If you haven’t been following this discussion on Fred Plotkin’s Operavore blog, take a moment to surf on over here: Should Vocal Recitalists Stop Providing Printed Translations of Songs? In short, Stephanie Blythe and Warren Jones recently did a Carnegie Hall concert in which (rather than providing printed translations of songs) they prefaced the performance of each foreign-language song by speaking a paraphrase translation of the text in English.
The original blog post was positive, but on Tuesday, Fred wrote again on the topic, summarizing the reader response to the original article. In short, not all positive.
This debate is a reminder of how jaw-droppingly diverse our approaches to live performance can be. And the fact is – for better or worse – our differences are pretty much hard-wired. Are you good at parallel processing, and can the part of your brain that embraces music and emotion run on a track simultaneously with reading printed text? Or are you a serial processor, devoting yourself single-mindedly to one thing at a time, preferring to listen to and tuck away a poem in English, then dipping into the immersive aural experience?
I think that we in the performing arts need to get better at recognizing the various ways – all legitimate – that our audiences prefer to experience music. Too many times we make qualitative judgments about the “best” way, believing that our aesthetic can force our patrons to abandon their inferior expectations and get with the program. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Fred is doing this; he was just expressing his own joyous reaction to a different concert format.) I don’t have a solution as to how we engage and satisfy all these different types of audience members at the same time, but I think we need to be more aware of these differences. Only then will we be able to identify why people come to our shows at all and how we can continue to serve up something that they want.
Rant over. There’s another corollary to this particular discussion though, and that’s the one that acknowledges that Stephanie and Warren bring a maturity and sophistication to this exercise that most artists don’t yet have. If talking to the audience isn’t something a performer can do with amazing facility, probably best to put it aside for now. (I flagged this blog post last winter but never followed up; it seems particularly appropriate now in light of this conversation.) We love it when artists communicate genuinely and easily from the stage. But not so much when they’re ill-suited, forced into doing it because a producer thought it would be a good idea.
Food for thought. Now back to rehearsal. The Count is about to get what he deserves.