When I was younger, and poorer, trips to the opera were a rarity and usually a happy by-product of “right place right time” – an acquaintance of less meagre means with an unexpected spare ticket, or a festival or campaign selling cheap tickets for a change. Now, I can afford to go much more often, and I do. But I still love what in my early days of falling in love with opera was my usual haunt – the concert. I have often felt, without really being able to articulate it, that the opera and concerts are hugely different experiences. It’s the same music, not in the same context or sequence, but fundamentally the same. And yet…
At the opera you feel part of of something larger than you. The scenes unfolding on the stage are frantic with things to take in: sets, mise-en-scene, singers, chorus, dancers, supernumeraries. The favourite singer or singers that have particularly drawn you to “this” performance seem distant amongst all the stage business. The character they they are singing too is part of a larger story. They come alive in their interaction with those on the stage, not with those in the audience. At the opera as soon as the action begins the audience, including you, becomes monolithic. But in a concert it remains multi-faceted. In a concert that line between stage and audience is much more fragile, insubstantial. You no longer feel so distant, so indistinct, so invisible. The singer and musicians seem there for you, and almost you alone; there is an intensity of connection between you and the stage that becomes almost unbearable. You feel the singer’s presence so strongly – not just as a voice and a character, but as a human being, raw and vulnerable.
When we go the opera or a concert we go primarily to be lifted, to be moved, to be removed from daily life and taken to another where sound conspires to fill our hearts and ears. We seek the sublime in sound. In the communal world of the opera audience our search is enhanced by those around us – the rise and fall of the audience’s collective response becomes part of ours too. But at a concert our focus becomes so trained on the singer we can no longer ignore their humanity, or be swept away in the performance. Now suddenly they are there. Sometimes it can feel almost painfully embarrassing – to sit there so moved, so overwhelmed by them, by what they do, by what they do to you. At the opera the rest of the audience seems to disappear until the applause, when we turn and smile at each other. In a concert though you remain as aware of the rest of the audience as you do of the singer. There’s a sense of exposure that can be almost as overwhelming as the music. As you are crying, or moving to the music, or holding yourself rigid from excitement, you can become afraid of being seen. But somehow, in the intense intimacy, the connection between music and humanity, music and love, is so much stronger and more profound than at the the opera. I often find myself suddenly shocked to “hear” something new in an aria I thought I knew so well. I seem to be able to listen so much more intently than at the opera; almost as if the singer is not just singing for me, but teaching me about the music.
I was lucky enough to attend the Farinelli concert of Ann Hallenberg and Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques this week at the Wigmore Hall in London. As I sat in the audience all this suddenly came into my mind. Every aria, though familiar to me, seemed entirely new to my ears. Her Ombra fedel anch’io, an aria I normally find to be pleasant but not necessarily deeply engaging, gripped me by the throat and gave the first of the evening’s “ok I’m crying let’s not make a scene” moments (the art of crying discretely is definitely something I am glad I am skilled at). Che legge spietata, which I had heard in Paris just three months ago, seemed a revelation. And Alto Giove, which I sometimes have felt to be a bit of a poor cousin to Handel, pushed me right over the edge. By the time we got the encores, and my god Handel, I felt (once again) like a lightening rod being attacked over and over again by this beauty. At times like those I often find it hard to know where to look. I look at the singer and I feel almost scared for them, I look at the audience and I feel almost afraid of them. But somehow in that discomfort I found something new, deeper, in my engagement with the music. Once again, Hallenberg’s depth and intensity took us to the sublime, just as we had all hoped. Though there are several days and a great deal of “life” between now and then, I can shut my eyes and feel it again, that sense of connection with humanity and beauty and love that a great singer can engender. But unlike at the opera, as you walk away from a concert it’s the people, the singers and musicians, that stay in your mind as you reflect on how grateful you are that they did this, and that you were there.