The Shadows the Future Casts
I’ve always thought the phrase ‘full-throated endorsement’ a bit odd. It pulls human physicality into the conversation as a kind of speaking done with the whole body. The ‘throat’ is called out, but as a metonym for the speaking body situated in a political-historical-ecological space. The speaker throws herself into the words, come what may.
The phrase also has a resonance with ‘singing in full voice.’ In rehearsal, opera singers will often sing in ‘half voice’ to spare themselves for the performance. When the curtain goes up, the singer must throw himself into the music, come what may. It’s in this sense that opera is a full-throated art form, the opera itself must also sing in full voice. It must match and fill the grand space of the opera house. As new operas are produced, they give voice to the deep currents flowing through our culture. And to make their mark, they mustn’t sing in half voice.
Mounting a production of a new opera is no small task, they are literally years in the making. Here’s San Francisco Opera’s General Director David Gockley on creating “Heart of a Soldier”:
But popular subjects and heroic characters alone do not make good operas. In the end, is the music any good in its own right? In opera, music tells the story. The text provides the skeleton, music the flesh and blood. Twenty-five years after Adams’s ‘Nixon in China’ told the ‘back story’ of the Nixon/Kissinger visit to China in 1972, the opera has legs because of the composer’s brilliant score. Will ‘Heart of a Soldier’ be this successful? Who knows. The important thing is to get these pieces launched with fanfare and good attendance, and then they are on their own! For better or worse, my career as an opera producer has been punctuated with many of these launches. My work will be judged by the quality of the pieces I have midwifed, and in most cases I will be long gone before the jury renders its verdict
Reading Gockley’s note in the ‘Heart of a Soldier’ program earlier this year brought to mind Shelley’s ‘Defense of Poetry.’ Gockley clearly has the sense that these operas he midwifes are objects situated perennially in the future. We must create operas in the here-and-now, but with their initial performance we only see the tip of the shadow cast from their location in the future. Each time an opera is performed, we open that door to the future and attempt to apprehend the broadcast of new signals as they occupy and resonate with the present moment.
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote the book on the temporal state of the work of art. Here’s the conclusion of his ‘Defense of Poetry”:
Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present, the words which express what they understand not, the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire: the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.
At a recent performance of Philip Glass’s opera ‘Satyagraha’ at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, a door was opened and the music filled the opera house and then overflowed into the plaza outside of the building. There it received another performance through the full-throated chorus of the human microphone. The composer, Philip Glass, lead the chorus in the closing lines of the opera which come from the ‘Bhagavad Gita’:
“When righteousness withers away and evil rules the land, we come into being, age after age, and take visible shape, and move, a man among men, for the protection of good, thrusting back evil and setting virtue on her seat again.”
For the longest time, the tone of our public voice has been tinged with irony. But there seems to be a change in the weather. As Tim Morton is fond of to saying, ‘the Sincerity Fish ate the Irony Fish on the bumper sticker on the back of my car.’ Somehow the full-throated voice is more in tune with sincerity. But the reason irony came to rule the day is that there’s a real danger in sincerity. As Jean Giraudoux once said:
The secret to success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
But where danger is, grows the saving power also.
In the new operas we have given to the future, we allow both the danger and the saving power to cast their shadows. A door opens…