reflection and recitative

Around the time when Handel was writing opera, the convention was to deal with “events” in recitative—a plain, fast-moving vocal line with spare, improvised accompaniment. These conversational, relatively dry storytelling sections alternate with elaborate, expressive solo arias, in which characters pause for several minutes to reflect on recent developments.

Compared with later operas, in which action and emotion move along in a seamless sweep, opera seria can seem a bit static, but those of us who love the form accept the convention. I’m now working with a director who holds that the alternation between conversational exposition and reflective aria is actually not static, not artificial, but exactly like life. That is, stuff happens, then we turn it over and over in our minds, then more stuff happens, and we reflect on that. And those moments of thinking, rather than being static, are active and important times in our lives.

If we accept that spans where “nothing happens” are periods of growth, that gives us a different perspective on stretches where “events” come thick and fast. Most of June is like recitative—endless to do lists, an endless procession of new names and new personalities, etc. It’s very busy, but ultimately not particularly interesting or beautiful. Or if it is, who has time to notice?

When I finally got a day off to spend in the garden, I thought the moment for my aria had come. But between the pinching and pulling, the clearing out and the tying up, there wasn’t much brainspace left for reflection.

Yesterday morning I had a few hours and went looking for an aria on the lake. But like gardening, kayaking doesn’t leave a lot of room for extraneous mental activity. There’s too much to attend to, and maybe that’s the point. Skillful activities like gardening, yoga, cooking not only require us to step out of the tumble of events—the recitative—of life, they are also so all-absorbing that they shut down the part of the brain that either turns over past events or worries about future ones. In that way, they are less like the character’s experience of an aria than the singer’s.

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One Comment on “reflection and recitative”

  1. Alan Herman Says:

    Kelley, do you read Verlyn Klinkenborg..?? and if not I think I have a treat for you…


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