No Divo, No Life; or No Audience, No Performance

I’m currently sitting on a cute little four post bed at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, relaxing before a concert tonight with New Trinity Baroque. The church has a small cottage apart from the main building with a few bedrooms for visitors. Two of the other musicians are staying here as well and it has been fun having quality kitchen hangs every evening.

This has been a busy week between my private students, a wedding gig, and this baroque gig. But I’ve never done anything quite like the gig played this past Sunday. I was hired along with about 20 other musicians to play onstage with “Il Divo.” This multi-national quartet of male singers has been together since 2003 and tours the globe performing for sold out crowds. I had an inkling of who they were, but nothing could prepare me for this elaborate production. In the words of Ron Burgundy, my first clue that these guys were “kind of a big deal” was seeing four charter buses parked next to the Durham Performing Arts Center. I showed my ID to security, went in the backstage door, and down to the dressing rooms for the orchestra’s rehearsal.

Once we were all set up, the music director leveled with the musicians that this was a “track gig.” There was a palpable change in the room and all positivity from greeting each other and catching up seemed to drop to the floor. For anyone who might not know, this means a small group of musicians play on stage over a “backing track” which includes extra music from the album version of a song. In essence, we were to be Milford graduates. Seen, not heard.

Honestly my heart sank a little as well. But the music wasn’t difficult, the conductor was very clear, so I challenged myself to miss as few notes as possible and tried to stay focused. Afterwards, we checked out the stage, which was fully prepared with smoke machines whirring away in the wings. The ensemble was split into two groups on risers, squarely facing the audience. 

Most of the musicians were upset at the prospect of being window dressing, and justifiably so. Usually when you go to a gig, there’s at least the basic understanding that your voice is being heard and that it makes a difference in the overall performance. I stood up and looked across the stage at everyone’s faces as we tuned, which was arguably unnecessary given the circumstances. I gave a big smile, acknowledging the situation, but also wanting to keep our spirits up for this three hour marathon. I’m not sure why; maybe it’s because I’ve been reading so much about Rhetoric, or maybe because this kind of gig is a novelty at this point, I made a decision to focus entirely on the audience’s perspective. 

Ok, so they weren’t going to actually hear me, but let’s face it. They weren’t there for me. Did I want to wear my misery on my face and detract from the whole experience? Or did I want to “say yes” and commit to my part of this production?

I learned early on in life while doing less-than-fulfilling gigs that being actively miserable does not improve one’s mood, nor does it change the situation. Similarly, phoning it in doesn’t help either, and in fact adversely affects your technique in the long run. I was going to play to the best of my ability, even if it wasn’t going to be heard. Beyond that, I had the perfect opportunity to try incorporating some rhetorical ideas into my playing.

Rhetoric, in the simplest terms, is the art of persuasion. Think trial lawyers addressing a jury. It encompasses everything, from the content (words), to the inflection of your voice, and the use of gesture. And all of this is in service to the specific audience you are addressing.

Looking out into the ocean of smiling faces, I saw some shaking their heads in disbelief as if what they were hearing was just too beautiful to bear and others with eyes closed, slowly rocking back and forth. One woman in the front row could hardly stay in her seat. She also had an array of posters and a fan she was waving constantly that said, “No Divo, No Life!” She was having the best night of her life.

Il Divo is interesting because the range of repertoire is so immense. They all come from different countries (Spain, Switzerland, the US, France) and three of them are classically trained. Some speculate that Simon Cowell brought them together in order to attract the widest audience, tour the world, and subsequently make a lot of money. That may well be true, but seeing such a diverse crowd being equally enthusiastic about such varied numbers as Nessun Dorma, Por una Cabeza, and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah; I had to wonder, is that so bad?

 The majority of the songs were Latin-inspired numbers from their most recent album, “Amor & Pasión.” With each new song, I tried to identify the specific style (Tango, Rhumba, Samba, etc) and altered my technique to support the style as best I could. I could feel even just by thinking about this, my entire posture and the nature of my movements amplified these changes. For singers and dancers, these considerations are second nature. The former has text and language that dictate expression, while the latter relies heavily on physicality for expression. The lack of text and physical direction can make expressive decisions difficult for musicians. As I delve deeper into the study of Rhetoric, I look forward to discovering how artists of the Renaissance and early Baroque applied what they learned from the revived literature of classical thinkers to their craft.

I can’t be sure if anyone consciously or specifically noticed my efforts. But as a performer, I felt more connected to everything around me because I was making an effort to contribute to the overall audience experience. After all, if there’s no audience, it’s not a performance.