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Add Drama!
Written November 4, 2005

 

John Wagner talked to us, but we just sat there.

He was the minister at my church when I was a teenager.  He would preach; we Methodists would listen respectfully; but we wouldn't react.  He wanted to involve us in a dialogue, but we weren't doing our part.  If he made a joke we'd laugh, but most of the time we just stared blankly back at him.  He must have felt like a professor whose students never asked any questions.  Did we even understand what he was saying?

One Sunday, he tried to make the sermon more interactive.  He secretly gave lines to two or three members of the congregation, instructing each of them to startle the rest of us.  At a certain point, each of these "plants" stood up and objected to what the preacher had just said.

Unfortunately, this ploy failed.  It did not change our attitude.  Sunday services did not become wide-ranging discussions.  We still listened passively, then shook Rev. Wagner's hand on our way out and told him we enjoyed his sermon.

Ever since, however, I've been thinking of ways to add drama to traditional performances.

Ode to Freedom

For example, take Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.  When it begins, there's an orchestra and a chorus on stage, but for nearly an hour the orchestra plays while the chorus does nothing.   At the beginning of the fourth movement, four vocal soloists parade onto the stage, sit down, and also do nothing.  Finally the baritone interrupts the orchestra with a recitative.  Then the chorus and the other soloists join him for the last 18 minutes of the symphony.

This vocal interruption is meticulously planned, of course.  But the words imply that the singing is a spontaneous outpouring of emotion.  I think that the staging should contribute to this effect.

Any neophytes in the audience may expect a performance that's purely instrumental.  Most symphonies are, and this one appears to be.  They will be doubly dazzled when, without warning, the music blossoms into ecstatic song.

First off, for American audiences let's sing in English.  Also, let's translate "Freude" (Joy) by using the word that supposedly the poet secretly had in mind, "Freedom."

The singers should not be seen until they're needed.  Depending on the arrangement of the concert hall, the chorus could be behind a curtain, or maybe they could eschew robes and pretend to be ordinary audience members.  Let's hide the baritone soloist within the orchestra itself, perhaps disguised as one of the violinists.

Six minutes into the fourth movement, those who are familiar with the Ninth Symphony are puzzled.  What happened to the singers?

The instrumentalists play a dramatic cadence and stop.  The baritone springs to his feet, spreading his arms, violin in one hand and bow in the other.  "My brothers!"  he cries to his fellow musicians.  "Stop all this playing!"  The strings uncertainly play a couple of measures, then hold a chord.  "Rather, let us raise our voices up, in singing" — the orchestra exclaims with four chords — "our praise of freedom!"  Another chord for emphasis.

The Allegro assai begins.  The baritone turns to the left and calls out "Freedom!"  Some of the male musicians, like a big band playing Pennsylvania 6-5000, shout back "Freedom!"  (Beethoven assigned this word to the basses of the chorus, but our chorus is still invisible.)  He turns to the right and repeats the call "Freedom!"  Some of the musicians on that side respond "Freedom!"  As they do, the baritone launches into the Ode:

Freedom!  Spark from flame immortal,
     Daughter of Elysium,
Drunk with fire we now approach thee;
     Freedom, to thy shrine we come!

Let thy magic bring together
     All whom custom's laws divide!
All mankind shall be as brothers
     Where thy gentle wings abide.

The altos, tenors, and basses of the chorus, now revealed, repeat the second half of this verse.  Then two more soloists walk on to join the baritone, followed by the soprano soloist entering from the opposite side.  And so on to the glorious end.

Sheep and Lambs

Handel's oratorio The Messiah is also presented in concert style, with an orchestra and chorus and soloists.  It's in three parts, depicting Christ's birth, death/resurrection, and subsequent rule in heaven.

There are a number of ways that this oratorio could be made more dramatic, short of turning it into a fully staged opera.  I've been picturing these ideas in my mind ever since I first listened to The Messiah decades ago. 

For example, near the end of Part One is the aria in two verses, "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd."  Often the two verses are performed by two different singers.  Let's have the contralto sing from the stage as usual, but then, in a higher key, the soprano walks down the aisle into the audience as she gives the invitation, "Come unto him, all ye that labor; come unto him that are heavy laden, and he will give you rest."

In Part Two, Jesus is "despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and aquainted with grief."  The chorus riotously sings "All we, like sheep, have gone astray.  We have turned every one to his own way."  The music slows:  "His.  Own.  Way."  It comes to a stop.

At that point, let's suddenly turn off all the lights except for one spotlight on a hitherto unnoticed object.

The chorus resumes very slowly and dramatically:  "And the Lord hath laid on him" — the spotlighted object turns toward us and we see that it is a crucifix, as I've simulated below — "and the Lord hath laid on him, hath laid on him" — then red illumination washes over the audience — "the iniquity of us all."

Perhaps mirrors have even descended from the ceiling, and we sinners are confronted by our own image.

Elsewhere on this website, I describe a 1974 telecast in which I used slides of iconic buildings to illustrate a line from the Hallelujah Chorus:  "The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ."

We could also use the iconography of the Agnus Dei, in a carved three-dimensional represenatation.

The lamb makes only a cameo appearance in Part One, but returns with a cross at the beginning of Part Two with the chorus "Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world."  Then it reappears with a banner and halo in Part Three, when the chorus sings:

Worthy is the Lamb
     That was slain
     And hath redeemed us to God
     By his blood
To receive power
     And riches
     And wisdom
     And strength
     And honor
     And glory
     And blessing!

At the very end of this concluding chorus, the music builds to an impressive cadence, a dramatic pause, and then the final emphatic "Amen, amen!"  During those last ten seconds, I think the lamb should be transfigured.  Turn every available spotlight on it, set off a magnesium flare, do everything possible to make it seem to glow briefly as bright as the sun in heaven.  Then the light and the music end, and the oratorio is completed.

How, Indeed?

Finally, I've imagined a motion picture, a sort of romantic tragedy.

Melissa is a small-town beauty, a high school senior 18 years old who dreams of wealth and glamour.  After a major argument with her parents, she cuts all her family ties and leaves home to seek her fortune in the big city.

Melissa's looks enable her to become acquainted quickly with some wealthy, influential people.  An older man befriends her.

Richard is a fast-talking dealmaker who dresses elegantly and drives a shiny silver Rolls-Royce.  He spends freely; even the food he buys for his pets is better than what most people can afford for dinner.  And he spends freely on Melissa, including clothes and jewelry.

They go to an elegant party in a penthouse.  Melissa laughs at the performers' songs and jokes, but afterwards when she encounters them in the hallway, she snubs them and walks away.

Nor does she have time for the homeless people on the street.  If she can't avoid beggars, she grudgingly gives them a coin or two.  She keeps encountering one street person in particular:  a short, wild-eyed man in a long coat who hints about contraband for sale and speaks in elaborate metaphors.

Richard pulls some strings to get her enrolled in an Ivy League university.  However, she prefers partying to studying.  Her friends warn her that she shouldn't take things for granted, but she doesn't listen.  She soon drops out of college.

Then she discovers that Richard has been taking advantage of her and isn't nearly as wealthy as he pretended.  Her life begins crashing around her in other ways as well.

At the climax of the movie, Melissa is completely broke.  She has no money and nowhere to live.  She can't go back to college; she can't go back to her parents.  As she trudges along a lonely sidewalk in the rain, we hear the classic song that inspired the literal details of her story: 

Once upon a time, you dressed so fine.
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?
People'd call, say, "Beware, doll!  You're bound to fall."
You thought they were all kiddin' you.
     You used to laugh about
     Everybody that was hangin' out.
     Now you don't talk so loud.
     Now you don't seem so proud
About having to be scrounging for your next meal.

You've gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely,
But you know you only used to get juiced in it.
And nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street,
And now you find out you're gonna have to get used to it.
     You said you'd never compromise
     With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
     He's not selling any alibis
     As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And ask him, "Do you want to make a deal?"

You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns
When they all come down and did tricks for you.
You never understood that it ain't no good.
You shouldn't let other people get your kicks for you.
     You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat,
     Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat.
     Ain't it hard when you discover that
     He really wasn't where it's at
After he took from you everything he could steal?

Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people,
They're drinkin', thinkin' that they got it made,
Exchanging all kinds of precious gifts and things.
But you'd better lift your diamond ring.  You'd better pawn it, babe.
     You used to be so amused
     At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used.
     Go to him now.  He calls you.  You can't refuse.
     When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.
You're invisible now; you got no secrets to conceal.

     How does it feel?
     How does it feel
     To be on your own
     With no direction home,
     Like a complete unknown,
     Like a rolling stone?

—Bob Dylan, 1965

 

 

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