By Eric Neuville, Tenor
When Craig asked Sonja Tengblad and me to curate an Emily Dickinson recital, my first thoughts turned to the many time-honored song settings of her poetry. So, it came as quite a surprise when one of Sonja’s first ideas was to create a program consisting exclusively of 21st-century compositions. WHAT?! Without decades worth of performance testing, how would I be able to choose the best pieces? Where would I find a recording that would demonstrate how they should be sung?
I rolled with the idea and have now come to think it was the best thing for me. You see, I sing primarily opera: an artistic form so entrenched in the past that nearly every opera singer and opera goer spends much of their time comparing what they hear to those that came before. Does he sing La Bohème as well as Pavarotti? Does she sing Norma as well as Maria Callas? I have lived in this “past” for a while now, anchored in a place I likely should not have stayed. But sometimes we need a swift storm to come through and pull our anchor right up out of the mud. In my case, that was Hurricane Sonja!
Round after round of these new compositions flew across my piano, and deciphering their unknown complexities would be the first challenge I would have to face in preparing for this recital. The second challenge, however, was by far more terrifying. This recital was to be a continuation of Conspirare’s “The Poet Sings” series, and the frightening admission that lives at the heart of my insecurity is that I don’t often “get” a lot of poetry. There, I said it. I am not as deeply affected by poetry as many of my friends and colleagues. When my Conspirare comrades speak of Rumi and Neruda, I honestly feel like I did on the first day of school… deeply insecure and fearful of how I will be viewed in light of my poetic insensibilities. I hope that by admitting this, several of you will feel more comfortable venturing into our recital, and, conversely, if you are one to which poetry speaks deeply you’ll find patience for this novice trying to find his way in.
I all too often don’t understand a poem. It may not resonate with me personally, or if I think I understand it I may fear my interpretation incorrect. Then I discovered something in reading Emily’s writings. I discovered that she was as insecure as I am. The difference being she owned it.
“Oh some Scholar! Oh some Sailor!
Oh some Wise Men from the skies!
Please to tell a little Pilgrim
Where the place called “Morning” lies!”
Yes, please! Any one of those three give me a clue!
Oh some Google!
Oh some reference book on poetic analysis!
It is hard to accept the realization that you are not quite as skilled at creating as you are at re-creating, or even worse, that you lack some sort of sensibility toward a particular form of art. But that’s the thing about art: when we create something new we are bound only by our insecurities. When we venture into something new we are often limited in our experience of it by those same insecurities. The very best art emerges from these insecurities, embraces them, and grows well beyond them. Eventually, it becomes unencumbered and honest. This is what I have found at the heart of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. This is what I have ALWAYS found at the heart of Conspirare. This is what I will personally be searching for in this yet unencumbered recital, and I hope to see you there.