Listening to a Schumann song cycle can sometimes feel like you’re sitting down to see how many baked potatoes you can eat in one sitting. Most of us who’ve done so will tell you that there are only three good ones: The first two and the last one.
The first potato beckons seductively from it’s plate like a scoop of ice cream dropped onto the floor of a cafeteria filled with fat children. When you’ve finished suckling at every last crumb and every drop of buttery spittle, the surprise of a second potato delights you to no end. Amazing! A chance to relive the toe-curling bliss of what was once new. Except, it’s not new. By the time you get to the end of the second potato you’re feeling a little full. You’ve probably gurgled some variation of, “I couldn’t eat another bite.” or “Wait… is this whole fucking thing in German?”.
Not much happens after potato number two until you get to the last one. This is where it gets interesting. Some people feel a flush of relief at the end. Their tribulations are over and if there were any way they could loosen their belt any more they might sit up and take another bite. Another type of person might pause thoughtfully at the end to ponder what has just passed them by. The intensity of the act is gluttonous to the extreme but has the unintentional effect of exercising the glutton’s taste to a very high degree. The glutton might look back and realise that some of their potatoes they were going through the motions for were actually quite special and deserving of the attention they gave to the first two potatoes. They might decide to check them out again when they’re not so full. In short, they’re hungry again while still being full.
SongDrama productions now has three shows under it’s belt. They’ve been presenting songs from the classical canon using a novel format that does an enviable job of getting us away from the stiff presentation of most songbirding. Most classical voice recitals suffer from their own formality. Singers are propped up next to the piano like a stack of two by fours and expected to intimate in an environment far too sterile to even support life. SongDrama’s concept is to take these familiar songs from the repertoire and weave a story (As well as some tasteful sets and costuming) between them that not only serves to tie the evening together into a very pleasing whole, but gives the singer a set of tools to break out of the stiffness of the traditional format.
Clara/Clara is a story of the two sides of pianist/composer Clara Schumann’s personality. Her artistic side pines for her music making in direct conflict with her domestic side’s urge to be Robert Schumann’s wife. All the while, the pair of singers have the veiled form of Robert Schumann looming at the back of the stage. Singers Emily Forsyth and Debi Wong played these two sides of Clara Schumann while Damien Jinx provided a lush accompaniment as the shadow of Robert Schumann. I have to admit that I was worried when I heard that “singers” were going to be trying to pull off something that can typically give capital-T Thespians a run for their money. This sort of drama seems to magnify the prominence of the most subtle stagecraft. A look here, a bowed shoulder, or a well-timed delay are the most powerful tools in the arsenal. My relief was immense when, after the intermission, I really started to see two distinct Claras on the stage grappling with their conflict of wants.
If at this point you’re asking yourself, “Wait, how is this not Opera?”, then don’t worry. I’m still with you. The director and writer, Adrienne Paulson, agreed with me that most of the ways in which you might distinguish Opera from SongDrama’s Not-pera were pointlessly nit-picky. We did, however, manage to find one point at which we agreed the distinction was worth noting. Traditional Opera seems to be more a vehicle for voices. That is to say, you could really just slap any story on to a stage since the whole point of Opera is huge singing propped up on storytelling. SongDrama’s format is different in that even if the voices were weak, and in this production they were certainly anything but, the production would still work because we’re after the storytelling and not necessarily vocal pyrotechnics.
Great concert. Where the hell were you?