It’s funny how a few things in life can come together to plant a single notion in your head. Today, everything for me has suddenly become about authenticity. Not so-called “authentic performance” as it relates to classical music (which, I’m afraid, 50% of the time is about as authentic as a TV advert for stain remover) but meaning being genuine and true.
I was lucky enough to see the National Theatre’s “Hamlet” before Christmas where the desperate search for authenticity was the motor for Rory Kinnear’s brilliant performance, so perhaps there’s something in the air, or this has been germinating in my head for a few months.
If I have one chronic sadness it is that the publicists have become as adept at lying about classical music and musicians as they do about pop. I rail against pop not because the music is always bad – it isn’t – but because the industry itself is not interested in the quality of the music but only in its commercial potential. Now, this ethos has all but taken over the classical world and my industry is awash with people in charge who care neither for the abilities of a performer nor the music he plays. They only want to know if the performer can be sold. Just look at the modern classical recording industry which is dominated by beautiful young things, often of very ordinary ability but with great PR skills.
This seems to be so much at odds with the way things were when I started out 30-odd years ago. Perhaps I’m looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses but back then we we seemed to spend more time concentrating on music-making than wondering what would sell. This came sharply into focus when I started watching a documentary yesterday on YouTube about the great conductor Carlos Kleiber, called “Traces to Nowhere”. Thanks to Clive Bayley for steering me to it. I’ll add a link at the end of the blog.
Kleiber held no truck with PR. It didn’t interest him in the slightest. To watch him rehearse on the film is an utter joy. I was lucky enough to work with him twice and to have one brief conversation with him. Even though my role was small (Roderigo in “Otello”) I still hold those experiences to be up at the very pinnacle of my professional life, because for every single second I was with him I had no doubt whatsoever why I was doing what I was doing. I was being a musician without any distractions from the essential task of being a musician. It was the only thing that bothered him so it was the only thing that mattered to us.
I’m lucky enough at the moment to be rehearsing with a director, Richard Jones, for whom authenticity is also at the heart of his work. That could sound odd when I also tell you that this production of “Billy Budd” is not set upon an 18th century warship but in a 1950s English naval school, identical to my own school, Pangbourne. While that may have puritans up in arms when it comes to the many textual references that don’t, as a consequence, make any literal sense, the fact is that the new context allows for a theatrical experience that is devastatingly authentic and real. At the end of the hanging scene I have to help carry out Billy’s corpse. As soon as we got to the wings after that scene today, I was so overwhelmed by what I had just witnessed and experienced – the institutionalised cruelty of public schools if you like – that I just burst into tears. I hadn’t had to “act” anything beyond taking part in a ritual, yet the very lack of acting was what made the scene so devastating. I can’t think of a better opera which better demonstrates the idea that it is usually best simply to play the action, nothing more.
Here’s the link to the Kleiber documentary. I challenge you to watch it without feeling a sense of wonder and loss. Traces to Nowhere