In her debut essay collection Let Me Clear My Throat: Essays, actor and writer Elena Passarello considers the human voice.
What drew you to the subject of the human voice?
Somebody told me that singing is the thing you can’t not write about. I worked as an actor for a long time, so I used to think a lot about the voice professionally. It’s a lovely, mysterious, gerrymandered part of the human body.
Which was your favorite essay to write and research?
The castrati essay was difficult until I learned about Enrico Caruso, the opera singer. His was the first voice to go platinum. The way they recorded him was ridiculous. He stuck his face into a crazy cone and sang. It’s not easy to understand why he’s compelling, but once you know the personality, you love the voice more. I hope I get to heaven so I can meet him up there.
The monologues interspersed between narrative essays introduce a variety of perspectives on the subject. How did you find this diverse cast?
A lot of the voices that appear are voice types on which I would have liked to have written long-form essays: an auctioneer, an Elvis impersonator. Because I work in performance, I have weird ties to people. I was able to find opera singers and actors. Sometimes I just called people up. I saw a YouTube clip of the impressionist—it was going viral last July or August. I just called him and said: “I have to put you in my book!”
Is the strong element of physicality in the essays something you brought over from your experience as a performer?
I think about the voice as an instrument of performance. Even if you’re not a performer, you develop a voice that allows you to perform communicative tasks. But there’s a big difference between the way I work as a performer and the way I work as a writer. It was difficult to find a literary mode for that type of work.
Do you continue to perform?
I do. It’s great, because it’s just so
different from writing. It’s like if you had a beach house and a ski lodge. Performing is so physical. All of the choices that you make have to do with your body in a space, interacting with other people. But at the same time, there’s a limited autonomy. Literally, they put words into your mouth. Writing, you put the words into your own mouth, and there’s no one there to help you. You really are training completely different muscle groups.