Irritation is good…Day 17

Most of my time this morning will be devoted to working on the music for my upcoming trip, but since I really need to turn in my paper and project from my class before I leave, I thought I would devote the pre-breakfast hours to getting the paper started.

You may have already guessed, but I have been trying out a lot of my ideas right here.

And so, this morning I have returned again to Dr. Saliers as I work on the introduction to my paper, “Social Justice Themes in Opera:  Speaking Truth to Power”.    Excuse me, but for most of this post I will be doing the blogging equivalent of “thinking out loud”.

Let’s see what Dr. Saliers has to say about the power of singing:

The act of singing is a deeply human act, found in every culture.  this is so because singing activates things that seem so central to human life itself:  bodily, emotional, intellectual, and moral animation.  To sing requires breath, physical production of sound, emotional resonance, uses of the mind, and characterically collaborative patterns of listening and participation.

If these things are so, then the act of singing to God is a deeply theological act, which may also be a political act…Sung praise and praise to God is more than intellectual understand and assent to the claims about God.  Singing ENACTS the praise, thanksgiving, and blessing.  Singing also ENACTS sorrow, anger, lament, and the questioning of God. … While singing may also teach or inform faith about theological doctrine, its primary drive is to form and express faith in the realities about which worshiping congregations sing. (pg. 61)

I think that, in all of this, Saliers has forgotten one other ability of a musical message:  to irritate.  And no, I’m not talking about the way a repetitive phrase can make me want to tear my hair, or music that is too loud, or music that you just don’t like — I’m not talking about that kind of irritation.  I mean a kind of irritation like, say, the Prophets delivered to the people of Israel.  You know who a prophet is, right?  Someone who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.  THAT kind of irritation.  The kind of irritation caused when your soul hears a message that your head wants to deny, and then, while your head is denying, your soul just can’t stop hanging on to…well, whatever it is you don’t want to see or acknowledge.

I used to have a good friend who called this “cognitive dissonance”.  I myself often refer to it as “divine discontent”.   But I think that, in a way, this is the other power of music.  Yes, music has the ability to pull together our disparate parts (body, mind and soul) and have them express as one, thereby seemingly expressing the unexpressable.  BUT, it also has the power to be subversive:  to slip through the cracks of our intellect, to slide past the shields of our defenses– to seep into the unknown crevices in our consciousness, where it can cause real change to happen.

And, I think this is the real possibility of opera as an agent of social change.  First, because it is perceived as an elite art form, your audience will most likely be comprised of those who really need to hear the social justice message:  they need it because, one, they do not live it; and two, because they most likely have time and money with which to address the need.   Second, opera is a uniquely powerful musical tool because it is multi-sensual in its nature; it uses music, yes, but it also uses storytelling and visual art as part of its communication medium.  I dare the heart most hardened against the plight of immigrants in this world to not be moved by watching a performance of “To This We’ve Come” from Menotti’s The Consul.  How can you not leave the theatre thinking about issues of war and peac after Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata?  Can you really not question the validity of the death penalty after Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking?

After all,  what creates a pearl?  Irritation. Irritating, beautiful, disturbing, and profound….music is all these things; I think that I now see that opera can be all these things as well.  And with this comfort we move on.

Spanish art songs, here I come.

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