At the Barbican this week it wasn’t clear whether the world was a “happy place”. It was clear that it was a thrilling place, as the American opera singer Joyce DiDonato stood on a stage and sang. She started her programme, which she called In War and Peace, with an extract from Handel’s opera Jephtha. It was hard not to think of Aleppo as she sang of “scenes of horror, scenes of woe”. It was hard not to think of what has happened in her own country, and of the many people in it who now feel unsafe because other people voted for a man supported by the Ku Klux Klan.
And it was hard, to be honest, not to think of what has happened in Britain, where a vote has changed the course of history, and tried to set the clock back. If Boris Johnson had heard the libretto from Handel’s Rinaldo, he would probably have made a joke about prosecco. When I heard DiDonato sing Lascia ch’io piangia, in her pure, electric voice, it was like a thunderbolt from heaven, or hell. Allow me to weep, sings Almirena in the opera. Yes, allow me to weep. Sometimes it’s right to weep. When people who have served a country no longer feel wanted in that country, it’s right to weep.
When old people haven’t had the care they needed because services were cut to pay off a debt, and £60bn has just been added to that debt, it is certainly right to weep. Our foreign secretary might call this a “whinge-o-rama”, but some of us would call it grief.
“As a citizen of the world in 2016,” says DiDonato in the introduction to the concert programme, “at times I feel overwhelmed by the temptation to spiral down into the turmoil and pessimism that threatens to invade all corners of our lives”. But the creators of “great art”, she says, show us “both our brutal nature and our elevated humanity.” Art,she says, “unifies, transcends borders” and “is a valiant path to peace”. I don’t know if art can be a path to peace. I don’t know if it could end the war in Syria, or create jobs in the so-called rust belt of America, or fill a £122bn Brexit “black hole”. What I do know is this. When bad things happen in the world, or in our lives,that art can make us feel less alone. And I know that to create the kind of art that hits us at the deepest levels, you need to be a master of your craft. You need, you could say, to be an expert. You need to think that expertise is good.
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