Monday, 29 August 2016

Thresholds at the 2016 Southwell Music Festival

Twelve years ago I stood opposite a sculpture by the American abstract artist Donald Judd at Tate Modern. It was a box. A lime green perspex box, the size of a large domestic water tank, but simply a box nonetheless. It seemed rather disappointing — until I began to feel myself falling into it. Nothing violent had happened. I’d not slipped, or been pushed. In a moment my attitude towards the piece, and the exhibition (and sculpture) shifted.

Through the past three days I have hovered on thresholds. I am attending the Southwell Music Festival, a classical music festival in the East Midlands of the UK as both a performer and also social media liaison. As a result I occupy different spaces. I can be in the centre of the room as performer. I can be near the centre of the room as audience for the concerts of other performers. I can be outside the room, looking in, often behind the screen of a phone taking perfunctory photos to share online. 

The threshold is a nice idea to scratch at. We had a seismic threshold yesterday during a performance of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius (in the Minster of the town): at the denouement a narrating Angel tells the eponymous Soul
And now the threshold, as we traverse it utters aloud its glad responsive chant
and the music changes, with dynamic and harmonic doors opened (not unlike the theatrically labelled ‘Transformation Music’ in the parallel passage of Wagner’s theosophical drama Parsifal). The music introduces a different space, with a concomitant change of view, and perhaps even of energy or temperature. It is a physical change.

This is my experience of being in different places — and different roles — in a performance space. You can be in direct contact with the performance as performer or audience. However, if you’re in a doorway (as I often find myself) — or perhaps occupying a different role within the same space, as I was yesterday, turning pages — then your relationship with the performance changes.

Being in the same space as the musician to whom you are listening is a remarkable, elastic experience. It’s typical to breathe at the same time as a good performer and to feel their rolling with the camber of the music, as they perform it. Volume is neither here nor there: you can have the same experience of being oppressed or beckoned by a musical gesture from row Z.

But this experience isn’t available behind a certain threshold. Perhaps that’s a smartphone screen. Maybe you’re standing outside the room, where performer and audience alike are like goldfish at a fair, commodified in a venue-bag where the acquisition of the memory neglects the experience that won it.

I really like and value the potential of socially-shared media to create a platform and context for performance. I like that there’s a way to create an opportunity to discuss an experience. There’s value in capturing images or sounds that revive the physical experience of being in the audience.

You can’t have your cake and eat it though. And to complicate a dormant metaphor, I had a treacherous larder experience on the first day of the Festival myself.

I had crept close to a performance of Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen to take a picture. I took it and paused before heading off to upload it. But I couldn’t easily leave. Having walked into the space in one role I had allowed myself to become physically connected to the performance. It wasn’t my proximity that had changed in the moment but my purpose. I had to remind myself that I had a job to do to disengage with the situation.

The point about thresholds is that they are real — but they are not obvious. Distance is no threshold in itself. It’s the authenticity and intent of our apprehension that dictates whether we’re really present for the performance or not. It’s OK to stand in a room opposite a perspex box asking what the point is, if that is the only authentic thought you can grab hold of.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Into Figaro's Maze

(first published on

It’s less than a week now until we perform The Marriage of Figaro in English at the Grimeborn opera festival. Now that we have run the whole show once we know it will work as we have prepared it. It’s going to be funny (and we’ve had a lot of fun making it so) and also, I hope, touching.

In 1786 The Marriage of Figaro was conceived as an entertainment. It’s a function of entertainment that there should be a sense of peril for characters, from awkward moments right up to the edge of all-out catastrophe. Just as the bonbons of stolen kisses evaporate in Mozart’s bewildering exploration of love and forgiveness, so a feudal Lord’s unscrupulous game of hopscotch with his own rules of propriety are reduced to playground antics in the face of wider revolution.

This, however, is to open Figaro out. Giving nothing of this production away, the farce may work as a lever not to lift the facade of social iniquity but rather to open up revealing interior spaces. Any drama has a labyrinthine quality. In a story, characters take decisions (often very marginal) that take the narrative along a certain route; drama reminds us that other options are available. Farce shows you small sections of the maze ahead as this happens so that the errors and assumptions of that decision-making become part of the fun; occasionally, to really stir it up, people metaphorically (and literally) climb through the bushes of the maze too.

Then there are those whose journeying stops — and cul-de-sacs can be very lonely, dark and challenging.

It’s interesting to consider the trajectory and density of the drama from Beaumarchais’ Barber of Seville to The Marriage of Figaro, moving from the candy floss to the creme brulee of love, if you like. Just as film sequels necessarily sell themselves as getting ‘darker’, so last year WNO put together a trilogy-completing production, Figaro Gets a Divorce, in which the dysfunctional ensemble is in flight in revolutionary Europe. That opera ends with the Count and Countess facilitating the escape and onward journey of the rest as they stay behind, incarcerated in a castle.

It’s certainly interesting to me that in Mozart’s three da Ponte masterworks, while the conclusion of the opera provides release from the preceding drama, the transformation of the characters is far more equivocal (the ensemble of Don Giovanni are bereft for the loss of the anarchic, eponymous free spirit and the lovers of Cosi fan tutte must deal with the treachery of post-lapsarian clarity). 

Forgiveness is all in The Marriage of Figaro. Misgivings in the private arias and upstairs-downstairs whisperings of duets and trios are exposed in the denouement at (literally, as Act 4’s in the garden) the centre of the maze. Everyone can now leave — the drama is over — but the revealed truth cannot be covered up with privet hedges and a cypress tree or two. Is forgiveness enough? WNO’s note says that the Count and Countess stay in the castle ‘to face the music’ at the conclusion of Figaro Gets a Divorce. Doesn’t the term ‘face the music’ have judicial finality though? Have they capitulated, unforgiven by each other orthe world? Or is ‘facing the music’ in a prison like the inmates of Shawshank hearing sull’aria and being freed? Our rehearsal process has been as much about continually interrogating this as it has been running about with pins, letters and broken pots of hollyhocks.