I can’t wait to tell you about an amazing performance I had a few weeks ago. It has taken me some time to collect my thoughts and reflect on it all before sharing the experience, it was so unique.
On March 22, I was one of seven singers that brought to life a performance art event, Elegy, by South African artist Gabrielle Goliath. The performance took place at Duke University and was presented by their art department. To sum up what I was a part of, the audition call says it best:
Gabrielle Goliath is a multidisciplinary artist known for her conceptually distilled and sensitive negotiations of complex social concerns, particularly in relation to situations of gendered and sexualized violence in South Africa. Goliath has been exhibited widely in solo and group exhibitions, and in 2012 she participated in the Dak’Art Biennale, Senegal. She is currently affiliated with the Institute for Creative Arts at the University of Cape Town… Elegy calls together a group of vocalists, who enact a ritual of mourning. Collectively sustaining a single note over the course of an hour – evoking the presence of an absent individual. Responding to situations of violence perpetrated against women, the performance recalls the identity of individuals… Elegy performances have taken place in various parts of the world… Each time it has been performed, it has been filmed. Ms. Goliath will incorporate the filmed performance into a future exhibition.
I was so intrigued when I read the audition call, I didn’t even think twice or watch an excerpt of the piece first. Jumping head first, I replied with my interest and the rest is history. When I was a student in undergraduate school I was enthralled by performances such as Elegy. The further down the path to fully staged opera I got, the further away I have gotten from them, though. I was so excited to be a part of something my “aspiring artist” self could have only dreamed of. Jeff saw the audition posting and asked me if I was going to think about it, he knew it was right up my alley. He wasn’t surprised when I told him I had already written to them.
The piece came together fast. 6:00pm-9:00pm to rehearse, and film – live performance the next day. As I mentioned before, there were seven of us hired for the project. We ranged in age and experience from undergraduate to professional, with all different voices. Everyone was very nice, and equally excited to be a part of this. Some of the singers knew each other already, which added an unexpected communal aspect to the process. Everyone was new to me. I love meeting new people, so that was an added perk in my book.
Rehearsal officially began after introductions were made, contracts were signed, and we had a chance to see the space and our “stage” which was a double tiered box/platform/mini stage. Gabrielle, a soft spoken and elegant young South African woman who appeared to float as she walked, spoke with us about her inspiration behind Elegy, which was initiated in 2015 and is now an ongoing performance art project. She then spoke of the young woman whose death we were mourning, Lekita Moore, an 18 year old girl who was brutally murdered on her way home after an innocent night with friends singing karaoke at her soccer club. Forensic reports claim that her genitals had been mutilated, and that she had been stabbed ninety-eight times. This tragedy took place on September 11, 2016 and her family and friends were still quite raw with grief. The man accused of her murder, having a long history of violence, was currently standing trial for “a litany of offences.” After a moment to let that all sink in, Gabrielle took us in the random order in which we were standing, of which I was first, and we began.
The piece was literally us singing the same note, one by one, for an hour. We stood behind each other in a straight line. A singer would ascend the platform and sing their song of mourning, holding the note as long as possible. As the note died away, the singer would step off the platform which was then immediately taken by the next singer, who kept the note alive. Our note was not a high note at all, a B natural above middle C. Easy enough, right? How hard could one low-ish note be for moi? My happy place is an octave above it, right? And how hard could it be to step up and down and stay in a straight line? I mean, I’ve done cartwheels on stage before?
Ok. First try. I start it all. Here we go. Step up. Take my time, breath deep, open my mouth… and sing… and step down, walk to the back of the line, wait six times and then do it again, and again… and again… and again and again and again and…. then Gabrielle stops us. “Well done. That was your first three minutes.” WHAT?!?! It was at least 15 minutes, right?
CLICK HERE to watch a quick video I made when I was warming up. I thought you might like to get a feel for the performance since you couldn’t be there live. It hardly captures the full performance, but you get an idea. It is just of me, not all seven of us, and it is only one minute long. Yup. 59 more minutes to go for the real deal!
It was hard at first! I could feel the timing of starting my note as the singer before me let go of hers, but I just couldn’t quite get the release of it timed well with walking. I know, I know… don’t ask a soprano to do two things at once, ha ha. Maggie, the poor gal after me whose tone was totally different than mine, was kind about it. I told her to come in as soon as she wanted, don’t worry about singing too long with me, I didn’t mind, we needed a continuous sound and I felt like mine just would end abruptly, not really fade away. My breathing was so tight until I got into a groove. Every sound I made seemed too loud, too heavy… I finally got it together when I let go of “technique” and connected to why I was there. I laugh now when I think that I practiced in advance of rehearsal, letting out my most glorious operatic sounds. Ha! Nice try. This was primal. This was earthy. This came from somewhere else deep inside of myself. This was not all what I had expected it to be.
Actually, what was asked of us was exactly what I expected it to be. My personal experience with the piece was not at all what I anticipated. So many emotions, such a wide range of feelings. Not just about what I was singing about, but how it was personally affecting me.
For the first time in, well, maybe ever, I felt totally free. Free as a singer, a performer, an artist… Free from perfection. Free from text. Free from meter. Literally just a vessel of emotion poured out in one long sound. Typically, my job is to bring a character to life, tell their story. To bring the poem or lyrics to their truest meaning, intent. In Elegy, this was me, morning the brutal death of one young 18-year-old. Mutilated, stabbed 98 times… I wasn’t telling her story. I wasn’t portraying her or anyone who knew her. I was mourning her. But this wasn’t a funeral. This wasn’t anything like I had been a part of before.
Gabrielle didn’t direct us, or give us any sort of choreographed motions. She just wanted us to tap into our theatrical natures and use our voice and whole body how we felt inspired in the moment. It was an interesting challenge to bring the drama of movement to our singing, but in a way that was genuine and not just “posing” or “theatrical” and while basically standing still. For once, there really was no “right” sound. Just a right pitch (that we ended up going sharp on – shocking it wasn’t flat!) that we were asked to give 100% of our voice and our being to every time we sang. Hold the note as long as we could until there was nothing left of our sound, just the person after us.
The work itself concludes with each singer leaving in five minute intervals. One brave singer had to be our time keeper. At 40 minutes into the work, she would gently tap the arm of the performer before her to alert her it would be her last note. One by one, five minutes apart, we sang our last note and walked into the room, away from the platform. I was the third to last. Our first time through, I didn’t even realize it was down to three of us. I was so surprised when I felt my tap!
As my comrade through the piece, Maggie, put it when we were walking to our cars the first night, it was as if we were 7 high priestesses in an ancient ceremony, entrusted with this ritual. Each with our distinct voices, unique colors and sizes and tones and vibrato. Each sending sounds of peace, anguish, acceptance, comfort, loss, tenderness, and a plea to not forget her or this tragedy. It was incredible to take the note from the person before you and somehow either build on what they sang, or grow from it in a new direction. I really loved working with these sensitive musicians and artists. This was not for the weak of heart, spirit or body.
Speaking of weak bodies… I never felt tired or sore during the filming or performance. It was two days later that suddenly my legs and hips were sore! We know I’m not the tallest drink in NC. That was clear to me each time my little legs worked hard as I struggled to remain graceful as I hoisted myself up and lowered myself down the platform. Talk about trying to keep my sense of vocal support! The muscles I needed to sustain the sound were having to work double duty to hold me up so as to not plop down. I was willing myself to trust that I would eventually hit the step below me, and then the floor. What can I say, short people problems? I quickly let go of any vanity associated with not being more musical or artistic, or holding my note a really long time. I mean, hello, I hold notes an octave higher for 10+ beats over a rollicking orchestra, sometimes with as many as 20 more voices under me. This should have been easy!
At the after-party, I had time to ask Gabrielle why and how she chose a B natural as “the note.” Turns out that when she first work-shopped Elegy and she relied on university voice professors for guidance. She was directed to use that note because it would be an easy note to sustain and keep in tune by the many different voices she would encounter. I laughed and told her I would have loved any other note but that one! It is Ti-to my-Do. A note that I just pass on by as I go cruising on up to where my voice feels at home. Or, dip down past to simmer down in my lower octave. It is just a note. A note I have truly never gotten friendly with. It serves its purpose to get me where I am going. And now, here I was, living with it. My technical singer mind was raging at first! More head? More chest? What mix do I need? More spin? More brightness? Taller ah? Darker ah? I went from obsessing about perfection to actually exploring all different ways I could sing it. I heard the lovely singer after me sing the purest oo vowel in my life. Angelic and warm, not cool or steely. My ah became oo, and oh, a oiu bit French at times (uh). With more rehearsals, we would have known what Gabrielle really wanted. She said she typically has five or six rehearsals before filming a performance. Let’s recap: Rehearsal started at 6:00pm. We were singing about 6:45, filming by 7:45/8:00. Yup. Not a very long time to rehearse. Yet she seemed pleased. Very pleased! Maybe it was jetlag from having arrived from South Africa less than 24 hours before?
On my drive home that first night I was so thrilled by what just happened, I almost wished it was over right then and there. The next night would be a “performance” for an “audience.” What we shared was so intimate, it felt sacred. How would an audience fit into that? As I told Gabrielle at the after-party, my mindset was that this was not a performance. It was a ceremony. These were not audience members, these were mourners. I couldn’t even tell you how many people were surrounding us. 50? 100? 25? More? Less? There were no chairs to sit upon. People leaned against the walls, sat on the floor or on the window ledges. The sun set as we sang. Their bodies disappeared into the now dim room. Apart from our spotlight, there was only darkness. I could barely see their hung heads, I could roughly make out some faces. It was intimate. But the energy in the room was so different! I felt as if it was holding us back from soaring like we did the night before. In this presentation, I found myself digging deeper and singing stronger, as if to cut through that energy with my own, sing out past it, and pull the audience to the place where we the performers were. Before I knew it, we were done.
Gabrielle shared that it was a more vulnerable hour from each of us, in a very beautiful way. Applause seemed so wrong following the performance, one man even said as much to Gabrielle who so graciously let him speak. It was a compliment, really. Her work served its purpose. We brought her performance to life in a meaningful way. It had the intended affect. I don’t think anyone wanted to utter a word when it was over – applause just sort of seemed like the way to go. No one wanted to break the silence. It was a somber clap, ha ha, you could feel their struggle of not knowing how to acknowledge what they were just a part of. But I think we all felt the same way. What now? We went somewhere during that hour. I was thinking afterwards, maybe people should just leave in silence after the performance? It could even be powerful if each singer left the room altogether when they finish, until it was the empty platform, just as it was when we started… I don’t know. Gabrielle knows what she wants. And she was pleased. That’s all that matters!
I have to say, when it was all over, it felt wrong to be getting paid, too. At some point, it just felt like more than a “performance.” It is hard to explain. But, paid we were and as a professional singer, I am always grateful for the paycheck. And I am always grateful for the post-performance party! I mean, I am “singing for my supper” aren’t I? We were invited to a fabulous feast at the home of Gabrielle’s colleague, Claudia Marion Stemberger, who had curated the work at Duke.
Claudia, also an artist, is originally from Germany, and spent several years in Graz, Austria (where Jeff and I spent a summer studying and performing.) It was fun to chat with her and her husband about our respective time there. I told her I would happily move to Graz if I ever had a reason, and she informed me I was never there in the winter. She was right… I will continue to think fondly of my time there, and only return in the summer!
I really can’t say it enough – and I had to include all the food shots as proof- Claudia is an incredible cook! The food was just spectacular. She used recipes from a German chef with a notable restaurant in London. I of course can’t remember his name! The company was equally splendid. Many of Claudia’s friends and fellow Duke professors were there in addition to us performers. I greatly enjoyed my time with all of them. I need to get myself an invite to her next shin-dig. I actually think my hubby and her hubby would be mates. He had a terrific sense of humor, I loved talking to him. Hey Claudia, are you reading? Lass uns das bald mal wiederholen!
I hated to leave, but I had an hour to drive back home. It was time to say goodbye. The drive home gave me more time to reflect, though. I relived the last 24 hours of being a part of Elegy, and I was kind of surprised by where my thoughts kept taking me.
I have sung at countless funerals; some for family and friends, many for strangers. Some so tragic, it was hard to get through. But as the funeral singer, I am not allowed to grieve. I must do my “job” – provide a moment of beauty through song to the grieving. But I am never really a participant, even when I need to be. In this piece, I was free for the first time to use my voice as I never have. To push out everything inside myself without fear of how I sounded.
The world literally faded away. At times, tears began to flow. Each time I began my ascent into the platform, I placed an intention for the sound about to escape my lips. “This is a song of comfort for the mother.” The next six voices rang out… My next intention began for her father… Her sister… Her family… Her friends…
I found myself during the filming being so deeply inspired by the loss of my cousin, my “baby brother”, not much older than the girl we were mourning, who died in an accident. I thought of my uncle as I sent a note out for her father. I thought of his brother as I sang out for her sister. I allowed myself to think of myself, and then sent that out with the intention of whoever in her life left behind needed it.
Never in any funeral I have sung, have I let myself feel as I did during this. Raw. Honest. Open. Unrestrained by a duty to perform well. As I drove my hour home back to Greensboro, I felt a weight lifted from me. Had I finally, ten years later, truly finished my own mourning process? I felt a peace, a calm. I slept so soundly that night.
So, here it is, now April 7. Quite a bit of time has passed but Elegy has stayed with me. More than ever I feel like I want to sing things that really matter to me. I love opera and musicals and art songs, and always will, but I am already yearning for another experience like this. To have literally used my instrument, my voice, my gift, in a way that is larger than life. Wow. This was a once in a lifetime experience. I am certain. Since that performance, my singing has never been better. I even find myself excited to practice. A new voice has emerged. I just don’t know what to do with it now! Will I ever? I just don’t know!
Gabrielle is going to get a us a copy of our performance once it has been edited. I’m excited to share it with everyone. In the meantime, I am glad you could be a part of this amazing work, if only through my story telling.