Friday, April 15, 2005

The other stage

Warning: this post plays fast and loose with terms and demonstrations to keep the length reasonable.
Actually, perhaps the entire blog should carry this disclaimer.

From the pandemonium of comes this report of one singer's peculiar stage fright problem -- opera OK, concerts very much not. The poster explains it thus:
[A]ppearing in propria persona, without the various masks of the stage, is reducing him to a nervous wreck.
As little as it may avail this man's affliction, however, the concert platform is indeed a "stage" as worthy of the name as La Scala's. One appears in costume, before an audience, and enacts the significant. It's a rather more Protestant version, yes.

Some -- practitioners of the celebrity recital -- highlight this very aspect, elaborating a stylised-for-public-consumption version of themselves in tragic, comic, or weepily melodramatic mode. Others make much of scenic elements (including plot & character) in the songs themselves: the recital as concatenation of five-minute dramas.

These go far back. It was the Romantic lied -- from Schubert through Mahler, still the song repertory's core despite French inroads -- that gave us a new stage element: the poet-composer-performer's subjective consciousness*, the true "stage" for much of this action. Still, it was born when "Hausmusik" roamed the plains, and shared conventions of place and culture clothed -- in text, music, and reception -- what appears substantially to us now as nowhere and neverwhen. For our taste last century became different.

[* Perhaps a late growth from Christian concern for the soul, but with the objective signposts of God, the Devil, good and evil effaced -- making a quite new whole.]

We can look to 1924, when, concluding one of the most famous literary passages about music, Thomas Mann identified the not-too-sublimated appeal of "Der Lindenbaum" as that of -- death. Today the point seems commonplace (if not likely to be put as nicely, with the happy periods and elegant to-ing and fro-ing that Mann was able to give us). And indeed by 1924 perhaps it seemed so to many readers. But the passage puts us in sight of the point -- not far from 1924 -- at which it was not commonplace, when "Der Lindenbaum" was heard in a context quite different from this one (and the dominance of recordings is not least).

At any rate, this Romantic-modernist idea of song has become performance as well as understanding, of course, giving us much of the modern "lieder recital". For a great exponent like the word-swallowing genius Matthias Goerne, these subjective and existential threads unlock dramatic and experiential colors probably new to this world. For others, it's a trap that strips one's protections from the doom of the stage. But then again, many still turn to the other recital modes. And why not?

One more idea is the postmodern multimedia-concept-performance. OK, it's an explicit staging. This sort of thing seems to me to flatten rather than expand the expressive scope of the music, but why not? A few times, anyway.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.