Christmas has always been a strain on my singing body. Growing up in a boys’ choir at the National Cathedral meant untold hours of singing and few hours of sleep. Deep down in my cells is embedded a memory that associates this season with exhaustion: exhaustion from constant temperature and precipitation changes, from rushing hither and thither when my inner senses are telling me to crawl into a cave and savor the darkness, from getting it physically together to sing when my body and mind would rather be horizontal. So it came as little surprise that on Christmas eve, the second I got through with my singing part of the prelude at church, the flu set in.
That meant that yesterday was spent in blissful quiet reading in front of the fire (finishing J.R. Moehringer’s memoir, The Tender Bar). A stack of videos beckoned, however, and at the top of the stack was an archival video of The Play of Daniel, which I was directing just last December at the Cloisters in New York. The video had just arrived in the mail a few days ago and gave my heart a winsome pang at the memory of the experience. I think it’s always with trepidation that any artist settles down to seeing and hearing a record of his or her own work; but aside from obvious places the camera wasn’t when it should have been, Daniel turned out to be just as magical on video as I remembered the final result to have been last year. Not only were each of the solo voices interesting and interestingly varied, but the full cast, including not only the trained singers but the instrumentalists as well, singing the Te Deum with one voice at the end was almost unbelievably moving.
A single line of music sung by a group can have a wonderfully hypnotic effect when beautifully rendered as to tone, tuning and timing. I’m not sure even the most involved counterpoint or luxuriant orchestra can be any more poignant than monophonic song sung well. Ludus Danielis, or The Play of Daniel, was written for the Cathedral at Beauvais (north of Paris) in the 13th century. Probably because of its proximity to Paris, the music capital of Europe at the time, there is an obvious sophistication to the melodic writing, which is highly varied in its tune structures. In single line music of the middle ages there is a certain amount of leeway in realizing how to perform it. Mary Ann Ballard as music director had created a score that by following the poetic meters situated a lot of the music in medieval rhythmic modes — in other words, in triple meter. As dramaturg of the show, I chose to emphasize character through different performance modes. So, Daniel’s centerpiece, the deciphering of the letters Mane Thekel Epharsin foretelling Belshazzar’s downfall, was taken out of time and expanded. The princes sang several of their speeches in the most elevated sort of French organum. This was almost painfully hilarious when they were pleading for mercy at the very end.
Throughout the Play is the wondrous miracle of a single line of melody guiding the show. Individuals and groups participating in a united, perfectly tuned line. Harmony is often implied by the line alone, and when we chose to use a drone with the voice or voices, it was more than implied. But there is certainly nothing so beautiful as when well-tuned voices match their overtones in a single line.
At one spot in the video, (which was made at the invited dress rehearsal — the first time we actually had every participant in one place for a complete rehearsal!) — at Darius’s entrance — things fell apart briefly when the long procession left the drum out in another hall and the singers had already entered the chapel. This cacophony seemed all the more startling because of the unity of the singing and playing in other spots.
The emotion with which I heard the singing in Daniel put me in mind of reading somewhere that voice teachers in the high baroque schools of Naples would not take a child on as a pupil if they had a poor ear. Anything else was, in theory, teachable. Years of voice training and teaching have taught me the wisdom of the Neapolitans. A singer’s technique is only as good as their imagination, and if a student cannot imagine a sound which is beautiful, and beautifully tuned, the teacher might as well go tell all their technical tricks to the stars. I wish our video of Daniel could be made into a public offering. While I can’t deny that the thrill of seeing the movement and drama of the show up close in the Fuentendeña Chapel at the Cloisters is not duplicable on a tape, nor can the sound thrill as it did echoing off those centuries-old stones, the beguiling quality of a group chanting together is captured. Monophony is a perfect place to learn to tune the voice.