What do we hear when we listen?
The first time I went to the opera was in Naples. An old Englishman, sitting behind me, bent forward and whispered in my ear: ‘Wake me up when they start fighting’. I must have been about nine. I liked him on the spot, so when Carmen’s lover got slaughtered I duly shook his knobby knee. Then, to our relief, Carmen finally shut up and died too. I never saw the old Englishman again but something passed from him to me, some unexplainable companionship that stayed like a stone in my pocket. The strange friendships of my childhood were flashlights in the surrounding darkness of school and home life. They led me on, protecting me and guiding me, a bit like dwarfs or witches in fairy tales. Maybe we are all dwarves and witches to each other at certain times of darkness in life’s forests.
I had another shot at Carmen at the Opera Garnier in Paris at about twelve and didn’t like it all over again.
Then, in my early thirties, a friend invited me to see Othello in the Arenas of Nîmes. Arenas, whether in Rome, Arles or Nîmes, always feel ominous to me, as if the suffering and fear packed in them so long ago were still hanging around. When I was about four years old, my father took me to the Collosseum. I was violently sick. I remember quite clearly the stench of beasts and bloody limbs. It could have been my father’s narrative skills of course, but surely a place like that would be saturated with its own past. (As I am writing this I made myself a coffee, after I drank it, there was a wolf inside the cup.) However, I did not refuse this third venture to the opera.
As my friend Samir dragged me to this cultural spree, I tried not to think that the gladiators had walked through the same mangy openings in the rock or that the lions and wolves had used that very rock to sharpen their claws on their way to their human snack. I also knew how Othello ends: he kills her. So with that and the wide open jaws of the enormous arena that engulfed us all, I was not planning to enjoy myself. It was a balmy Mediterranean night. The velvet belly of the sky hung low and the crowd of spectators were basking in an educated, whispered quiet before the singers started roaming on stage in Shakespearian angst. I was busy missing my old Englishman.
Yet, towards the end, when Desdemona has no hope in hell of having breakfast the next morning, something made me sit up on the cushion thoughtfully covering the stone step of the arena. The scene was pretty banal. Desdemona was with her lady in waiting gently moving around stage as she sung something quite as ordinary as: could you hang that cloak here, fold those dresses, take that sheet away and please fill the chest with this pile of clothing. Suddenly I knew she was not giving a course in housekeeping. Her song wafted straight into me. I felt with absolute certainty that this was her adieu, not only to her favourite lady in waiting but to life itself. Tears ran down my cheeks. Thanks to my friend Samir, I had understood opera at last. On the wings of music, emotions that are not our own, invade the privacy of our heart and widen our perceptions.
From then on, opera whispered secrets to me in the dark of a crowd about pain and fear and sudden stormy joy.
I was at a recital again the other night. It was about men dying under the sea in a submarine. Not so long ago either. I closed my eyes and let the waves cover me. It’s rather easy to imagine being under the sea in a concert hall for some reason. The lapping of subsiding voices, the metal instruments, the darkness behind your eyelids, the liquid of the composer’s exquisite music which, for me in some crazed way, contained silence, a silence only knowledge of suffering can bring. But then, the words of accompaniment, the choir, broke it all for me. Why couldn’t the music stand alone just as those men had been alone under the sea, waiting for death? What else but a form of silence, a wave of respect can greet so recently bodyless souls? Words seemed brash interruptions and the singing felt heroic and insensitive. The intelligentsia’s loud ovation jarred for me and only the music, so seemingly powerless in view of such a human disaster, stayed as a mysterious consolation.
A week later, when I went to listen to Twelve Streets Till Home playing at the Brunswick Hotel right near were I live, I discovered something else.
Their singer, Lucienne Shenfield’s bitter sweet voice rose above the noisy giggles of her girlfriends, above the rumble of the pub, above my own suddenly silent breathing. Unexpectedly her young sound became very old and wise, welling up like a river. There was nothing more to wrestle with, just hearing it made me understand that separate people at two ends of the city were soothing death, despair, undiluted pain because they sang or played their notes, because music is a sacred act somehow, somewhere, sometimes.