Tuesday, October 30, 2007


I've related a few stories to you about the REFUGE-related community events we've participated in. Re-reading them, I see that I've emphasized the positive (what a weak word - try life-changing) aspects of bringing musics of different cultures together. It has been positive, amazing, unexpected, dramatic. And also awkward, full of occasions to unintentionally cause misunderstanding and insult, and downright scary.

At the end of "Vietnam", the second movement of the piece, our bass-baritone sings the Vietnamese national anthem. That's not been sung since 1975. We had no idea how people would react to it. I talked in an earlier post about the tricky task of singing the stories of the interviewees for this piece. One of our Vietnamese subjects had sung the national anthem in his interview; he was talking about singing it secretly with his fellow inmates in a North Vietnamese prison camp. Our composer and librettist understandably included that proud, unbearable moment in the piece. But one Vietnamese man's pride could be another's poison. How would other people from that place react to hearing the anthem - and react to it sung by representatives of a nation so deeply involved in the war that divided Vietnam?

These are enormous questions. And, in the moment of performance, their burden lies most heavily on the shoulders of the performers. The words and the voices that will move the audience are coming out of individuals who can then end up being the focus of the listeners' forceful emotion. The stories they are telling are not the performers', that's what we've been saying. Except now we know that, in the moment of performance, the stories do belong to the performers.

RM, FS, BG, and DH ended up the focus of forceful positive emotion at the Vietnamese event. But there have been moments all along that felt like potential powderkegs. There's a text in the Pakistani movement where the interviewee speaks of feeling a lack of religious freedom in Pakistan. When we first rehearsed this movement with our guest Quwali singer (Ali, who is incredibly skilled and gifted), he became very concerned at this and about the reaction it might get. Now, the text in question came from a Pakistani man, but in the piece it's placed in the mouth of a mezzo - JB happens to be the young white daughter of Harley-riding Georgians. When she sings that text, it is hers in that moment. All went well at the Pakistan-American Community Center when we performed the movement, but there was a lot of anxiety about that text.

Misunderstanding has flowed the other way. A fair amount of humor has arisen during the preparation and rehearsal of this piece. Theater folk understand that tension is diffused in this way, both tension over the amount of work involved and tension over the subject matter. And theater folk can also be monumentally blind to the fact that not everyone is part of their world. We've had to put out a few fires when someone joking about a text setting or a line set in an awkward vocal way has been perceived by someone as joking about the story.

Beyond this is the simple burden of singing about unbearable, harrowing experiences. Not all of the REFUGE deals with these - the piece has humor, lightness, joy. But some of the stories are beyond description in their horror and grief. Every performer must learn to deal with emotion, singers especially; they must learn to draw on their emotions without letting their throats close in response. But even the most harrowing operas I know tend to deal with subjects like murder, rape, or abuse in a stylized way. THE REFUGE simply puts those words out there. It doesn't portray rape or murder, it speaks of those things. There's no veil of character for the singers to wear. Indeed, they realized quickly that "character" was not the right approach. RC and I talked about this a lot - she has the task of singing an 11-minute tour-de-force that tells the story of a woman who walked from El Salvador to Houston. It would be one thing to "play" that woman, a la LA VOIX HUMAINE or ERWARTUNG, but that's not the piece, and not the way to honor this real, living woman and her experiences. So RC's job is just to say the story, which is almost literally unspeakable. In fact, the woman who told it spoke parts of it for the first time ever to our interviewer.

And so our singers deal with discomfort and terror, in the face of people who have experienced things they cannot imagine. And in the course of singing the words, they do imagine these things, they must. But none of the singers mistakes imagining for experience. They are all heavily aware of the responsibility they bear. This is completely new territory.

In writing the above, I realize that I'm speaking about the experiences of people I know. I don't know everyone in the project equally well. I can't say that none of our singers, soloists and chorus, have ever experienced events as shocking and terrifying as the ones in the libretto. If so, what is this piece like for them? Wrenching? Liberating? And again, why does this piece engender these questions, when WOZZECK or WAR AND PEACE never would?

I'm saying a lot and having trouble finding what it is I'm trying to say. All of this comes after the events of the weekend, and after reading a beautiful unrelated blogpost by nick, so honest, and also this by yankeediva: two friends musing on the nature of what we do and why we do it. I've just re-read both posts and am no closer to an elegant wrapup of my own.

A few days ago I wrote about how much classical musicians and listeners love knowing what to expect. Our technique arms us as we set ourselves against the storm of this performance, this life. Even new pieces contain familiar gestures, familiar forms. Rarely, if ever, will we have the task, the opportunity, of taking on so much that we do not understand and cannot predict in the course of preparing familiar gestures and forms for public performance.

We get into the whole business of performing to express something. It's usually personal at first, and can grow into something more universal. How amazing, then, to be confronted in one piece by so much human experience, and to suddenly see it all around you, where it always has been, where it always is. It's an enormous task just to stay open enough to take it all in.

The very techniques, the very forms musicians have learned as vehicles for expression, can then become the places where they hide. Their refuge.

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