Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A Reflection on Symphony Hall

I guess this is just my week for long, rambling posts. Apologies.

If you've only been to Symphony Hall in downtown Phoenix once, chances are it was for a Christmastime performance of Ballet Arizona's The Nutcracker. They put on a wonderful performance, with many, many shows each year--and it's supposed to be one of the best productions of this ballet in the nation. I can see why: the dancers are talented, so many elements are timed to perfection, and the sets and costumes are detailed and beautiful. So if this is the one event that brings people to Symphony Hall or to go see a ballet or to hear the Phoenix Symphony live, then that's great and I'm certainly not complaining about that.

I'm just wondering about something.

This past week, I went to see Ballet Arizona's Romeo and Juliet. Not because I'm the biggest fan of the story of Romeo and Juliet but because I wanted to finish off this run of shows I've been going to see with just one more for now. Plus, it was the third medium: two plays, an opera, and then a ballet. I had to round it off. Now, I'm not going to give a general reaction to the ballet this time; instead, I want to consider something that I observed about the audiences at these shows. (Reminder: this is the Phoenix area. The audiences here are obviously going to differ greatly from a show in, say, New York.)

The plays draw people for different reasons. A lot of retired people. A lot of college looking people who are probably seeing it for a class or because they're feeling particularly cultured and educated right now and therefore going to see a play feels like the thing to do (and because they get tickets for the price of an IMAX movie). So a quieter, more niche group.

The opera, as I mentioned before, brought in the classy people. You can tell when there are people with money in the room--people who are letting that money show a bit tonight because it's the opera and they wanted to dress up and they paid hundreds of dollars for their tickets. Other people really want to be there and are really excited to be there because they really enjoy the experience of the music and the singing; so these people, given that they've probably been planning this night for a long time, also put a lot of thought into what they were going to wear. Maybe they even went out and bought a new dress. In general, they're artistic people with taste--so that shows in what they choose to wear. Simple elegance. I'm not saying everyone was wearing diamond tiaras or that I think everyone should have been; I'm just saying that everyone, in their own way, put themselves together for this night. I want to try and guess that the age range was more around 30's through 60's for this one. Not as many white-haired heads in the crowd, and also not quite as many very young faces.

Now, when you go see The Nutcracker, you get quite a variety of ages and types of people, and it was pretty much the same for Romeo and Juliet. Maybe not quite as many families this time, but still a similar scene. There were children sitting in the seats near me ranging from probably about nine years old to fifteen. Still plenty of adults, ranging from the very young to the less young to the more mature and so on. People who looked monied. People who looked like they just really wanted to come see this show. People who looked artsy. People who didn't. The dress style? Much less formal and therefore a bit less elegant. More like "church clothes." Whatever you have in your closet that looks presentable. (I feel like I'm starting to sound borderline rude here. I don't mean to say that you should only go see a show if you buy a new outfit; I certainly didn't do that. Nor do I mean to suggest that clothing is the only thing that matters.) Basically what I'm getting at is that the crowd was more varied at the ballet than at the opera, and I'm wondering why.

I know that people make fun of opera, in a way, and most people can't imagine going to see opera. But people kind of make fun of ballet, too. So why do more types of people consider going to the ballet than to the opera? I enjoyed the ballet, but I vastly preferred the opera; it was in fact the opera that held my attention more and moved me more. I know everyone won't feel the same way, and of course our reactions also vary depending on the particular opera or ballet that is being performed.

But here's the thing. Music, singing in particular, resonates with people on a deep level. This is why you can listen to a song in another language, without knowing what it means, and feel what the song is saying and what the singer is portraying. Dance resonates, as well, and of course there is music to dancing. But if modern people don't listen to much opera, they also don't listen to much symphonic music. So I would imagine that most people who aren't musicians who are going to a ballet are seeing more of the dancing than the music. And dancing is fascinating to watch. The choreography, the athleticism, and the emotion of movement. It is wonderful, yes. But for me, it was easier to focus on the emotion of song for over two hours than the emotion of dance.

In general, I enjoyed the group dances more than the pair dances, even though I felt like my favorite parts should have been the dances between Romeo and Juliet since it is their story. The fight scenes were probably my favorite; I had never seen ballet sword fights before. I guess I mainly liked when there was more to look at, more places for my eyes and my head to wander. And maybe that's why some people would sooner go see a ballet than an opera.

I didn't like my mind wandering; when I lost focus, I took that to mean that I wasn't enjoying the show as much as I might have liked to. I said that the opera took my full attention for all of its duration--but that was because the music touched me. And if other people feel like they won't be touched by the music of opera, then when their attention wanders they won't have much else to focus on. The singing is the star of an opera. Some attention goes to costumes and sets and I guess some operas have more choreography to look at. But the two operas that I've seen have had a much simpler stage than the elaborate productions by Ballet Arizona (I said I wasn't doing a reaction post, but I have to add in here that the backdrops to Romeo and Juliet were absolutely gorgeous, and I loved all the dresses).

When your mind wanders at the ballet, there are multiple things to focus on. When your mind wanders at the opera, there is less.

This is why the audience crowds differed. There were more types of people at the ballet because they were there for more reasons. The opera crowd was mainly there for one reason: we knew that we would be moved by the singing. Some perhaps because they grew up with the "culture" of fine arts and don't see opera as a foreign genre, and others because they discovered later on that this music speaks to them.

I'm beginning to understand this much: performance is art. When I go to the art museum, I spend most of my time looking at the European and American art from medieval times through the 19th century; I walk into the modern rooms only to quickly walk out again because the art there doesn't speak to me, even though I see people there who are mesmerized. Performance is the same way. We all find what speaks to us and realize that we prefer certain things over others. The main thing is to go ahead and look. Walk into the modern art section just to see if it speaks to you. Go to the opera just to see what it's like. If it doesn't speak to you, then that's okay; find what does. But it's fascinating to see all the many reactions we can all have to the same piece of art and the ways in which we settle on the art that we're comfortable with.

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