Meditation on Passover, Easter and the Pandemic and of course Singing

During passover, I watched The Ten Commandments. It’s a movie my father introduced me to, not only for it’s religious message but because he was a huge fan of Yul Brynner, which I became by extension. Watching the film again, I realized how artistically aware my father was. He introduced me to music and painting and the importance of dancing. He also was impacted by Brynner who was by far the most authoritative actor in that nearly four hours long epic film. The Ten Commandments not only introduced me to that great actor but also the idea of slavery and the time of sequestration necessary to deal with a plague. That word can describe many states of being: the sleep we need at night to be renewed the next day; the rest we need from work during the weekends so we may start again in the new week, etc. We performers do not have those exact schedules but we need rest between performances and even between seasons to recuperate from the demands of our jobs.

Indeed, the planet is an organism that needs rest from the devastation that we humans put her through and whether we acknowledge or not that we behave as a pestilence to Planet Earth, perhaps she feels it and releases antibodies to bring herself back to health. Likewise, maybe our viruses, like Covid-19 are unaware that they are a plague to us humans. Skeptics and deniers of Global Warming (I prefer that word than the political euphemism Climate Change) argue online against the merits of smogless blue skies in India or the privacy that Pandas need for sexual activity (for when the zoo was closed, pandas that refused to procreate suddenly became sexually active). A few kilometers away from my apartment in Valencia, the planet’s healing is also visible. Valencia’s Albufera (lagoon) was reported in significant decline only a week before the pandemic caused sequestration. I read an article in a local newspaper that spoke of the dying of algae and that birds that normally populated the Albufera were no longer coming. A dear friend of mine here in Valencia posted this on Facebook a couple of days ago:

caption: A marvel of pictures circulating on WhatsApp.

My friend’s post made real for me so close to home that the planet indeed responds to our effects on it. Likewise I meditate upon our effects on the art of singing. Not every human being commits equal crimes against the health of the planet. Likewise not every artist commit equal infractions again the health of our Art of Singing, which to me is sacred. I am unmolested if I never sing another operatic production ever again in my life, but I can hardly go one day without singing. I know many who feel this way. It’s not that I hate opera. Quite the contrary, it is the art form that drew me to the stage.

But I ask forgiveness of my many friends and students who sing opera currently for my purist approach. The operatic field too has had a cancer upon it since its inception. George Sand, in her three-tome novel Consuelo and its sequel La comtesse de Rudolstadt, describes the composer and church musician, Porpora, considered one of the greatest voice teachers in the history of classical singing– including being the teacher of the castrati Cafariello and Farinelli, arguable the two most celebrated singers in the late 18th century– as a purist who saw opera as a danger to the sacred art of singing, the purpose of which was to transmit the purity of music in a manner that effaces the transmitter (singer) and elevated the transmission ( sacred nature of music in harmony with respect to the universal laws of physics)– a sentiment that has its foundations in the arguments of the Enlightenment. In George Sand’s novels, Porpora and by extension his newest student, Consuelo, is introduced as the standard bearer of the purity of the art of singing against his friend and former student who became the impresario for the Venetian Opera. Porpora refuses to allow his star pupil to sing anywhere but in the Church, where the music is written for the glory of God and not for the aggrandizement of the singer. This argument between musical laws of harmony (as manifested in the natural overtone series, for example) and the virtuosity of the artist, for the artist’s sake saw a correction from Baroque virtuosity to the musical austerity of the Classical period and it continues to our day between the singer who abuses the music to exhibit his/her vocal prowess and a conductor like Riccardo Muti who argues for the virtues of the musical score as a sacred document.

I am not so much of a purist as one might think, but I think we are at a time in our history, very much akin to the abuses of the Aristocracy of the 18th century that lead to the French Revolution, whereby wealth was owned by a small elite while the vastness of the populace was living in virtual starvation. Marie-Antoinette’s callous response,

“let them eat cake…”

… has its many equivalents in our own time and remains symbolic of that other axiom,

“Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

And so, in politics as in art, we are living in a time where the concentration of influence has been transformed in rapid fashion from relatively democratic to fundamentally oligarchic. The Weinsteins and Domingos of the world are the result of unchecked influence. That politicians worldwide in heretofore democratic governments, most notably Trump in the United States, have contrived to concentrate power in the body of the individual as opposed to it being shared by several branches of government is a principle that can be traced just as clearly in the field of opera, where extraordinary influence has been concentrated in the body of casting directors and powerful artist managers/agents, who by nature work for their own interests in exact opposition to the needs of the art form. It is not that agents should not be about self-interest, it is that they have been given powers that relative to the health of the art form does not belong to them. Nor does that power belong exclusively to Stage Directors (we have seen the corruption in the excesses of Regietheater), nor to Conductors (we have seen such megalomaniacs as Karajan abuse that trust, regardless of his great talent) nor to the singers themselves (as they are too often inadequate musicians relative to the complexity of the score and too often make decisions relative to the exhibition of their vocal abilities in direct contrast to the intricate laws of harmony and rhythm). The health of our governments and our arts depends on shared influence from several bodies that can check each other for the maintenance of balance.

In operatic music, the singer should be expert enough to argue with the conductor, stage director and even composer for the health of the vocal instrument and its possibilities relative to virtuosity of any kind (range, speed, volume, etc) versus musical and dramatic expression. A singer who is part of that conversation must understand the limits as well as the possibilities of the human voice in the context of dramatic expression. We are capable of a lot more that the demands of even the most demanding Bel Canto operas. That is, if we had time to develop our instruments beyond the current market demands, which is pretty poor–Not a criticism of singers but of the demands imposed by the business in its current form. To argue with a conductor or stage director or composer, the singer should be schooled enough to understand on some level the demands of the operatic score (the orchestral score) in matters both musical and dramatic.

That singer needs enough life experience to be able to stand up for the voice.

Likewise, composers need to understand the medium of music theater historically to be able to take it to the next level. The failure of most modern opera is fundamentally based on the ignorance of most operatic composers relative to the importance of the human voice in opera and how the score is used not only for dramatic atmosphere but for dramatic impetus and progress relative to rhythmic and thematic use of the music. As one who has taken 5 years of composition seminars at the highest level, I would argue that those things are not taught. And if they are, not to the degree they need to be.

When the dramatic progression of a scene is not written through the music itself, the composer has failed and the stage director will take it upon himself/herself to impose his/her own ideas upon the music. In our times, unmusical stage directors will defy the score of proven great music dramas to impose their less informed ideas upon them. It is difficult for me to imagine an operatic stage director who is not a musician of the highest level. Yet, I had a great theatrical stage director who did not read music and made a remarkable operatic debut. He was not afraid to ask questions about the music and often deferred to the conductor and singers in matters musical. Although he did not read music, Travis Preston could sing the entire score from listening to it hundreds of times.

Muti makes the argument not only for the education of conductors, but for the singers as well and in some manner for the stage directors and composers too.

I recommend this short four minute clip to anyone who has anything to do with music that requires a dramatic context…

…and like Muti says it includes symphonic music, chamber music and music theater in all its forms.

Muti argues for music

Thus in our imposed sequestration relative to Covid-19, and as I experienced watching The Ten Commandments again, we are waiting for the passing of a plague. One of our own choosing, as it was for Pharaoh who according to scripture uttered the plague that would come to pass, but that he intended by killing all the first born of Israel. By our actions as human beings, we created a sickness in the world that perhaps incited a response from the Earth if we were to think of the planet as a living organism. That is up for philosophical if not scientific debate. If balance is the nature of the universe, then balance is manifest in all parts of it including the balance of ecosystems and the planet as both macrocosm relative to itself and microcosm relative to the universe. When the plague has past, will we have a rebirth? A rebirth of consciousness, of better planetary health? Likewise, will that health include consciousness at the level of our artistic community and its health instead of a concentration of influence in the hands of a few? And by extension, will our societies give worth to the presence of ART in the larger sense as a necessary and vital element of our lives as human beings, as opposed to a luxury that the economic elite only should be able to afford? There was a time the argument for the former was self-evident and our societies prospered as a result. But greed for power and influence and fame became the new hallmark and with them corruption, self-aggrandizement and decay of all things artistic.

And so my personal hope is that as we go through this passover, and we sequester ourselves for the passing of Death and we go not coincidentally through this Lenten times in the hope of an Easter rebirth, a resurrection if you will, we will come out better as a world society. Will we consider a global vision of the world and of our art? Or will we squander the opportunity and go back to our selfish, egocentric processes, seeking only what is necessary for our personal comforts rather than the health of our society, our universal ecosystem, our planet, our fellow man, our family, our art?

12 April 2020

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