Musings on Energy in Musical Performance

I’m currently in the final throes of rehearsals for a revival of “My Fair Lady” for Oper Köln, and it’s got me thinking a lot about energy.  Since it’s impossible to measure, there are a lot of people out there who don’t believe it’s a real thing; anyone who has ever been on stage and experienced what a huge difference it makes when an audience is really engaged, or who’s been to one of those performances where you end up with goosebumps, feeling that you’re wholly connected to every single person there, on stage and off, will know that it really does exist.

Even if we can’t name it properly or put our fingers on it, it’s hugely important, and influenced by many aspects; the relationship between the performers, the bond between the orchestra and the conductor, the weather, to name but a few.  Some you can influence, others not.

Rehearsals are a great chance to work on the bits you can actually do something about.  We start from an interesting place in this production, as many of us have taken part in it in previous incarnations.  It started as a production sung and spoken in German, and our Mrs. Pearce was in that production, along with many members of the chorus and orchestra, as well as a lot of the backstage staff.  The production was then taken over to Muscat, but the Omanis weren’t keen on it being in German, so most of the soloists were replaced with native English speakers.  That’s where I came in, as Mrs. Higgins, along with our Eliza and Professor Higgins.  It was then revived here in Cologne a couple of years ago, and now here we are again, this time with a new Colonel Pickering and Alfred P. Doolittle.

 

Here’s me outside the Royal Opera House Muscat

Feeling the energy between the performers change with the cast changes has been fascinating. You instinctively react differently to a new cast member, who is giving their own interpretation of the role, even when you’re constrained by it being a revival, and therefore they have to stick to the “way it was done before”.  Speaking of which, the original German version was full of details which our Muscat cast rebelled at as being unspeakable for English high society at the time.  I thought I was going to be sacked fifteen minutes into my first rehearsal, as they said that Mrs. Higgins came out of her house and fell into the gutter, drunk.  I flat-out refused, saying no lady in that era would ever do such a thing; luckily, I was joined in my strike by the fabulous Colonel Pickering, and then by other soloists.  We fought like tigers to get rid of such vulgarities and reintroduce a bit of charm, and I have to say that (mostly), we won.  We’d all liked each other from the start, and that shared experience forged us into a very close-knit group, which I think is something which boosts the energy overall.  Everyone I have interacted with since getting here has said how delighted they are that “My Fair Lady” is back, from the costume department to prompter to the extras.  We have even been able to relax and hone our respective roles (within limits) during rehearsals; it’s been great fun and very instructive.

We have a new conductor for this revival, too, which is engendering yet another layer of changed energy.  Both the energy between the conductor and the singers, and the relationship between the conductor and the orchestra, make a huge difference to a piece.  Put it this way; the members of the orchestra are apparently competing between themselves for the fun of playing in it!

En route to rehearsal in Cologne this morning

Those are the bits you can play around with in the rehearsal period, to a point.  A couple of other aspects can play with the energy balance fundamentally, though, and those are the environment, and the audience.

Out in Muscat, we were in their state-of-the-art (and utterly gorgeous) opera house; back in Cologne, we’re in the Staatenhaus.  This is an extremely odd space in which to perform, being pretty much totally unsuited to performances on stage and with an orchestra (let’s just gloss over the problems the city is having renovating its opera house).  They were learning how to minimise technical challenges last time, and this time is better, but it’s interesting to note the difference a venue can make (we flew out to Oman with *everything* – set, costumes and technicians, so can assess on that individual variable).

And the audience?  Well, that’s something that can never be predicted!  It varies, of course, from one performance to another, so even if all else is equal, some nights will dance and some drag.  We live for the nights where they take wing and sail off into greatness, but can never predict when that will happen.  All we can do is allow them to be possible; the rest is up to fate.  We’ve done our best in rehearsals; if you are able to get to Cologne and would like to be part of the audience, adding your particular energy to the mix, please do come along and see this production (details of dates and tickets here).  I could be biased here, but I think it’s going to be FABULOUS!

Mrs Higgins disapproves of your moral stance…
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The absolutely underestimated: Lili Boulanger

100 years ago a great artist died. By which I do not mean Leonard Bernstein, Gustav Klimt, Karl Marx or Ingmar Bergmann. Following the just passed world women´s day, I decided to write about a woman: the composer Lili Boulanger!

Just a couple of days ago, I was talking about Lili Boulanger and how she is rarely performed on stage. Then I happened to go to a concert at the Prinzregententheater in Munich. Romantic composers were on the programm: Janine Jansen played Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann and César Franck. Jansen played great. She found the perfect tempi and gave the violin a very soft sound, combined with strong outbursts. The audience was absolutely quiet and applauded frenetically. So, she played an encore. And: surprise! It was the Nocturne by Lili Boulanger. As if I would have guessed.

The young composer Lili Boulanger wrote this piece in 1911, at an age of only 18. She wrote it just before she even begun her formal studies in composition and finished it in just two days. It still is one of her most famous works.

A young composer who died too early
Lili Boulanger

The composer was born in 1893. Her musical talent already showed at an early age. By the time she was six years old, she was sight-singing songs with the composer Gabriel Fauré at the piano. She also studied with her older sister, Nadia. Also, her parents brought musical education to the family. The young woman composed only a very few oeuvres and died far too early, in 1918, only aged 24.

Influences and role models

Lili Boulanger was widely influenced by the composers Claude Debussy and Richard Wagner. In the Nocturne, everything relates to both of them. She definitely took the first few notes from Debussy’s “Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune”, and inserted them into her own composition. Also, she used short phrases from Wagner’s Tristan. However, the Nocturne is a brilliant composition by the young composer.

The Nocturne was first written for flute or violin and piano but has been orchestrated in a following version. Unfortunately, the orchestral transcription was never published and has been lost.

What followed

In 1912, one year after the Nocturne, Boulanger won the Prix de Rome. Shortly after that, she became very ill. She suffered from chronic illnesses, beginning with a case of bronchial pneumonia at age two that weakened her immune system, leading to the “intestinal tuberculosis” that ended her life at the age of 24.

Prinzregententheater in Munich

What impact Lili Boulanger’s work really has, is hard to say. But when Janine Jansen played the last notes of the Nocturne, the whole audience was enchanted. And this is a good enough reason to look at this absolutely underestimated composer closer.

 

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It needs to change !

It’s been several years that I am going to the opera and I am scandalized by the mediocrity and the absurdity of staging. The problem being that this phenomenon is not rare, on the contrary, it has settled during the last decades.

Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear people booing the staging and yet nothing changes. We continue to give all the power to these artists, these great thinkers. We remain in this incomprehensible model of incoherence and, when we are lucky, we are satisfied with the feeling of “it did not disturb”. Excuse me? What did you say? A lucky chance? My bad…

That amazes me!

It seems to me that staging should participate in the success of the Opera, respect it, at least. I have often been able to hear people trying to find explanations, analyze what the director would like us to understand, what he would like to pass as a message, often unrelated to the work. In my opinion, from the moment we have to explain art to understand it, especially in music, then we move away from what art is. As Debussy said, “Music must humbly seek pleasure” and so should art do too. If we are forced to intellectualize art, it loses all its meaning.

I have the impression that we use the opera scenes to convey ideas that do not serve the work, often outright provocations. Commited scenes do not revolt me, on the contrary. Indeed, if the commitment, or the provocation of some staging is related to the text, respects the interpreters and the score, I say: Bravo . But to use singers like puppets to make them do anything, to make them sing at the back of the stage (without any acoustic help) or sing upside down, doesn’t do their voices justice and is a lack of common sense. To remove elements from the score or not to respect the specific wishes of the composers just doesn’t make any sense. I’m thinking, for example,  of the Guillotine in the “Dialogues des Carmelites” of Poulenc. This is an entire part of the score and libretto (sound of the guillotine in action and choir  voices disapearing one by one…). In the Munich production it was replaced by gas chambers and people surviving when they should not, loosing all the links with the libretto and the score. It is just one example out of hundreds. This is disrespectful and it is not a different interpretation but a deliberately distorted narration: it is inadmissible and should not be allowed.

It would be as if the conductor decided that the solo of Thais’ meditation should be played by a Xylophone, or that the musicians decide to play an improvisation whenever it isn’t written .

And yes, I can already hear the reactions: “No, we will not do re-staging of dusty, classics. We need new, we need change, we need to shake things up!” But I must say that the clean style sets, suits and ties costumes, the naked men, the men in heels, the scenes of sex, the blood everywhere… there is nothing new here. It has been seen over and over again! 

So, yes, let’s use the modern means instead. The technology for the benefit of all as in the exhibition in Vienna “Insights into Bruegel” that one had the pleasure to discover through Culturmania’s eyes or as in the latest production at the Munich Opera of  Krenek’s “Karl V” created by the great and innovative Fura del Baus. It is brilliant, it is good, so : it is possible! But doing just anything to change or be provative is a bad excuse for the lack of inspiration and ignorance of some.

I had the experience, in Paris during a concert version of “die Wallküre” at the Champs Elysées Theater, to hear one in the public screaming: “Thanks! we can finally enjoy the music without being disturbed by an absurd staging!!” and everyone applauded… It’s sad to get to this point.

Staging is part of a show, a performance at the Opera. The Sight and Hearing should work together to give us a successful evening. It is also the responsibility of the Opera Houses worldwide to no longer accept that stage directors are allowed to be all-mighty, capricious, or not professional.  Because as we can see, concert version works just as well and may work better and better. Shouldn t the Opera Houses ask themselves : What does the public want?  

The public knows what they came to hear, in fact, they chose to come to hear it. Subtle respect for the interpreters, the text and the score is, in the end, all that is asked for. Staging should  serve the Opera first, like the singers, the conductors, the musicians. Add a touch of dream, humour, poetry, emotion and most of all to take us further, allow us to extricate ourselves from reality for a few hours… It is in fact simple. 

 

Erica Luisella

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The perks of standing first row

This post is not about theatre, concerts or exhibitions. It more or less is a summary for all cultural events. In general one gets up, leaves the house and finds oneself sourrounded by other people, with similar thoughts and feelings about the event one goes to. The stage is the most important place in the location. Position counts! People seek for the best view or sound, or whatever. It´s all about standing in the first row! In events,  as well as in life!

But why is this so? Are we nor civilized beings, who should be able to talk to each other, instead of fighting for a superior stand?

This is why following you find my general thoughts concerning the perks of standing first row.

All the time we stand in between something. Our whole life tends to go between rows. When going out, it seems we have to compensate this fact: wherever we go, there always is the need of being first.

Not only in concerts or cultural events. It already starts with being on the subway. Once the doors open everyone seems to need to get in there as soon as possible. Our brain, under these circumstances, does not realize, that it even slows us down. Being inside first does not help the train go faster. It even slows down the process of people entering.

This same first row problem is valid for concerts

When I entered the concert hall Zenith in Munich the other day, to see Ben Howard, it already was quite crowded. People were jostling to see and hear best, not thinking about others. Everybody had payed the same fee and just happened to be there at different times.

This article title clearly contributes to the movie “The Perks of being a wallflower”. Though it deals with the exact opposite. People tend to become very pushy once it´s about their personal advantage.

Ben Howard in Munich

This obviously does not count for everybody, but for many many guests of events.

I don’t really have a conclusion to this, except for: Be kind! It´s not about being first in row, but first in YOUR life!

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A Weekend with Mattiel

Going to concerts normally does not take that much of an effort for me. But seeing that my beloved singer Mattiel, aka. Mattiel Brown does not play in Germany, I needed to think of an alternative. Then I found out she was playing in Dublin on a Saturday – and so I went!

 

A weekend off, Dublin and a concert ahead. Could it get any better? After arriving Friday night, Saturday started with excitement: the
first stop was Trinity College. And what luck, it was open-door day! I ended up spending lots of time there, seeing all the halls and libraries and the colleges´ yard. The highlight, above all else, was the Old Library. I had the chance to get online tickets in advance and so didn´t have to line up.

Seeing Trinity Colleges´ old library with all its history has been a dream of mine for a long time. I had been to Dublin before, but never had had the chance to go there.

Entering the sacred halls felt like entering history

The only sad thing are all the tourists who don´t seem to have an understanding of what they are dealing with. I have noticed before,  that many people who travel just want to go to places to check them off their lists. At that moment walking in the library that  feeling became very obvious to me again. And that is a shame. Still – after I managed to get over that fact, a new world opened to me.

The Old Library, Trinity College

All those books, framed by statues of their authors, the wide setting of shelves and the high ceiling – they all made me forget the people around me. Old books have a specific smell. This smell suddenly surrounded me and I felt like dipping into another world, in which cellphones and flash photography doesn’t exist.

Finally, venue business

After a stroll trough the city it finally was time to go to the venue of the concert. ‘The Grand Social’ at first seemed to be just a bar. Soon I realized however that this is far from the truth. ‘The Grand Social’ is a maze! Once in, you start wandering around corridor after corridor. Then finally, you get to the venue itself, which is far smaller then I expected. This turns out to be an advantage: it´s much cosier and during the opening act, Mattiel is standing in the crowd – right next to me- and cheering Roe up.

Roe actually is doing a great job! She stands on the stage all alone, is very shy and still has lots of power! Everyone listens to her music very concentrated and applauds ecstatically after her energetic songs, which are a mixture of great songwriting and electronic music:

One hour later Mattiel comes on. And what shall I say? It was horrible!
The mixing of the sound didn´t work, Mattiel herself did not interact with the audience at all. Her band had to do all that for her. She only concentrates on hersef and never even smiles. Does she even want to be here?

The concert itself: Mattiel in action

Mattiels artistic story is not the  familiar one:  Atlanta’s rising star, Mattiel Brown, is a rare exception to the time-honoured tradition. She is a fulfilled creative artist working day and night, albeit in different contexts. Working as set designer, designer and painter, she found her path to music late. It was when she started having heavy problems with her skin, that she began writing songs. She has just released her very first album.

Maybe that is the reason why she doesn´t really know what to do on stage? I mean: she dances and even seems to be in trance. But she´s just not reaching me.

Still, the evening was well spend. I absolutely recommend Roe to everyone! This Irish jewel is waiting to be discovered!

More Irish Jewels 😉
 What´s left to say?

Sunday I went to the beach, hiked the cliffs of Howth and enjoyed the surprisingly good weather. And what shall I say? I did not want to leave, still did, but I definitely will go back – Ireland, you are beautiful.

The Cliffs of Howth

 

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