For the past two years, I’ve worked for the School of Music, Theatre & Dance as a recording engineer. I am responsible for recording many of the performances that take place through SMTD, whether they be faculty recitals, operas or large ensemble concerts.
This past weekend, I was responsible for recording a performance of the opera “Alcina.” I was stationed with my little recording unit on a platform above the stage of the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre — though I could see everything happening below me, neither the performers nor the audience could see me.
As I sat there, a silent observer to the opera and its many complex parts, I was reminded of an aspect of the performing arts that I think frequently gets overlooked: The tendency to focus on specific performers instead of an ensemble as a whole. When it comes to musicals, for example, almost all the reviews that I’ve read focus on the decisions of the director, the lead performers and occasionally the music director.
But the performing arts involve many more individuals than the few that appear on a billboard. In many instances, they involve tens if not hundreds of creative individuals, all working towards a common goal. Though not all these individuals are immediately visible to the audience, they all have a significant effect on the final product.
I have a family friend, for example, who is the stage manager on “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.” In the few times that I have visited the show, I have always been amazed by the number of people working there — people that, like the stage manager, never appear on screen. This shows airs once a week for half an hour (with commercials). But even this limited air-time requires over a hundred employees working on everything from audio mixing to crowd seating.
In considering these many other people that contribute to the performing arts, I am reminded of a concept of “music-making” that is so important to modern-day musicology and ethnomusicology. Music-making encapsulates everything that goes into a musical performance; both those on stage producing sound and those backstage allowing this performance to take place. Both the usher and the conductor, the program printer and the concertmaster are considered to be part of the music-making process.
When it comes to scholarly work in the performing arts, the implications of this concept are clear. For those that research the music of other cultures or other time periods, for example, this concept requires scrutiny not just of music and musicians but of cultural context. Scholars must think not only of the music being produced but of the circumstances behind this production, the “how and why” that lead to this music creation.
On a more abstract level, however, I find that there is something oddly magical in this concept — hundreds of creative individuals coming together to work towards the success of a single event, each person contributing something irreplaceable though they may receive no credit for it. I find this concept to be both deeply moving and shockingly humbling.
As I sat up on the recording platform during the opera, for example, it dawned on me that my role was just as vital to the archival success of the performance as was anyone else involved in the production. Though I might not be featured in the program, and though the audience and the performers may be unaware of my contributions to the performance, my role mattered just as much as the lead singers’s when it came to the archival recording.
But what implications does this concept have for the listener and the audience member? While this academic concept is all fine and great, why should we as a larger arts-appreciating society care?
I don’t mean to suggest, after all, that we should begin crediting all members of a production equally, or that we should stop paying attention to featured performers.
But personally, thinking of all those that contribute to a performance forces me to look past any specific aspects of a performance that I don’t enjoy. A lead singer with a cold, for example, begins to matter less when one thinks about the other aspects of a performance, whether they be costumes, scenery, music or choreography.
On a larger scale, it is important to keep the performance arts in context. No matter the size of a performance, it takes the cumulative work of hundreds of individuals to allow it to happen. It is not the work of any single conductor, writer, or performer, that causes a performance to happen — it takes a community to create a single performance.
When I am asked why I study music or why I love the performing arts, I try to remind people of this concept. For I can think of nothing that better cultivates an appreciation of the performing arts than an understanding of the tremendous work that they require. It takes a community to create a performance, just as it takes a community to appreciate a performance and encourage the next performance.