As promised, today we talk about the perspective from the view of the performer and of the audience…
The performer’s job is to combine the work of the librettist and the composer, add to it their own humanity, and bring that work and the character they are assigned to life on the stage. The performer’s perspective is something that I can speak to from my own personal experience. But it is a difficult thing to describe to someone who is not a performer.
As a performer, we pick up the score of an opera and we begin to study. And that study requires all of our very being: you need your intellect to deal with the mechanics of the music, the mechanics of what is most likely a foreign language (which hopefully you speak at least a little). Your body must engage to actually learn the music, to memorize the text, and eventually (if you are lucky enough to be performing a fully staged version of the work) to learn blocking and physical gestures needed to bring the work to life on the stage. And in the midst of all that, you must be able to access your soul and your spirit, so that you can find the humanity in the characters you portray – so that you can empathize, and feel—all the while counting to 12 before you walk stage right and pick up the hat. In short, as a performer, you are in a completely prepared state to receive the message of the text and be influenced by it, as you are completely open to the work during the preparation time.
There is a word used in opera circles to describe a great performance, a performance that supersedes the physical limitations of all the parts of the opera production, a performance that is that creates the kind of magic which communicates that which cannot be communicated through words and music: that word is “demented”. A demented performance is a transcendent performance, and changes the listener and the performer by their very participation in the moment. Now that is the ability to create social change.
And what about the audience? You might think that the audience perspective is a passive one, but it is not. First, without an audience, even if it is only one person, there is no performance and therefore there is no communication and no sharing. Saliers points out that Christianity is a faith that must be heard, that the experience of God is
…in sound and image—voices, instruments, the dance. Early on in Hebrew Scripture God calls: “Hear, O Israel…” (Deut. 6:4)…In the Christian Testament: “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17). And the Psalms constantly evoke singing: “Sing to the Lord a new song” (Psalms 96 and 98). Luke can barely make it through two chapters of his gospel without breaking into song four times: the great canticles of Mary, of Zechariah, and of old Simeon commingle with the angels’ spontaneous Gloria in excelsis….From the beginning the gospel takes on human form and is proclaimed and celebrated in the human idioms of ordered sound (Music and Theology, pg. 11).
Listening, listening when fully engaged is in its own way just like performing: it focuses the listener physically by stimulating the senses; the rhythm and the pulse affect the listener’s nervous system. Again, Saliers: “Ordered sound from ‘outside’ our bodies resonates and evokes the music ‘inside’ our bodies. The inner music is constituted by the very make-up of the human body: heartbeat, breathing, walking… (Music and Theology, pg. 13). “
Listening is as much a practice of music as is making music. And it is only the listener who has the change to observe the work of opera as an whole…seeing the work of the visual design, listening to the story told by the librettist and the composer, sharing the story as embodied by the performers.