Let’s get real. Is Comcast that interesting? Is catching up on repeats of “reality” television so important? Do you want to be an artist or a couch potato?
Maybe it’s time to put down the remote, to smell the ink, to feel the paper. Pull a comfortable chair up to the window, spread a towel on the lawn, find a nice spot with good light, and pick up a book.
Singing requires a great deal of sensitivity as well as understanding of human nature and experience, and nothing explores this more thoroughly and enjoyably than a good novel. Fortunately, some of the world’s great authors have embraced the classical singer as a central character.
Here are three of my favorites you should consider throwing into your beach bag this summer.
Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett
This 2001 novel, set in an unnamed South American country, is a quick and very enjoyable read. The vice president of the country has invited a famous diva to perform at a party he is giving for a Japanese businessman. On the night of the party, terrorists take over the house. The hostage situation that ensues forms a suspenseful backdrop as the novel reveals the characters, and their responses to captivity change and inspire their different relationships. The singer’s practice routine over the weeks of captivity becomes a stabilizing event. Terrorists and partygoers alike come to anticipate and enjoy the daily music. The story also features a beautiful romance and examines issues of class and political power from a very human and nonpolitical perspective.
Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot
George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, at just over 800 pages, is the longest of the three books I’m recommending, and the language is as dense as it is beautiful. Think Jane Austen meets Thomas Mann. The detail and level of understanding of 19th century gender, class, and religious politics make this book an ideal choice for performers who aspire to understand this period.
Two of the main characters want to be professional classical singers. One is a great beauty who thinks that a career on the stage may help her avoid having to marry for money. The other is a great talent, motivated by a deep love and appreciation for music. Another character, who appears later, is a mature singer of great renown.
The novel shows all three characters in relation to the title character, a young man of unknown birth raised by a wealthy family. His attraction to both of the young women provokes him to contemplate their characters in great detail. The insecurity of not feeling “good enough,” the reality of life as a performer (which offers a degree of independence rare for women in this time), and the high price the career demands from the famous singer all offer great insight into the period in general and the reality for female artists in particular. (George Eliot is the pen name of Mary Ann Evans, perhaps most famous for one of her novels, Middlemarch.)
The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather
If you read only one book on this short list, make it Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark. Set in a small town in Colorado in the 1890s, the story is about the coming of age and artistry of Thea Kronberg. The daughter of the local preacher, Thea excels at piano and soaks up the musical influences available to her in her rustic environment. These include her strict, somewhat alcoholic and down-on-his-luck teacher, Professor Wunsch, and the evening musicales of the Mexican families who live on the other side of town.
Thea grows up, discovers her vocal gifts, and moves away to the city to study and eventually perform. The novel is a beautiful portrait of small-town life in America just before the turn of the last century, and depicts clearly and beautifully the inevitable loss and sacrifice that come with being true to your art.
Thea moves away from home and finds her spiritual home in the musical world so foreign to her family and friends. The responses of her friends and family, who are both proud and happy for her and yet pained by her absence and change, are as moving as Thea’s own plight.
If none of these novels appeals to you, comb your local (independent!) bookstore or consult the sidebar on this page and see what you find. Whether you’re traveling this summer or not, you can enter new worlds and cultivate two of a singer’s most important tools: the imaginative mind and the empathetic heart.