Music always brings me comfort, and through singing stories both ancient and modern of love and pain, we can emerge from these long months stronger and better able to understand each other
One of the reasons I love giving a song recital is that it bestows on me the superpower of time travel without involving a single mechanism other than the voice and a piano. It is pure magic.
The first breath catapults me back in time to the ancient Greek mythological world of Naxos, as Arianna, abandoned by her strapping lover, disintegrates in real time. And with a simple change of harmony and tempo I am at the base of a pyramid in ancient Egypt weeping as Cleopatra, the Queen of the Nile, grieves the only man she ever truly loved, Cesare. Fast forward a few songs and I am plunged into the evocative harmonies that marry the profound natural worlds of 18th-century poet Friedrich Rückert with the inspired music of the 19th-century musical titan Gustav Mahler. Then – bam! – with just a change of time signature, I peer through the smoky haze as Duke Ellington’s haunting tune, In My Solitude stirs raw memories of past loves.
Cruising through the centuries with the flick of a page, over wildly different geological and musical terrains, I can spin a thematic thread of emotional commonalities and familiar stories that miraculously – as only great art can – hold up a mirror to my life today.
Nineteen months and counting into the pandemic, I’ve been searching for understanding, for clarity, for the lessons to be learned. I’ve been consumed with the need to believe that we will emerge from this better and stronger. I’ve tried to listen to mother nature as she hushed us all, demanding that we rest and stop the hustling and bustling. So I’ve made it a point to marvel at the luxury of watching the moon cycle above me, observing her dance from the exact same spot on the Earth – a gift I’ve missed out on during 25 years of constant travel. I’ve bent down to see shoots of green and red emerging valiantly from the ground – oblivious to cancellations and facial coverings – only to watch them reach for the sky, blossom in extraordinary wonder, and just as quickly fade from sight.
And, through all variations of anxiety, fear, wonder, rest, and near-constant confusion, I turn to music for answers – as I always have. It always brings me comfort.
But because I can now return to sing on a public stage, and because the beautiful and daring audience can now choose to come along for such an experience, “my” seeking becomes “our” seeking. “My” comfort transforms into “our” comfort. “My” solitude and isolation is now “our” shared experience. And if I’ve done my job well, by the end of the night the individual isolation has dissipated, and a new community has been born: a community brimming with empathy and compassion for the protagonists’ fate, for the fellow concert-goer’s sorrow and for themselves, as well.
In the context of Covid, this palpable reunion of community is more vital than ever. As we emerge from our quarantined cocoons, navigating the trepidation we may feel about leaving the perceived safety of our homes, meeting each other in a place of understanding and shared experience is healing. And we could all use a bit of healing right now.
But here comes the magic: The moment we throw time travel into the mix, we are afforded the incredible gift of context. Zooming out much further beyond this single moment in time of sequestration and testing, we join Arianna as she realises there is not a single soul who hears her, and suddenly we know we are not alone in our isolation. We grieve with Cleopatra, who sees only profound sorrow for the rest of her life, and we somehow find comfort in a shared sense of despair. We embrace the text of Rückert who, through his immense comprehension of what it is to “die to this world” and to “live alone in my heaven, in my love, in my song”, and we are called to experience this moment of difficulty with a higher vision and purpose.
As I travel back over the millennia via the stories I will sing about on stage at the Barbican, and over the centuries of the compositions represented on this programme, I find profound comfort in recognising that the sorrow or anxiety or despair we may feel in this moment is not, in fact, unique. It’s the proverbial tale as old as time. But by meeting these masterpieces head-on (or perhaps “heart-on” is the more apt description), comfort is at hand, for we can recognise ourselves in the stories, and with that recognition comes the understanding that we are not, in fact, alone.
And from that realisation, I find, hope is born.
What I haven’t yet discovered is how to use the stage to travel forward in time. How much I would love to fast-forward 50 years to see if my stubborn push towards hope was energy well spent. But since such superheroism eludes me, I shall revel in the chance to directly confront Haydn and Berlioz, Cleopatra and Ellington, and see if the hope they infuse me with is enough. From past experience? It’s truly an embarrassment of riches.
Joyce DiDonato for The Guardian