Have we ever felt so divided in this country? We’re living through the most angst-filled cultural climate I can remember. Even after the tragedy of 9/11 people felt united, but now Americans seem vitriolic and full of rage on all sides. Fortunately for singers, music is a powerful force that can bring unity, healing, peace, and joy.
How are we supposed to balance art and politics? Should we remain nonpartisan and take the “above it all” approach, or should we use our voices (pun intended) to effect change? I can’t prescribe the perfect philosophy for a professional singer, but I’ll share a couple of my recent experiences.
Glen Roven is an Emmy Award-winning conductor, composer, and arranger who led the orchestra for both of Bill Clinton’s inaugurations. He thought the Clintons would call on him again for Hillary’s ceremony, but history had a different idea. Instead of wallowing in grief, he put all of his energy into creating something beautiful, setting the words from two of Hillary’s speeches to music for a video recital featuring artists from opera and musical theatre. I had the opportunity to participate in the video along with Patricia Racette, Isabel Leonard, Matthew Polenzani, and Lawrence Brownlee. Ultimately it wasn’t about stardom at all. This was a way for Roven to record what he feels is Hillary’s powerful message of inclusion and harmony—and for us to honor a woman who spent decades as a public servant for her country.
Singing Secretary Clinton’s words was an emotional experience. My section started with a heartbreaking melody and the text, “This is not the outcome we wanted or worked so hard for, and I’m sorry we did not win.” A few critics accused us of whining and said we should “grow up.” And, yet, I don’t regret lending my voice to the project.
Our music included a call for a peaceful transfer of power and a coming together under new leadership. I watched the live stream of the video and cried, especially when I heard Nathan Gunn singing, “And to all the little girls who are watching this right now, never doubt you are valuable, never doubt you are powerful and deserving . . . .” I sincerely hope Hillary Clinton saw this touching celebration of her vision and what might have happened under her presidency.
If I express my political opinions while on a singing job, could it be professionally risky? Possibly. A symphony board recently censured one of my conductor friends for making a few politically slanted comments from the podium during a recent concert. I know opera donors who disagree with me deeply over certain policies, and I wouldn’t want to antagonize them to the point where they no longer want to support the company.
But we do still enjoy the benefits of the First Amendment. In my opinion, it’s not only our right to speak up for what is good and true, it’s our responsibility. Remaining silent can imply complicity.
Finding common ground with political adversaries seems nearly impossible. I can barely speak with some members of my own family these days, because I know that so many topics will cause a heated argument. On what topic can we agree? The Budapest Festival Orchestra recently enlightened me and gave me new hope.
Last week I sang in the ensemble for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in David Geffen Hall. This was the fifth time I’ve sung the tenor choral part, so I expected another perfunctory performance and an easy paycheck. Maestro Iván Fischer, however, had a radical idea that made this symphony unforgettable. Instead of donning tuxes and concert gowns and standing on the risers onstage, we members of the ensemble dressed in street clothes and sat in the audience, dispersed randomly throughout the auditorium.
After intermission, I heard the gentleman next to me murmur, “Where is the chorus?” He was shocked and delighted after the baritone’s virtuosic opening when each of us jumped up unannounced from our seats in the audience and sang a forte unison “Freude!” We were all united as a musical ensemble, but standing at least 35 feet away from my nearest singing colleague heightened the drama and compelled me to communicate the music more as a soloist. Each of us had a powerful voice, but we were living and breathing (and phonating) the idea of “stronger together.”
Maestro Fischer embodied Beethoven’s message of brotherhood earlier in the week. The recent travel ban put one of the orchestra’s cellists in jeopardy. He had dual citizenship in Iraq and Hungary and he was tied up in the same restrictions as thousands of other people visiting our country. Fischer boldly called U.S. officials and vouched for his colleague. A grandson of Holocaust victims, Fischer understands the importance of unity and tolerance. This same spirit filled our hearts and ears as we joined forces to sing about joy—a joy so radical that it unites us with those from disparate countries, classes, or political persuasions.
What is your answer to the conflict in our country and in your own mind? Living your own life to its fullest and making the most passionate music possible is in itself a strong statement of empowerment. Perhaps you’d like to organize a recital to raise funds for Syrian refugees. Or you can quietly do your job and then donate part of your fee to a cause that speaks to your heart.
One thing is certain: artists are no less important than anyone else in our daily struggle. Music has opened my mind to new ideas in the past, and your voice could be the agent of change someone else needs to hear. Be bold, be passionate, and be authentic. With a clear head and a clarion voice you can create a better tomorrow.