-by Andy Dudas
Amy and I are directing a show on the Visionary Productions stage at Richmond Civic Theatre. We began our rehearsal cycle a week ago, gearing up for performances in January. Like DIVA, we too are always on the lookout to find shows and art forms outside of the regular fare and this show is not what I would call ‘standard.’ That’s why DIVA was founded in the first place.
Our show has just two players. One woman and one man. Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins written by Stephen Temperley, is a mostly true retelling of a decade or so of her life told through the eyes of one of the most special people she would ever know, Cosme McMoon (portrayed by DIVA board member Jared Adamson). Jenkins (played by Alisa Clapp-Itnyre, Professor of English at Indiana University East) is a woman of great financial means who thinks she is a world class level operatic soprano but couldn’t hit a note the size of a Buick with a baseball bat from a foot away. McMoon, a very talented legitimate musician/pianist in his own right has just taken up the job as Jenkins’ accompanist. With bills too many and takers of his original music too few, the near starving artist caves to reality.
None of the people in Jenkins’ life, for who knows what reasons, told her how truly awful her singing voice was. Quite the opposite in fact. Her friends encouraged her to hold larger performances so more people could witness her singing, all the while laughing at her behind her back. Complimenting her after each recital and using her for their entertainment and not appreciating her for what she thought was her finest exhibition of her love of and expert execution of song.
McMoon was quite torn by this whole process. An underworked artist who has finally found the means to what was about to be his end in the music business had become attached to, of all things, a sideshow of a performer. In the beginning at least, being a legitimate musician lowering his own standards to pay the bills was something of which he could never imagine. As many humans can attest, it’s pretty astounding to what we can grow accustomed.
Helping her, in private, along the way was the easy part. Sharing the stage with her, in the eyes and to the ears of the audience, that’s what was hard. It was a personal demon he brushed aside probably quicker than he would have expected he could. But when your income from a gig lasting just a few months pays the bills for the entire year…? A lot of us would tend to round off the sharp edges of our principles and look the other way as we find a nice cozy place in our brain to tell ourselves we are still making music after all.
But what constitutes making music?
What constitutes Art?
Is it what others define or is it what we define? My view of an abstract painting would most certainly be different than everyone else’s. The different ways in which any of us are moved by a piece of classical music are probably as numerous as the notes on the pages of the score. So where do our own personal tastes and preferences encroach on that of the person next to us? Why is one opinion right and one opinion wrong? Why is a painting open to a multitude of views and opinions but when someone sings an incorrect note; it’s wrong?
Could a singer’s missed note be seen as a different interpretation of the music? Many would agree the intention of hitting a specific note and missing it is by definition, a mistake. Or being unaware you have done so, that too, many would agree is wrong. Or perhaps is our view of a singer’s performance too narrow that we lose something in the process? Are we so hung up on right and wrong notes and so quick to point out a flaw we miss entirely the artist’s intention?
Without sounding like one who is in favor of handing out participation awards or even ones based on attendance, why are we compelled to share our views on Art? Why do we wish to sway another person’s views of Art? There are more than a few movies that I love that either received scathing professional reviews or laid a giant egg at the box office. An outside opinion meant nothing to me in those instances. In the end, is it something I like? Only I have the key to that door.
We share our views on art because we want those around us to share in our enjoyment of something that’s moved us. Or, to caution others to not waste their time. I liken it to a member of the the wait staff at a restaurant telling the customers what they recommend or what they enjoy. The customer is likely a total stranger, how could they possibly know what a complete stranger would enjoy? To take this comparison further, obviously the waiter has inside knowledge about the menu. Has been in and around the kitchen to see how things are prepared. They have heard through word of mouth what has been popular with other customers and are basing their recommendations on those criteria. And maybe even in the end, have EATEN the food! As annoyed as many of us feel when given these recommendations, they do know something.
To bring it back to Art (the culinary endeavors are Art by the way) we suddenly feel as though our words and views are as accomplished as a professorial level opinion of the Art we have just witnessed. Instantly, we are professional critics.
The reality is very simple: only we know what we like.
I don’t know if it’s something inherently American or even wider, human, to take pleasure in telling other’s of our disdain for anything if not everything. Humans have been creating art for 40,000 years. I have to imagine even then the artist had to listen to negative grunts in whatever form of verbalized communication the cave dwellers used. In the end…everyone’s a critic.
Andy Dudas 10/24/2017
Andy Dudas has interests varying from painting and singing, to photography and prop making. Pretty much anything that has a creative element. Amateur status in all endeavors, he finds art everywhere he looks. Always seeking his next inspiration.