A young(ish) opera singer's random thoughts and observations.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Converted to the MASS

I am a bad listener. When I first started preparing for Bernstein's MASS, I only really listened to the fragments involving the Street People (which was the part I sang) and thought it was quirky but fun, with some minor jabs thrown in to upset the apple cart and keep the piece from just being a jazzy Mass. Fool that I was... I then tried giving it a listen through (I have been horrendously busy over the past couple of weeks, so time was at a premium, otherwise I would have started with a full hearing). I failed. I found it off-putting and inappropriate for the Italian Summer I was enjoying. So I ended up going to the first rehearsal knowing my bits and having an overview of the plot courtesy of Wikipedia.

For the first 2 days the Street People rehearsed in isolation from the rest of the company, so there was no impulse for me to change my mind about the piece: fun in places, but too pretentious for its own good. My opinion changed throughout rehearsals as I got to know the rest of the music better, but the penny dropped when we had our first run through on Sunday. It was only then, experiencing it in the call-response sequence that starts with the Choir and Street People inspiring each other to vocalise their faith (all this as a response to the prerecorded fragments, as if to say: we've had enough listening, let us speak!), with the Celebrant trying to keep a lid on what is supposed to be a normal Mass. Then the Street Chorus soloists start to raise questions and express their doubts in religion, faith, and God. The Mass gets more and more disjointed, the Celebrant starts to lose control of the situation and the Choir and orchestra practically get won over by the doubting Street People in the cacophony of the Agnus Dei. And then the magic happens: 14 minutes of solo singing from the Celebrant, a true 'mad scene', reiterating every bit of music we'd heard and throwing it in the 'congregation's' faces with abandon and asking why they're so shocked to see a man of the cloth losing it: they'd all already lost it themselves long ago, so why this hypocrisy?! The finale tries to calm the scene, and does serve as a good palette cleanser after the bile of Things get broken, bringing it all back to a grand statement of unity (that does sort of come out of nowhere I think).

I do think the piece is flawed in the sense that Bernstein set himself an impossible task: conveying a crisis of faith around the form of a Mass. For all its grand scale and epic moments, it's a very personal piece I think, and one I related to as such. Starting with the premise of singing God a Simple Song, and then failing as the whole thing gets more and more grand, elaborate and over-thought, losing all sense of innocence, which in turn leads to the Celebrant's meltdown. The treble soloist then tries to bring it back to simplicity, but soon after we're served with the rather epic and pompous finale... Does that mean that we're doomed to fail in our search for a simple, innocent, meaningful faith? It's open to interpretation.

But many people won't bother trying to interpret anything. They'll take the cheesy moments at face value, appreciate the orchestral Meditations as clever bits of pretty writing, cringe at the musical theatre settings of the latin text, and politely indulge the Celebrant in his 'aria', then roll their eyes at the final canon. The piece was received very badly when it premiered, and I can see why: it's difficult to identify what it's supposed to be. The name and form also serve to alienate people who expect a real Mass (though that element of shock factor is probably intentional). It is not a Mass. It is a piece of theatre about religion and faith that raises questions without really answering them. Like in religion, we start with the answers, and then as more and more questions get raised the answers we are given aren't enough to see us through. As I said, the composer set himself an impossible task, because faith is so personal a thing that finding a language to question it, or even simply explore it, that doesn't rub people the wrong way is impossible. Even the fact that the Street People respond to the latin lip service prayers of the Choir in English, translating the text as if to say 'Do you even know what you're saying?' is jarring at first and can instantly strike some people as crude. If it is, it's deliberately so: like snapping your fingers to get someone's attention.

I could go on ranting, but I'll stop. I hope a bit of back and forth from the point of view of someone who's performed the piece will intrigue someone enough to give it a chance and keep an open mind. I personally think it is a masterpiece (though not all the music is of the same standard, but then again neither was Mozart's) and a few movements do regularly have me in tears. There aren't many good recordings out there, I would recommend the Marin Alsop for best clarity and quality of singing, and Kristjan Järvi's recording for energy and impact. Or you can just listen to it on iPlayer in the UK with us performing it, or better yet wait until the 6th of September to see it on BBC 4. Here's a little taste:


I'll just finish by saying that I think Kristjan Järvi did wonders with us and is quite rightly a great champion for this piece, and that I'll always remember Morten Frank Larsen's Celebrant, as well as working with all my fantabulous colleagues from the Street Chorus (we rocked it!). What a way to debut in the Royal Albert Hall, hey?

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