A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler / Theater

A Singer’s Notes 24: Words and Music

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Nigel Gore and Tina Packer in Women of Will. Photo Kevin Sprague.
Nigel Gore and Tina Packer in Women of Will. Photo Kevin Sprague.

One Christmas my magic daughter gave me a picture of a baboon. Above it she wrote Prospero’s valedictory line: “I’ll drown my book.” The animal had an expression of imponderable grief on its face. Words are exclusively human. But could it be said that animals sing? Music sets words free, back to their primal origin, leaping into the heart. Music is a language of knowing, of certainty. It has the raw truth of the baboon’s face. Maybe Prospero, whose name signifies hope, begins to sing when the book is drowned and the grief is past.

The focal point of all that happens on stage is a strife between speaking and singing. And one of the great rewards of living in our kingdom of art is an abundance of great speaking and great singing. Harold Lewin’s Music and More series in the splendid old New Marlborough Meeting House, for example, just featured a very accomplished young pianist, Xeurong Zhau, in a standard piano recital, but also has offered letters of Mozart read by the excellent Jonathan Epstein, and a new and bold narration of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale written by Mr. Lewin himself.

Ventfort Hall has presented what might be called staged biographies. One of their finest was a piece in which the actress playing Emily Dickinson spoke several of her own poems. This year’s production, Revels and Revelations, written and directed by Juliane Hiam, featured Andi Bohs as Belle da Costa Greene, the first librarian of the Pierpont Morgan Library. This wild piece was a virtuoso turn and ran the gamut from energetic singing to intimate conversation with the audience. The finest contest of singing and speaking came from Shakespeare and Company. Its new play, The Taster by Joan Ackermann, was a gentle and rambling thing. Its great value was allowing us to hear the two beautiful voices summer,  Rocco Sisto and Maureen O’Flynn. At one point the business of the play stopped entirely while Ms. Flynn sang with great sweetness an old Basque song. Singing had won, at least temporarily. Rocco Sisto’s voice is without a doubt the most beautiful voice I hear on the stage these days. I might say it is dangerously close to singing. It is rich, it is various, it has a way of reaching the heart that is not ego-centric. He is a Lieder singer, not an opera singer. Maureen O’Flynn is an opera singer who speaks into every note she sings. The beauty of this play depended on the whole idea of singing, of how lyricism has power to shape our ends. Two first-rate artists made this play work.

Another very different balance of words and music I heard in Rodgers’ and Hart’s Babes in Arms, a play about being in a play. This golden oldie, the parent show of My Funny Valentine, was enthusiastically, not always expertly, sung by the Unicorn Company members and apprentices of the Berkshire Theatre Festival. The production had vitality and a kind of rough style. The show is just too retro though; the plot paper-thin — basically a revue with words. All depends on how actors who must both speak and sing manage this. These young actors were partly on their way to figuring it out.

Silence demands exquisite virtuosity. There was intense lyricism in Finnerty Steves’ second act Eva in Alan Ayckbourn’s hilarious Absurd Person Singular at the Barrington Stage Company. In this act she spoke not a word, attempted suicide a few times, and produced a kind of straight-out silence. Her face looked out at you with eyes that could not see you, and eyes that sang.

One of the highlights of my summer was hearing Tina Packer ranging in her Women of Will through a series of monologues spoken by women in Shakespeare’s plays. Here the contention of singing and speaking was most acute, though Ms. Packer spoke throughout. Her explanations were informative, but paled hugely beside her speaking of Shakespeare’s verse. The latter was an absolute model to me of the naturalness and malleability of the English style. Her voice is arresting in the first place. She has a vital energy on stage. But what was most marvellous was that she could make sections of Henry VI or the other early history plays enthralling. I heard how difficult this is to do in the same company’s Richard the Third. Ms. Packer made it effortless. It seemed like her natural speech. It was the music of innate knowing. Her commentary seemed performed. There was generous support in this piece from Nigel Gore, a powerful actor who has humility. It was a beautiful thing to see him play the supporting part (and not a very good part) of Buckingham in Richard the Third with passion. These two are just the kind of model that young artists need, naturalness with humility wedded.

1 thought on “A Singer’s Notes 24: Words and Music

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