Finding Harmony in music of war and peace
It’s 16 November, 2015: I am seated at my father’s old piano in tranquil, uneventful Kansas City, Missouri, with a pile of 60 obscure Neapolitan arias. I’m researching music for my new album, music by composers such as Niccolò Jomelli and Leonardo Leo, who wrote in a post-classical, pre-bel canto world that is sorely underrepresented today on recordings and concert platforms. My task is to select 10 of these obscure arias to feature on my album and perform on a world tour.
Just the day before I had been in glossy Dallas, Texas singing the final emotion-filled performance of a new opera written for me by Jake Heggie titled Great Scott, which asks the pressing question,
“Does art matter?”
…. a question I often contemplate on my own.
My phone was propped up on the music rack of the piano – never a good idea for concentrated focus – but I was breaking my self-imposed rule because I was waiting for texts and postings from friends and colleagues in Paris who were dealing with the harrowing aftermath of the Paris attacks, which had rocked that city three days earlier.
My head swirled. My heart wept. My artistic soul searched.
Yet my deadline was looming and I had music in front of me, waiting to be discovered. It was music that was novel, to be sure, but it was striking me as hollow. How could I devote immense, intensive personal and professional resources to this project and dare to bring it to 20 cities, when the music sitting in front of me felt – apologies to these fine composers – like a gimmick while the world around me continued to surge out of control?
And then, from the pile of my own music, Dido majestically appeared. And then Sesto, in his wartorn desperation; and then the prisoner Almirena’s haunting Lascia ch’io pianga emerged, almost begging to be heard.
I wrote to my Paris-based record company. “How is everyone?” I pleaded to know first. And then, “Don’t yell at me, but I need to change the project. I want to sing about war and peace.” And to their credit, they abandoned our previously agreed theme and let me record a different album.
Three of the original Neopolitan arias made the final cut. Many of the 15 pieces are masterpieces that I have wanted to record for a long time – Handel’s Lascia ch’io Pianga, Sesto’s arias, and Dido’s Lament. Other Purcell arias – from the Indian Queen and Bonduca – were exciting discoveries for me, and often contrast war and peace within the same aria.
But as the new theme sat with me, it became clear I couldn’t simply present these two faces of our humanity and walk away. As a belligerent optimist, I wanted to not only offer a message of hope, but to engage my listeners in a more visceral way and show that this music (which has been heard and contemplated, in some cases, for over 400 years), is an animated, pleading mirror into each of our troubled hearts, and challenge the listener to examine their contribution to our whacked-out world.
I decided on war and peace because it’s imperative that we see the darkness, the turmoil and the chaos, as well as the yearning and searching for peace and tranquility. We have a choice for our own experience, but it needs to be an active choice – one that isn’t arbitrary, but is informed by the darkness.
I believe that we have the power to first affect change in ourselves – then, with a bit of fortitude and determination, that change may grow outward to our partner, our family, our street, our community … our world. Knowing that music holds the astonishing power to be both an intensely individual as well as a communal experience, I saw the potential to connect with each listener and invite them for one blissful moment to stop looking outside and pointing fingers at each other.
So I decided to pose a question:
“In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?”
I wanted to ask people from all walks of life and so I simply sent out requests, contacting people I know, and others via friends or colleagues: reaching out to people I’ve met during my travels. I randomly wrote to Patrick Stewart, who, to my great delight, answered immediately. While some requests went unanswered, I have had answers from a huge range of people. From prisoners at Sing Sing I have worked with, to supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – an opera lover and friend. The Rwandan fighter I met while on safari, and the Indian children came to me from an author whose work I admire. I essentially reached out to people from every corner of the globe that I knew, as well as asking people I meet every day: the British Sufi taxi driver and the American teacher who works in Istanbul and is connected to revolutionaries there. In truth, many of their answers have found me.
A homeless woman wrote:
“I imagine a small globe of light growing larger from my center until I am surrounded by light and peace.”
A young Indian boy who attends a school for children with leprosy replied:
“When surrounded by chaos, I see people in need and then I find myself among the most fortunate, blessed people.”
I’m aware that there could be a danger in viewing the chaos of today through a daringly innocent lens – and then I hear the music of Purcell and it is simplicity incarnate: instantly, it brings calm. Handel soothes with his total serenity of harmony. And a compass towards peace immediately returns.
I have often declared that music can heal. Perhaps it is time to remember that this incredible power is where we are at our best, and how truly simple it is to return there – if we are brave and determined enough. The solace music provides can restore. I can think of no better time to put my money where my mouth is.
The preliminary, glorious conclusion I am reaching is that the key to peace is utter simplicity.
*Originally posted in the Guardian Newspaper