By George Cox
A note from the editor- I was recently contacted by George Cox, a young writer who wanted to put together a piece on a creative venture by his two musical housemates, born out of lockdown necessity.
Balcony Opera is a Facebook and Instagram community which was created when young sopranos Lisette Bolton and Teresa Ingrilli began holding miniature recitals for their neighbours from their second storey balcony.
If you would like to see more of Balcony Opera’s events, you can join their community Facebook group here or follow them on Instagram. In addition to pre-recorded events, they have begun live streaming. – Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)
What follows are a few thoughts on the plight of classically-trained singers during and post-pandemic. The occasion for these thoughts may be flippantly explained by the following six-word horror story: “Spending lockdown with two opera singers.”
Less flippantly, it is obvious that pandemics are bad for capitalism, and that living in capitalism is bad for music. What’s bad for our captors is bad for us, if it does not kill them.
There are deep structural problems with the industry that produces music in Australia that have always made it difficult to make a living therein. These problems have been addressed and written about at length, as has their magnification by current circumstances. What I want to introduce here is a plan – a kind of venture – currently being undertaken by the two aforementioned opera singers, whose craft occupies the ambient background sound of every one of my Zoom seminars.
Classical musicians are caught in something of a contradiction. Under lockdown, they must wring an income out of their passion more desperately than ever before, and yet like everyone else they must continue to seek solace (and sate their entertainment consumption needs) through the things they love. To be pricked by the horns of this dilemma is to fall into emotional dysregulation, to be unable to participate in our social and cultural communities in the ways we have before. Can we balance our ongoing self-commodification with our love of the craft?
Teresa and Lisette’s project, Balcony Opera, approaches this dilemma with a set of ideals that balances the caring with the practical. When you’re trapped in lockdown, it is easy to annoy your neighbours and your roommates with your frequent practice: not so good. Often the only realistic way to resolve this problem is to talk to your neighbours, to share your schedules and to commiserate over the different shapes that your lockdown challenges are taking. Much better!
Self-conscious lockdown practice therefore encourages us to be kinder to the people in our immediate physical community, as well as to ourselves and to our fellow musicians. But we also have to think a little selfishly – if not descend into profit-seeking beasts – about what new revenue streams are available to musicians under lockdown, in addition to the broader question of how to break opera back into the main stream(ing platforms) of cultural consumption.
Teresa and Lisette hope to create a space which attends to the pressing and self-interested need to preserve the viability of the classical voice economy for all its members. They also want to share their music-making more widely than they are currently able to from their literal balcony, partly through digital content distribution and partly through creating a dedicated Balcony Opera community.
More specifically, they hope that this space, or platform, might eventually serve to connect singers, audiences, and distributors. Thus, to arrive at specifics, they record themselves singing from their balcony and share it on Facebook, via Zoom, and over a mailing list, inviting other singers and performers to do the same, taking the opportunity to break down the usual stratification of musical audiences through digital means. This is not to say that Teresa and Lisette are aiming to enter the already-crowded music distribution market. This project is an attempt to supplement the sharing and networking systems that used to work, in the before times.
‘Balcony Opera’ is a fairly figurative phrase. The balcony itself is a kind of metaphor for connection: a part of the home which is both inside and outside. They are always raised, on a second story or higher: they open onto a rarefied dimension of urban space, where birds and telephone lines live. This rarefied dimension perhaps corresponds, if I may mix a metaphor, to the space in which music lives.
Let’s not kid ourselves: music is not so low down on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a hierarchy which has become a little bit more sharply defined recently. We can think of the operatic balcony as opening onto some of our higher-order needs: ‘self-actualisation’ and ‘esteem.’ But perhaps also ‘belonging,’ the third storey of the pyramid.
In this context, we can think of a balcony as much more than its physical properties. It is a platform for singing, which is to say, a stage, which Teresa and Lisette, and other singers around the world, have extracted from the institutionalised spaces of commercial musical performance and inserted into their own homes.
They have brought the opera house home, in a sense, but only so they may effectively (re)export it to other homes, and thus the balcony is metonymically linked to the operatic stages of the world. It is a metonym for the home itself, to which it is architecturally linked, and to every other home in its immediate vicinity, to which it is linked by the propagation of sound waves. To sing from one’s balcony is always to sing from home, from the border of a private space. Teresa and Lisette thus effect a metonymic decentralisation of the operatic apparatus (‘operapparatus’).
This decentralisation sounds like a bad thing: how can you continue to make opera without the support of large institutions and central gathering places, without the regulated flow of bodies into ticketed spaces? The pandemic has forced exactly this problematic upon us, a problematic which was always latent in our fragile economy, and substituted a different form of bodily regulation. This new operapparatus takes these protective measures and adapts them into a revenue stream, and possibly a new normal for cultural consumption.
The only answer to a biological virus – besides medicine, paid sick leave, rent and mortgage freezes, and voting for the Victorian Socialists – is a digital one. The networked connections between consumers of live classical music have been severed; it was precisely those connections along which the coronavirus travelled from airway to airway. These connections can be electronically supplemented. The opera industry is rapidly being microbiologically balkanised, and must therefore be macrolocally balconised.
Teresa and Lisette would be the first to admit that their consumption of opera has been in many ways saved from complete destruction by the inventive and generous action of established musical institutions such as The Royal Opera House, with their series of streamed past performances, and newly-constructed platforms such as Melbourne Digital Concert Hall.
Some of these innovations represent predictable and reasonable moves by institutions to protect their audience and revenue base (two ways of saying the same thing?) against a temporary disaster. Others suggest more experimental approaches that might endure for longer than we expect. Balcony Opera as an initiative leans towards the latter approach, but also adds a new angle.
Teresa and Lisette are interested in devising a new set of horizontalising connections between opera institutions, singing communities, and choral associations in Melbourne and Victoria, potentially enfolding them into this new operapparatus that they might share their work and attract audiences and singers through a more accessible space. Accessibility here denotes not just a space that can operate under lockdown, but also a space that explicitly refuses, as far as it can, the material and prestige-based gatekeeping that filters emerging artists out of the networks of established venues and opera producers.
More specifically, these stakeholders could share, on a rotating and hopefully regular basis, and alongside struggling and emerging performers, in the proceeds from charity and recovery concerts run from all manner of balconies.
I say ‘horizontalising’ because the fear that afflicts emerging operatic performers often stems from their distance (figurative and literal) from the established institutions of quite a vertical industry. Recovery concerts and shared virtual performances can serve to materially support and advertise emerging performers, as well as reach out to audiences whose cultural consumption needs must be inventively sated.
At the moment these are general suggestions only. What I hope to have outlined here are the principles and the general contours of a venture which has emerged somewhat spontaneously from the material and aesthetic consequences of Victoria’s continuing lockdown. If this sounds interesting to you, feel free to follow Balcony Opera on Facebook and Instagram, or get in touch with its organisers if you would like to be involved somehow.
To take a step back from the reorganisation of flows of money and prestige (the bottom and the top of Maslow’s pyramid, respectively) that characterise any significant intervention into Victoria’s classical music economy, I’d conclude by suggesting that the balcony is also now increasingly the place where we belong-together without directly entering the virtual. It is the most ‘together’ of the places where we can be together-apart. Musicians I think are especially well-placed to make the balcony the locus of a new practice. As we haltingly emerge from our collective state of disaster we may be inclined to forget everything about the experience as quickly as possible; the things we did on our balconies may be worth remembering.