Sunday, January 12, 2014

Opera Report

As I said on Facebook last night, I have enjoyed a handful of truly great nights in my life. First among them were my marriage night and the birth of my son. What I experienced last night at the amphitheatre of the Opéra Bastille is not far behind.

After tramping around all day--from our flat in the 2e Arrondissement through the courtyard of the Louvre and the Tuileries, through part of the Champs Elysées, then across the Seine to the spectacular Musée d'Orsay (where we lunched and took in a couple of the permanent exhibits, including Van Gogh and Gauguin)--my mother and I hit Ile de la Cité and strolled along the river to Ile St. Louis, where we strolled some more before having an early supper at one of the few restaurants that serves such a meal (most of the other patrons had small children with them).

After supper, we made our way to the Opéra Bastille, the somewhat controversial modern opera house built in the late '80s. After I picked up our comp tickets, we headed downstairs to the Amphithéâtre, the intimate open-seating venue for Phillip Addis' and Emily Hamper's performance. We were among the first people there, so we managed to snag front row seats, just right of centre stage.

Shortly after settling in, we were warmly greeted by Christophe Ghristi and Mireille Campioni, the Opera staff members in charge of the Amphithéâtre. While we waited, spectators arrived steadily, eventually filling the three central seating sections. A handful of people sat in the outer two sections. I would estimate that somewhere between 200 and 225 people attended, all told.

I'd be surprised if a single one of them was disappointed. Phillip and Emily started off with Hugo Wolf's "Abendbilder," a short song cycle, with German text by Nikolaus Lenau. I'm a complete ingénue when it comes to music, but I thought it was very fine. Phillip and Emily headed offstage to warm applause and returned to deliver Benjamin Britten's settings of "Songs and Proverbs of William Blake." An ambitious selection of fourteen of Blake's most famous short poems, this was where both pianist and singer soared. And when they finished, the crowd showed their appreciation, going into a rhythmic clap that cues a curtain call. (After the show, Emily said that a curtain call at the intermission is very rare, since people are generally keener to hit the bar or the WC than to stay in their seats any longer.)

Following the intermission came another change of pace with Francis Poulenc's sublime song cycle "La fraîcheur et le feu," with French texts by Paul Eluard. I will confess that the deeper into the Poulenc they got, the harder it was for me to relax and listen, knowing that "Waypoints" (the song cycle that Erik Ross built out of my poems "I," "Anattā" and "Waypoints") was coming up. Appropriately, the last stanza of Eluard's chimes nicely with an image from "Waypoints":

Je sais le sort de la lumière
J'en ai assez pour jouer son éclat
Pour me parfaire au dos de mes paupières
Pour que rien ne vive sans moi.

Its final word made for a perfect segue into "I."

Before that would happen, however, Phillip and Emily, having taken their post-Poulenc bows, disappeared backstage to refresh themselves and my heart started beating hard. When they came back out, Phillip produced a slip of paper from his pocket and read some prepared remarks in French about the genesis of the "Waypoints" cycle. He finished by saying that Erik Ross was unfortunately unable to attend, but that I was here from Halifax. He gestured to me and I walked to the edge of the stage (which was level with the front row) and bowed to the applauding audience.

My heartbeat cranked up another notch or two as I returned to my seat. What followed I can't adequately describe, both because my knowledge of music is rudimentary and because the performance hit me on such an emotional, pre-verbal level. I write with the spoken voice in mind. I write my poems not just to be read, but to be heard. I have a pretty good idea when I've made a poem sound right (or as right as I can), but never have I imagined them sounding so transcendently gorgeous. The range of tone was staggering; on a couple of occasions, as my mother pointed out, Phillip turned red in the face while singing, which didn't happen during any of the other cycles. I was enraptured for the duration of the performance, chills running up and down my spine. The score, the performance, the setting--the whole thing blew me away.

The audience response was enormous. Phillip bowed, then gestured to Emily (as he did following each cycle), who bowed, then he looked over at me and pointed at the floor beside him. In a daze, I walked onto the stage, embraced Phillip and Emily (both of whom I was meeting in person for the first time), turned to face the audience, and bowed. The crowd kept clapping and Phillip nodded at me to bow again; then the three of us joined hands and bowed together. I half-staggered back to my seat while Phillip and Emily strode off-stage. My mother said afterwards that she wished someone had been taking photographs--house rules prohibited pictures--so I could see the expression on my face when I was taking my bows. Phlegmatic fellow that I am, it's rare that I radiate joy, but I'm sure I did last night.

Phillip and Emily returned to perform two songs by Eric Wolfgang Korngold, with lyrics by Elisabeth Honold and Josef von Eichendorff, respectively. Appropriately, the second song ends "Singe, sing nur mimer zu!" (Sing, sing without stopping!) The audience was clearly in sympathy with that thought. Phillip and Emily's bows were followed by more rhythmic clapping, along with shouts of Bravo! and Encore! They came out for a curtain call, went backstage, then came out again, to play a song by Ralph Von Williams, with a text taken from Henry V.

Thus ended the magic, but the night wasn't over. My mother and I went backstage, along with Opera staff and friends of Phillip and Emily's. We had champagne (the real McCoy, natch) and chatted for a while before a group of us headed to a restaurant next door for drinks and food and a lot of great conversation. I can't express how incredibly lucky I am, not only to have had my work given such royal  treatment, but to have it done by collaborators who are also charming, lovely people. The only things that would have made this evening more memorable yet would have been the presence of Erik Ross (whom I got to meet and hang out with in Toronto a couple of months back, at least) and Rachel, who has been with me for most of my writing life and without whom it's hard to say where I'd be in life and literature today.


Rob Taylor said...

It's wonderful to hear that it went so well!

Anonymous said...

Way to go Zach! Sounds like an amazing evening from your overview. Congratulations on achieving such a night of personal and professional success. Very cool.

Krista Wells said...

Zach, congratulations on your triumph! it is remarkable to read how much this touched you, I would love to have seen you drop your phlegmatic mask and show your emotions. I'm glad Lynne was there to witness it. I look forward to hearing her account of the evening too. Xx

Gillian said...

Sounds like a fabulous concert! How wonderful for you and your poems, how well deserved. Congratulations Zach! Will you be able to post a recording? I'd love to hear it.

Anonymous said...

Just an incredible story! Congratulations again!

Jason Miller

Zachariah Wells said...

Thanks, everyone.

There was an archival recording made, which I hope to be able to share, but I need to a)get a hold of it first and b)make sure it's okay with all other parties involved. Stay tuned.