The artist is the canary in the coal-mine.
Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind (2003)
I’m thinking about Lorraine Hunt Lieberson today, perhaps because Peter Sellars’ production of Handel’s Theodora has just appeared on CD, and its music has been resounding through our house for days. She was a violist who became a soprano, who became a mezzo, the grain of her voice thick and luscious, rubbing against the angles of her bones. You could hear those bones in every sound she made, so that sound never let you forget the flesh that supports it, even when that flesh ends (Lieberson died, too young, of breast cancer in 2006).
Here is the opening of the first chapter of my book, a few pages that arise from Lieberson’s sonic image in the DVD of Theodora:
Imagine, with me, that we are Glyndebourne in 1996, watching act 2, scene 4 of Handel’s
oratorio Theodora (1749), which Peter Sellars stages as a near-opera, updating
fourth-century, Roman-occupied Antioch to the America of our present time. Just before
the scene begins, we have learned that the president, by obliging all citizens to burn
incense at the altars of the gods in order to honor a recent military success, conflates
the state and religious observance, without reference to denominational complexity. We have
learned, too, that Theodora and the members of her pious community have been jailed due to
their non-compliance with a presidential dictum that disregards devotion to a God unrecognized
by the state; that, as she was born into a prominent family, Theodora will be forced to submit
to the following admonitory punishment: in the morning, she will be raped, in public, by those
who guard her. Finally, we understand, according to the ways in which Sellars has staged the
music, that Irene, the head of Theodora’s devotional sect, has been murdered in her cell for
failing to pay what obeisance required of her.
But now, while the scene opens, our gaze falls on Theodora, imprisoned in the middle hours of
the night before an admonishment she will not outlast, lying, fetus-like, in a cone of
light, her face oriented towards us, eyes closed. She does not see Irene, upraised, lingering
in the shadows far behind her, does not watch Irene seeming to float in the direction of that
radiance of which Theodora herself is unaware, while she sleeps. Yet we do; and, watching the
figures irradiated at center-stage, we listen to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing Irene’s aria
as if its first notes were always there, though we had not noticed them, hear the melodic line
rise to Theodora’s defense, imploring that “angels spread / their viewless tents around her
bed” so as to “keep her from vile assaults secure.” We observe how image and sound appear to
angle towards what cannot quite be seen or spoken with sufficient adequacy, how both utilize
vocabularies centered on the visible, on the sayable, as a means of adumbrating their apparent
opposites. Looking at Irene’s hair, falling over the body of Theodora, at Irene’s arms forming
two curves that surround this body, still asleep, we find ourselves hypnotized by what they
effect: a sleeping arm rises into the light and stays there; Theodora’s guard, into whose ears
Irene vocalizes her plea, turns, unseeing, his eyes moistened, lit, even in the darkness.
Throughout, Handel, his librettist, Thomas Morell, Sellars, and his players prohibit our
forgetting the palpability of the dead, of the living, the two intermixed beyond the logic of
explanation, an intermixture that, were all involved to acquiesce in it, might reorder the
morning that is almost here.
I begin with a sonic picture of our need to acknowledge what we may resist considering because
much of the work which follows my introduction concerns interminglings, intervolvings by which
our world would only be enriched, if we could consent to admitting them. For admittance results
from a kind of seeing; what we see, we can act on; and, given that we live in the midst of a
climate change produced largely by our own behaviors, “to refuse to act,” as Elizabeth Kolbert
warns in Field Notes from a Catastrophe (2006), is not to free ourselves of
“consequences, but to rush toward them” (187). Yet, since behaviors issue from desires, yielded
to or checked, since desires play on persons, to reconceive the performer is to allow for the
possibility that his performances may submit to transformation. Once we combine that
potential transformation with the notion of interrelationship, with the concept that the human
cannot be an “itself,” isolated from the outside of which it must be a part, from an
interdependency with entities animate and inanimate, we arrive at the near comprehension
that we may be other than we know, that our actuated desires fail the world into which we
insert them when we operate under an impoverished vision of what relation means, one
grounded in simple equivalence or opposition. Thus, the effort to shift our sense of the
relational can guide us to shifting the personhoods by which we thought we were defined, to
modifying the ways in which we bear on the many things among which we live. As a work of art
manifests an approach to the envisaging act, represents that act, we ought to be capable of
transferring the closeness of our attention to it, regardless of its difficulties, because of
those difficulties, to the world that, on the edges of any text, merits all the attending
we permit ourselves to imagine offering it. And this admixture of attentiveness and
imagination leads me to my primary subject–Virginia Woolf.
In teaching my classes at New York University, I find that a few students seem moved by Lieberson and her scene, that one or two appear to carry her resonances with them. But, when working–however briefly–with the Joni Mitchell quote that I employ as an epigraph to this post, my students largely tell me, responding to the question, what is Mitchell saying here?: well, there’s a canary; there’s a coal-mine; and that’s all. They don’t yet see that a collection of words, like an image, is framed by what shudders around it, and that the world surrounds and intersects with both.
I think, today, that we must never let the singing stop, that those elongated vowels of song tell us how the world keeps on spinning into life.