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Being There: Ann Hallenberg and Christophe Rousset at the Wigmore Hall

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 spietatawhich 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.

Social Media and Audience Building for Classical Music and Opera

It’s been a bit depressing of late to see so many singers and musicians who ran charming, rather eccentric Facebook pages going over to the professional social media presence management thing. Of course, I know people are busy and social media can be a real time sink, but I think it’s quite a misreading of how to manage one’s social media identity in the world of classical music and opera. Professional presence management of a blog, sure – great! Especially if you can keep the schedule information up to date – a lot of the audience make holiday and travel arrangements around performances so good up to date scheduling information is critical. But FB and Twitter are about being there yourself, connecting with fans to build community around your music, not simply promoting oneself.

Ultimately in small performing arts worlds like opera and classical music that is what will sustain the majority of careers because in creating that community you help the audience learn and grow with you. This is particularly important since as studies repeatedly show the people who build the audience for classical music and opera are not musicians but the fans, the audience. Getting a new audience member through the concert hall door is the easy bit, the tough bit is what Bezencry calls “the nurture stage”, and Brown calls “getting past first date”. That stage relies heavily on the existing core audience bringing the new audience member into the fold.

Social media management is great for getting information out there but it’s dreadful for helping build real community. People like Cecilia Bartoli and Anna Netrebko for example are known primarily to their audience as carefully stage managed ciphers of themselves filtered through their PR firms. This might be OK for a singer at that level of mass audience – a good chunk of that audience is buying into the brand not the musician. But for those new on the scene, or with smaller audiences, or in more niche areas of the business, this is a dangerous ploy. You exist in the audience’s mind as a product, not a person with a passion for music and for communicating that passion, for sharing it. Even for the mass appeal singer, there are dangers with outsourcing your identity to others – as Netrebko found in the recent furore around Russia and its anti-gay laws. When things like that blow up, how do you get the audience to believe it is you talking now and not your PR folks? Alternatively, the professional social media flunkies may lure you into rather costly and ill advised “experiments” with the medium – I’m thinking of the “playful” (i.e. naff) interactive narratives that were used to promote Bartoli’s Sacrificium CD recently.

Fortunately there are still great role models around, like Ann Hallenberg and Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg. They have built a large, dynamic, vibrant community of Baroque music lovers around their FB pages, a community that educates each other, enthuses each other, and passes around info about upcoming releases/productions etc. No bland ‘clearly written by a flunky’ posts, no third person speak, no air brushed beyond belief “head shots”, just lots of great insights into the music and generous sharing of views and ideas. Perhaps those going over to the sterile professional social media world believe that they can’t post enough, that it is too time consuming. But as Ann and Holger, demonstrate it is not the quantity, but the quality and the authenticity that matters. There are problems of course – managing the inevitable trolls and policing the boundaries between private life and professional life in particular. But the benefits I believe are worth the effort to manage those issues – at the end of the day what the Internet does that is so amazing for classical music and opera is that allows the audience to find each other. In that one act, the sustainability of that audience is significantly improved. In a challenging era for all the performing arts, that surely is a good thing!

References

Benzecry, C. E. (2000). Becoming a Fan: On the Seductions of Opera in Qualitative Sociology, 32, pp131 – 151.

Baker, T. (no date) A guide to developing audiences for classical music. Association of British Orchestras. available from: http://culturehive.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Stop-Reinventing-the-Wheel-Guide-to-Classical-Music-Audiences.pdf (Last Checked October 3rd 2013)

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