Inappropriate opera

October 23, 2011

I haven’t blogged in a while due to illness, busyness, and busyness, mostly in that order. The last “busyness” was Kaia’s prep for Voices Against Violence, a benefit for Middle Way House, a local rape/domestic violence crisis shelter and life transformer.

We learned my piece Vow in about 2 and a half weeks, which is a record for us. It’s a difficult song. Not in structure or pitch, but in meaning. We started by just going around the circle and sharing our reactions to it (it’s a song about domestic violence but the beginning spoken word section covers all violence against women). Lara wept as she shared what I also felt: That she’d never sat in a group of women and not heard the stories of abuse and violence at the hands of men. My breakthrough to feminism was this very fact: That almost every woman I knew had survived some form of violation.

The Voices Against Violence show was actually two shows—one at 3 and one at 8. Different artists performed at each show; we performed at both. Aside from Vow, we did different sets for the different shows. The sets were constructed to show our vision for a better world as well as to showcase pieces in different languages and our strongest repertoire.

The first set opened with Arise, Lara’s stirring setting of Julia Ward Howe’s lyrics for the Mother’s Day Proclamation. The crowd (though small) loved it. We did some world music before coming around to Vow and then I Love Everybody. Whenever Lara sings the opening of ILE, she envisions the worst of the worst offenders she deals with on a regular basis in her day job, and tries to surround them with love. Just coming off Vow, she had a visibly difficult time making the transition. But I’ve never heard her sing it with such conviction and truth as she did that day.

The second set’s anti-war piece was my Not One More Day (which I find, to my surprise, that I have not posted about before). We mixed in some world music with Vow and closed with Dubula, a jubilant South African dance piece.

I over-sang during the second set. I noticed it most clearly on Not One More Day. For some reason, I felt a deep urge to connect with the audience, to drag them along, to make them see the insanity of the Iraq war and of all war. The audience was warm, appreciative, and even tried to clap along until they (as always) discovered it interfered with their ability to hear the lyrics. But I felt something missing—maybe it was something missing in me.

Both sets were intense. They whipped around the world and through our key messages of peace and social justice with breakneck speed. And we rocked both sets. The audience was very appreciative. But we did not get a standing ovation. No one got a standing ovation, actually. It was very weird, since it’s ridiculously easy to get a standing O in Bloomington. But even among this crowd, Vow, for the first time, was just listened to without that without-words shout that rises up in people hearing it for the first time.

Gladys DeVane was on with a monologue about Amelia Earhart. Diane Kondrat did Marge Piercy’s The Low Road. Janiece Jaffe and Curtis Cantwell Jackson did their usual mellow songs of love and light. All of it spoke to the meaning of the event, and to the hearts of those assembled.

And then came Roadkill—an opera trio including the famous Sylvia McNair. They opened with The Man I Love. They sang I Feel Pretty. Sylvia soloed with another piece from West Side Story. The others soloed with pieces I wasn’t familiar with but had that same Broadway/cabaret songbook feel. They closed with My Favorite Things. And I squirmed.

It wasn’t the quality of the music, of course, which was exceptional. It was the content and the delivery. They sang with songbooks in their hands, which is fine for classical music but seems off-putting in a show like Voices Against Violence. But it was their song selection that was intensely jarring to me.

To open with The Man I Love at an event about domestic violence struck me as downright chilling. The rest of the pieces, while amusing or moving or interesting in themselves, were so far from the content of the rest of the program that I felt almost sick. It was a dinner set, the same they would perform for any event. It wasn’t tailored to the content of the show or the needs of the people in the audience. In my opinion, it was inappropriate.

The experience shown a light on my feelings about performance: That it be transformative. Not that it simply entertain. It’s like design—design isn’t about decoration, it’s about information. It’s about creating change in the viewer. And music is a great changer. It gives voice to that which was previously inarticulate. And for those in the audience, who seek such a fundamental change in our society as the end to violence against women, and even an end to all violence, we have a responsibility to them to at least attempt to give them a voice.

I’ve seen it many times with Arise. I’ve seen it happen every time we sing Not One More Day—by the time we’re singing, “No more torture / We’re forced to pay for / No more torture in my name,” we’ve got people ready to rise up singing. They want to join in and raise their voices to say no more, a better world is possible, and I want to manifest it.

I Feel Pretty just doesn’t cut it. Not for me, at least. I don’t deny the artistry of the women onstage. I just wonder whether they considered pieces that would articulate the deepest desires of those in the audience, and whether they agree that an artist has a responsibility to try to articulate those needs.

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