The Audience Matters

It doesn’t make sense to stand up in front of an audience as a singer and act like the audience doesn’t matter, but this behavior isn’t difficult to find. It doesn’t matter what discipline we speak of — it can be found just about anywhere.

A long time ago I went backstage to get Joan Sutherland’s autograph at one of her last “Lucia” performances. I think I mumbled some kind of “thank you” about how much she had given us, and she said “well, you know, Richard and I think that the people in the last rows should be entertained. They’ve spent a great deal of money on their tickets”. I was floored. Here is one of the greatest artists the classical singing world has ever produced and she was worried about entertaining us folks in the bleacher seats. How wonderful is that?

Yet, you can feel in your bones when the person up there is performing for his or her own gratification. It’s meaningful to him, and if you don’t get it, too bad. Who cares about you? This idea, that the person doing the performance should focus entirely on his own workings gets taught, too, but it is poor teaching.

True, a singer (or dancer, or actor, or film maker) should never pander to the audience and worry about “making them like me”. A vocalist ought not to be concerned about manipulating the audience, since that isn’t possible anyway. It’s never a good idea to try to woo an audience in the hope that you will be liked. You will fail. However, performing such that you are inviting the audience to enjoy what you are doing is vital. Standing up in front of a group of people who are giving you their time and their money (what else is there to give?) is a potentially arrogant act. Who are you, anyway, to be up there in the first place, if you do not give back some form of payment for what the audience is giving you? You had better have a good reason to be there, and it had better not be that you are there to fascinate yourself.

I write this because over the weekend I attended a performance that was boring and it shouldn’t have been. I’ve seen this vocalist before and she is a wonderful singer and has a very winning presence with the audience. The problem was the musicians. The guitarist was a big name and draw. He was a very ungenerous, ungiving colleague. He never looked at the vocalist (she faced sideways to look at him), he never smiled, he never engaged with the other players and he never looked at the audience. Yes, he was a very good musician, but he is the type of person who should stay in a recording studio and never venture out in front of a group of paying customers. He was like a black hole on stage and he dragged the vocalist with him into his abyss. Three people in the audience got up and walked out of this gig after only four songs and, sadly, I understood why.

Jazz, which this just happened to be, can get very esoteric. Taking a “standard” and stretching it so that you have gone as far away as possible from its original structure can be a kind of snobbery……..”I can ignore the words, the rhythm, the melody, the musical line, the suggested tempo, and maybe even the chord structure, and re-invent all of those into something new and imaginative”. No, I don’t think so. When a vocalist completely looses what it is to be a vocalist, no amount of these other ingredients makes up the difference. A guitar can’t pronounce a word and a bass can’t emphasize a lyric, and a drum can’t convey a story, but a voice can do all those things, even while it is being improvisational. Vocalists who strive to be instrumentalists rather than live as singers lose the advantage that singers have over instrumentalists. To give that up willingly is foolish. And to make your creation into something that only you can understand and recognize is to throw away the magic that you have in your hands to make something special happen in the hearts and minds of the audience. What’s the point? Perhaps other jazz musicians are impressed, but the folks in the bleachers are lost and bored. That’s bad news. That’s bad art.

Marilyn Horne was one wonderful singer in her prime. She was supremely confident and a terrific presence in front of an audience. She is a superb musician, linguist, actress, and had one major voice, but she always had fun with what she did (even the most serious stuff) and gave the audience the opportunity to share in that fun with her. Håkan Hagegård is exactly the same.

The audience is very important. If there was no audience, singers would have no reason to perform. We could just all sing in the shower. Audience reaction matters. If the audience gives you mild, polite applause, (not a rousing ovation) you need to think about that. And if you believe that the audience doesn’t know anything, therefore, how they react doesn’t matter, you need to get out of the music business and get a job selling shoes.

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One thought on “The Audience Matters”

  1. Thank you for this. I me both Sutherland and Horne and found them as did you: kind, generous and real. Richard Bonynge was the same or even nicer.

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