years and last night after a very enjoyable master class I realized something as I was going home.
I have always identified with Quixote and always will. But from last night on, my point of view about Quixote has changed. No I do not subscribe to the “loser” point of view of my former mentor. The character of Don Quixote, which I also played in Man of La Mancha, is even grander to me now. I used to think of Don Quixote as an underdog, the way I thought of Rocky (the Stallone character) as an underdog, but this is an erroneous point of view. These iconic characters endure because they were winners from the very beginning. They had the spirit of winners long before anyone ever saw them as winners.
What does Quixote really mean? What is it that makes this character endure and has fascinated composers of many generations from Jules Massenet, to Manuel de Falla to Mitch Leigh? Through adversity, Don Quixote lives by a vision of the world that in the end transforms others who in the beginning ridiculed him. He was willing to risk his life for his beliefs.
Most artists live a Quixotic vision in spite of a world that look upon us as dreamers and yet cannot continue to exist without our dreams that are so easy to deride. Because we persevere and achieve, often at great cost to ourselves and often against what to others appear to be impossible odds, we too often believe that anyone can undertake the journey that we have no choice but to take. We are artists and that remains our way of life until we die. We made that commitment before we knew we made it.
When I became a teacher, I unconsciously thought that I could enlighten my students as to the importance of the Quixotic pursuit, that I could open the way for them to a journey that was so extremely noble. But that is indeed a savior complex that leads to disappointment. My teachers that I saw as so extremely inspiring were only guiding me on a journey that I decided to take. They never pushed me to do anything I was not already determined to do. The students I have come to enjoy teaching also took on this journey before I ever met them. Because the journey is difficult, I encourage them and remind them of that which somewhere inside of themselves they already knew.
I thought I would be much sadder when I realized that I cannot transform anyone. But contrarily, it is a joy and a relief to discover that I can only guide them on a journey of transformation that they themselves already took and that they already know the price of attempting to become what they imagine inside of themselves, rather than what the world has superficially decided for them.
Rocky was already a winner from the beginning. He only needed Mickey to show him how to bring the winner in him out. Quixote made “The Impossible Dream” possible. He is the ultimate winner. A winner is not without doubt. And no win is ever easy. But winners simply win because they never stop fighting! No teacher can turn a looser into a winner, but a teacher can help a winner learn how not to loose!