Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and the use of art

Last night my husband and I were privileged to attend a recital by a great artist, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, as she makes her way through the great concert halls of the world in a “goodbye” tour before retirement. She looked and sounded gorgeous and when she first stepped out and began the recitative to Die ihr des unermesslichen Weltalls (You, who Revere the Creator of the Boundless Universe) in the great Carnegie Hall, I thought, “outside, the world is buzzing along, sirens, car horns, people walking purposefully toward a million different concerns, contemplating joy or facing something awful, all of them staggering left and right toward the thing that fits itself, somehow, between hope and sorrow and brings us to a place of contentment, if we dare let it. Outside are eight million fragments all working toward becoming part of something whole. How could we bear it all without art?”

Ms Te Kanawa answered my musings in part, when she sang these lines from Jake Heggie’s Master Class:

The sun will not fall down from the sky
If there are no more Traviatas.
The world can and will go on without us
But I have to think that we have made this world a better place.
That we have left it richer, wiser
Than had we not chosen the way of art.

The older I get, the less I know,
But I am certain that what we do matters.
If I didn’t believe that…

You must know what you want to do in life,
You must decide for we cannot do everything.
Do not think that singing is an easy career.
It is a lifetime’s work; it does not stop here.
Whether I continue singing doesn’t matter.
Besides, it’s all there in the recordings.

Bittersweet, yes, but wonderful.

My sons and their girlfriends are all “artistic” people
– very smart and conversant on many issues, mind you; they have wide-awake, curious minds – but they have the hearts of artists. Some of my friends have asked my husband and me why we have allowed our sons to pursue “the way of art” over more conventional, stable ways. We can only tell them what we have observed in our family members who did not pursue their heart’s desires and the voids we can see, left gaping within them, for having put practicality over something a little less respectable and a little more daring. We wonder if those voids would be so wide and deep if these family members had at least tried the artists way, even if just for a little while.

The world may not need another Traviata, or another Don Giovanni, it’s true. It will not stop spinning without another Schubert. For that matter, the world doesn’t need another MBA or another grad student, either. All have their place and their use, though, and it is not enough to feed the body and the retirement account. The soul must be lifted up and fed as well, and art can do that; art can feed what food and material possessions cannot. Great art can sometimes be a swifter, clearer and more direct conduit to the Almighty – to a soul’s one-on-one encounter with the Eternal – than any religion or prayer. We need it.

And art belongs to everyone, no matter how high or humble.

And so our kids – showing peculiar aptitude for their respective arts – have been allowed to pursue the stuff inside them, with the understanding that there must be a “Plan B” involved. If my Elder Son does not find a way to make a living within his artistic sphere, he is not without imagination, education and resources. He has a Plan B, but he’s going to be permitted a chance to starve and get hungry enough to create. Buster has a Plan B, too, but he will first and foremost get to pursue his own calling – what he believes is his calling – and hopefully both of these young men (and their better halves) will have the opportunity to bring something into the world that will speak to others. Their effect does not have to be on a wide or broad level, it just needs be enough to keep them independently living, working, sleeping and eating – you know, the respectable “living,” which used to be noble enough. Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that one needn’t be “rich” or “famous” to be very successful in one’s sphere.

It is true that much of what is called “art” today is self-indulgent tripe – “I’ve lined up ten hair care products and it’s a statement about feminine enslavement and it’s art” – defines much of the current artistic conceit. But even in a mood of cultural self-indulgence, out of something small and trite something great may still be born, something which enlarges perspective in positive ways, and inspires not just more art, and movement, but hope and genuine fellow-feeling, real regard for the deep mysteries which reside in each of us and make us unique and valuable. Great art can stand us at openings unimaginable and awesome, and invite us in.

As Dame Kiri sang last night, in the same remarkable piece, which is about so much more than music and which moved me greatly:

If I have seemed harsh,
It is because I have been harsh with myself.
I’m not good with words,
But I have tried to reach you.
To communicate something of what I feel
About what we do as artists, as musicians
and as human beings
[…]
What matters is that you use whatever you have learned wisely,
Think of the expression of the words, of good diction,
And of your own deep feelings.
The only thanks I ask is that you sing properly and honestly.
If you do this, I will feel repaid.
Well, that’s that.

Te Kanawa ended her remarkable night of music with this:

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