How do you know it was a good performance?
Well, a good musician doing a good job can control his instrument—in this case, her instrument, which is the human voice—but a great musician stops playing the instrument or the music, and plays the room. And the proof of that? The audience applauds on her cue, not on theirs.
That’s what the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, singing Handel’s Piangero from Giulio Cesare, does in the clip below, which I’m terribly sure was pirated off a cell phone from a live performance in the Teatro Colón. But wherever the performance came from, DiDonato is riveting; nobody, nobody, is going to clap until she relinquishes the experience, stops being Cleopatra, stops bewailing her cruel fate, stops realizing that she—a queen—has been vanquished and stripped of everything.
There’s no other aria that is quite as desolate, no other aria that has stripped the flesh off the character and burned it in the desert sun, until it is as beautiful and brittle as a Georgia O’Keefe skull. You touch it, and it disintegrates—poof!—into the finest powder; the desert wind takes it—the avenging angel—to its next state of existence.
This is not an aria. This is a person pulling an audience through the birth channel of inner pain and psychic anguish. This is a person who is drawn to a hideous flame, as is the moth, but who knows that the flame will consume her, and knows that it is not just useless but sinful to refuse the flame. The flame? That’s her destiny.
Is it sad music? No, of course not. We have left “sad” far behind, nor is it any other emotion, unless it’s an emotion for which we have still no word. For no one ventures back from this emotion, no one returns from this voyage, when you have arrived here, there is no return. Death could no be more final.
This morning, on my morning walk, I wanted to remember my mother, who died almost five years ago. Fortunately, that’s easy, since there is something about seeing—as I was—huge ocean swells crash against rocks until they explode into jets of water, spray, droplets and salt air…well, all that prompts thoughts of mortality. Each one of us is born somewhere deep in the ocean, stirred by the twirling of the plant, whispered by the phases of the moon. We travel through space and time, less a wave than the energy of one, the potential of one, and then, the rock! And for one glorious moment, the wave explodes into its potential, becomes the fusion of air and rock and time and water and space and…death.
And so, did I turn to Piangero, when I wanted to remember my mother?
Nope—rather, I turned to Bach’s Bist du bei Mir. And I was about to tell you that Bist du bei Mir is simply sadness on a human scale, whereas Piangero?
Could it be that a man or woman can move through personal suffering so acutely that he or she enters another realm: The suffering of the world? Or perhaps suffering as Plato imagined it: a form, an object as real as a rock. And as ephemeral as a droplet of wave water falling onto the rock.
And yet, not matter—because matter has changed, as well as time. It’s slower in this world, this world where we will meet the inevitable that horrifies us, that repels us, that is inescapable and inevitable.
Slower, yes—but there is a muted drum, or a throb, or a heartbeat heard through tissues and bones and amniotic fluid. Did I say heard? No—felt, for to pause to hear it would destroy the moment, the moment that is consuming you, the moment for which you have been born. The moment of dread and liberation.
I have been through the death of love and the death of a mother: This music is nothing of that. This music is about 3 AM, when I woke up and prayed for help, since I knew, I absolutely knew, that there was a musician inside me. And I knew the musician was good. So I sat in a darkened living room, and listened to the message, or perhaps the drum, the muffled drum, which was accompanying the coffin carrying the rotted, putrid corpse, stinking and oozing and repelling. The corpse that was my dream, the corpse that I had killed, since it was my doing, my choices, my temperament that had killed that dream. Music would be important in my life; it would not be my life.
The death of a dream—it was curiously more personal and less personal than the death of my mother. And it was cleaner and dirtier than my mother’s death as well. Because when my mother died, I was a witness, somebody who however dear I had been to her, was not experiencing death’s dark night. I was peering on, stunned and amazed as we always are, when the shadow of the sickle passes over a brow.
But that moment at three o’clock, when time had stood still enough for me to see it, when the world had decided that yes, it would cease its turning, stop in its track, stop the inane and senseless rotation, rest… And then, the coffin had come, and I looked in, and the stench and the horror and the burnt and charred flesh, the protruding bones, the visage of unspeakable anguish wrench across what had been a face…all that happened.
I looked, I saw the person I had neglected and starved, and poisoned and crushed into that state, all the while thinking that it hadn’t been I, it hadn’t been anything but bad luck and bad timing and bad genetics and maybe—just maybe—bad karma.
Piangero—I shall weep. But wrong—it is the only false thing in the aria.
For weeping is has been left far, far behind. We have left the world of feelings, where anyone might legitimately weep. Weeping is gone.
(For better sound quality, and an amazing interpretation, see the above….)