The Performance of Art Song
I have loved to sing ever since I used to force my performances of ‘Steps’ and the ‘Spice Girls’ at 5 years old on my family and friends after a Sunday lunch, and acting, living through another character’s emotions has always grasped my attention. When I first started at Birmingham Conservatoire in 2011, I had never combined the two art forms to such an extent as you must in opera and art song. I struggled for a while to merge the two, but once you are doing it, it is the most rewarding feeling, all worth it for that moment of complete absorption.
Art song in particular requires a different level of imagination, interpretation and individuality, you have only a short moment to transport your audience to a new place, introduce a diverse feeling to the one you may have just been embodying, living through. Unlike opera, where the story evolves through libretto and dramatic movement, art song evolves through each tiny detail, dynamic, word, facial expression and each breath. When performing song repertoire, I imagine where I am, who I am with, what I am wearing, how I am feeling and immerse myself in all of the senses the song has explored. I believe that every poem means something different to each performer, some poems may be relatable and some not, but for me, it is about giving yourself to the character of the poem and reacting to the emotions in the music that is given to you by the composer.
An example of a poem that has been interpreted differently is Paul Verlaine’s ‘En Sourdine’, if you compare Debussy and Faure’s setting of this poem, in my opinion Faure sets the scene of the lovers in a very matter of fact style (this is what is happening around us), with a happy, butterfly in the stomach feeling. Whereas, I feel that Debussy creates a sense of complete contentment with underlays of doubt from the lover who is being persuaded. At the end Faure expresses and illustrates the bird singing at “chantera”, whereas Debussy has a descending phrase which insinuates that the sound of the nightingale means that this moment with the lovers has to come to an end. This one example of a poem that has been expressed in two ways by two different French composers shows that art song can be envisaged how the performer and listener want to envisage it.
Performing art songs in a recital setting means that you have to chop and change into and out of characters, the best way I can do this is by imagining colours and emotions, so each song, feeling and intention has a different colour which will then trigger what I am imagining. I have always felt that it is important to try and link each song in a recital, this is why programme order is so important. For example (an extreme one at that), it would be quite difficult for me to link Debussy’s ‘Fantoches’ with Gurney’s ‘Sleep’, however someone may find their own valid link.
Each song and poem is tailored by an individual’s imagination.