Today was a fitting day for Sharon Krebs to give her lecture on Singing Like a Nightingale. Today the Moore Building was abuzz with 315 perspective students and their families waiting to audition for the School of Music, Theatre and Dance. As the perspectives lined the halls and filled the practice rooms, current students did their best to hide the stolen bagels from the auditionee welcome table and their displeasure with the newly claustrophobic halls. It was after pushing my way through the clumps of auditionees lining the main hallway that I entered Moore Rm. 2038, the room in which the talk was to take place.
I say it was fitting day for the lecture because of the path that Sharon Krebs took with her research of the nightingale metaphor. Being a prolific metaphor within musical and Germanic literature it was interesting that Krebs focused her research on the concept of art as artificial in comparison to the concept of the nightingale as the pinnacle of all that is natural.
Kreb’s began her lecture by informing the audience that she began her research while she was in Germany observing masterclasses. In one of these masterclasses a young Mezzo Soprano came under criticism for her technique, and after taking the advice of the teacher she sang beautifully but exclaimed, “I feel like a robot!” Further, Kreb was exploring a German archive and discovered a number of reverent letters to famous opera singers of the 19th century which praised their ability to communicate with the audience, and then bestowed the highest compliment on the singer: that of comparing them to a nightingale.
During her lecture, Kreb’s noted that in modern literature there is only one singer who has been called a nightingale, soprano Jessye Norman. However, this praise came from a fellow musician and not a reviewer. Modern reviewers have tended to shy away from critique of the existential moments within a performance, focusing their praise (or dissatisfaction) around the vocal aesthetic and technique of the singer. It is in that focus in which the nightingale is lost to modern music, because the nightingale is that of the existential, providing musical moments in which the vocalist becomes the mouthpiece for thoughts in the hearts of the audience.
The idea of the singer as the mouthpiece of the audiences’ inner thoughts and desires revisits the old thought which much of mainstream music has abandoned ;the idea that a performance is not about musical aesthetic but the communication with the audience. This communication allows the performer to rise above its class, becoming exceptional by becoming different. It is in this difference in which existential musical moments occur and a performer loses the artificiality that is inherently attached with art (most people don’t sing an Italian aria to convince their father to let them marry), and becomes a nightingale.