We have been told that we are living in a post-truth era.
I am waiting on the 59th Street platform waiting for the C train en route to National Sawdust. An African-American woman in her early thirties is singing underneath a stairwell. She is tall – so tall, she has to crouch so that her head does not touch the lowest steps of the staircase above her. She sets herself apart from the humdrum of commuters. The stairwell is her amphitheater – the room of her own. She has a 12-inch speaker, a 20-dollar microphone, and Alicia Keyes. The verity of her voice sears the frigid evening. Her soulful grace congregates the loners on the platform – her voice eases our waiting. In case we have forgotten, the lyrics remind us again of love.
I am prompted of Rilke’s advice to aspiring young writers: “confess to yourself whether you have to die if writing were denied to you.” The singer on the platform lives Rilke’s instruction.
I am on my way to see a workshop of a ‘new performing edition’ of Handel’s four-hour opera Ariodante, the vision of director R. B. Schlather and musical director Geoffrey McDonald.
I am nervous and slightly cynical about what “new” means to an opera composed in 1734, and how contemporary rhetoric keeps sending the message that opera is dead and everyone needs to bring it back to life. Am I going to another post-modern memorial service?
I am also considering the practice of a workshop. I am thinking about the artists, most especially about the singers. I am considering vulnerability and bravery. At once and again, the singer at 59th Street performing Alicia Keyes comes to mind. A workshop is a moment of eavesdropping. Imagine for a moment if a group of anonymous people were invited to pry on you at your office or at home?
When I arrive at Sawdust, someone has whispered to someone else, “This is Handel for hipsters.” My suspicion thermometer inches its mercury reading to fever. All I am asking for is integrity.
The workshop presentation is in the round. Everyone is seated, the singers, ensemble, director, and audience together at the same table: opera as democracy. We are accustomed to opera singers appearing before us as stick figures – somewhere high and in the distance, with a dazzling spotlight intent on blinding the singer’s vision of us. Every element in the opera house is conspiratorially calculated to maximize the sense of estrangement. The orchestra pit delineates the distance of disaffection.
I am seated behind the singers. I am sitting so close my knees touch the backs of their chairs. I do not see their faces; I see the back of their necks.
The preservation of the score’s integrity is realized without loss of Baroque style by the vocal interpretations. If the vision of this future production (in 2017) is to promote accessibility, then this R. B. Schlather creation must include this cast of Jamie Van Eyck, Tamara Wilson, Ambur Braid, Samuel Levine, and Randall Scotting.
Then, as I am being taken by the vocal finesse of the historically accurate performances by these fine dramatic artists – from the visceral, blood-chilling demonstrations of Braid’s “Voi che fate!” to the velvet royalty of Wilson’s Ginevra and Van Eyck’s Ariodante – and, equally, as I am listening to the Baroque melisma and ornamentation spinning in the room, I am searching for Schlather’s “new.” I find myself circling back again to Rilke and the busker at 59th Street. This company of singers is creating opera has if they had to confess to themselves whether they would have to die if singing was denied to them. For the audience, the philosophy is reciprocated because we are also being taken to the same ledge-of-a-precipice experience.
My search for the new continues. The word “retro” creeps into my lexicon. The “new” in this production reinforces bel canto singing – bringing with it the elemental trace element of truth. Without staging or stance, with their backs to part of the audience, the performers reminded us to what it means to communicate simply through the soul of the voice and observing the powerful simplicity of the open vowel. It is a method of singing prescribed byHerbert Caesari, the vocal pedagogue loved by Roland Barthes. Caesari insisted that the vowel is the soul of the voice, and with it, he says, the voice of the mind. These singers and this production bring an emotional truth to their conjugation of the voice and the score. This “new” retro new in Schlather’s (et al) production is an experience of truth fueled by equal parts vulnerability and urgency.
The question, then, is how much will be lost or how much can be saved when this eavesdropping moment moves to the opera house.
I wrote an ode to it to keep it safe.
Ah. An expiration of sound of formed vibrations. Ah. As simple as that. To some, the vowel is called the soul of the voice. Ah. The French word for the soul is l’âme. The word that sounds so much like a heart is the same word used for a sound post in a violin, the tiniest piece of wood in a violin. Ah. A single splinter of pale wood connecting two sides of a small instrument. Fragile and vulnerable, so completely hidden from a light’s view that we do not know it exists. Ah it is a splinter that is the heart of a violin—the part that gives the sound. Ah. This is what is means to sing.
As an opera singer, writer, cultural commentator, curator, and diplomat, Xenia Hanusiak contributes to the stage, the page, and the intervals in between. She holds a PhD in Literature, two degrees in classical music, and a Bachelor of Arts degree (Theatre, Literature, Art History). Her collection of essays, feature articles, commentaries and columns have appeared in The Age, The Australian, ABC, South China Post, Sydney Morning Herald, Boston Globe, and specialist literary and music publications such as Music and Literature and La Scena Musicale.