Unfired (with a Standing Ovation)

I suppose it’s more of a reprise than an encore, but nonetheless I love how every performance of Alvin Ailey’s Revelations is pretty much guaranteed to get a thunderous standing ovation.

The euphoric feeling that washes over the audience during Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham simply demands more of the same.

In a quirky contrast, years ago I attended the final masterclasses of the great acting teacher Stella Adler.

Stella had shaped the talent of everyone from Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro to Benicio Del Toro.

She was around 90 years ago, and as she made a quiet yet grand entrance on stage to begin class, she invariably received a standing ovation from her students.

It was a testament to her enormous talent that each time Stella somehow managed to act completely surprised that it was happening.

Right before I hit “send” on the newsletter last week, I had an almost old-time movie “hold the presses” moment.

Realizing it was probably too quirky and meaningful mostly to me, I forged ahead but filed the moment away as a sweet synchronicity to share now.

Specifically, last week I wrote about how moving I found Jessye Norman and others in the documentary about the origins of the hymn Amazing Grace.

Another layer of this is that, while doing computer temp work at Otis Elevators one very long ago summer, I remember the data-entry tedium only being relieved because of what I could listen to my walkman.

One of the albums I’d somehow discovered then and deeply associate with that keyboard-torture time was Jessye’s Spirituals In Concertalbum sung with Kathleen Battle.

And just as I was writing about Jessye on Saturday, I learned that Kathleen Battle was returning to the Met for a concert that weekend, for only the second time in 30+ years.

The New York Times described that first return as a historic “Unfiring.”

I, on the other hand, am more intrigued with framing it as something else: a long-awaited encore, one many of us have been eager to witness, and one that was greeted by a particularly rapturous standing ovation. 

This week I was also quite fortunate to see a remarkable evening of theatre that a dear friend created and directed.

The piece was entitled For Sorrow, For Fear, For Anger, For Hope.

Working for months with five holocaust survivors, my friend’s students crafted their experiences into theatrical narratives, bringing those stories to the stage.

What made the work so compelling was that the survivors were not only present but also came onstage among the actors as their life story was being dramatized. 

Sometimes they participated in the theatrical retelling of their past; sometimes they only observed and commented at the end.

For me, this resonated so deeply with this month’s theme of Beyond Hope (May Meditation HERE).

Indeed, this brought a new level of meaning to the word “encore,” of the demand for a repetition or additional performance for us to witness.

In this case, such a retelling involving both cast and subject, added a unique and transformative depth.

Another lesser synchronicity–– but nonetheless still echoing something very much in the zeitgeist––was that same night I watched Maya Rudolph on Saturday Night Life satirize a Faye Dunaway moment that’s become a meme.

If you’ve somehow succeeded in avoiding it, there’s been rediscovered footage of Faye being very much a diva during the filming of a 1970s Master Class commercial, highlighted by her declaring: 

“Can you leave, please?
You’re right in my eye line.”

Anyway, delight in such Diva Bad Behavior is very much part of the Kathleen Battle story.

She was famously fired in 1994 at the Met for outrageous acts, which given the drama and egos in the opera world, is really quite something.

I don’t want to get too gossipy about them but a little flavor is necessary.

My favorite anecdote is that, according to legend, she once telephoned her agent to tell the driver of her limo to turn down the air-conditioning.

Beyond this, she was famously so difficult to work with that, post-production, the crew of the San Francisco Opera actually had T-shirts made up saying “I Survived The Battle.”

As juicy as such nuggets are, I think it’s more interesting and helpful to reflect on why we enjoy them.

Since I’m still deep into Shadow Work, for me it’s all about the delight we take in watching someone act out this denied part of ourselves.

Since most of us have been trained into people-pleasing and teamwork, there’s something deeply satisfying about watching outrageously self-absorbed behavior…(best from a very safe distance, of course.)

Such anecdotes reflect a level of unbridled confidence and completely self-focused determination that (for better or worse) eludes most of us.

That’s why it’s so easy to publicly disapprove of such moments but, at the same time, secretly admire them.

The program for my friend’s play included this famous quote from Eli Wiesel, Auschwitz survivor, author of the classic Night, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize:

“I believe firmly and profoundly that whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness, so those who hear us, those who read us must continue to bear witness for us. Until now, they’re doing it with us. At a certain point in time, they will do it for all of us.”

More and more I realize that’s what’s so essential: simply letting another person know they’re being seen.

It’s such a deeply human need…and one that is so often unmet.

Returning to favorite encore moments….

I can’t help but recall Vladimir Horowitz’s historic 1965 return to Carnegie Hall.

Burnt out––largely it seems by the public’s expectations––he hadn’t performed for an audience in over a decade.

There are lots of stories about that concert but one I find most moving is that after a beyond dazzling finale performance of the 1st Chopin Ballade, playing with more fire than anyone has before or since, he goes a different route in the encores.

He plays four pieces, the first from Debussy’s Children’s Corner and the last Schumann’s Träumerei from the Kinderszenen, or Scenes from Childhood. 

Horowitz completes his return with moments of pure peace, perhaps only possible when you’ve truly nothing left to prove.

Indeed, in the same way, that’s how Kathleen Battle ended her Met return, with an unaccompanied Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

At 75, her voice is still a silvery, shimmering miracle.

You can hear for yourself in the (bootlegged) moment HERE.

Like Horowitz, she ends by going beyond virtuosity towards absolute simplicity, and for me that’s powerful and heartrending.

Perhaps only a loose thread ties all of these thoughts together.

Nonetheless, the connections are there: the importance of returning and simplicity as the best final statement, and perhaps most importantly, the necessity of bearing witness.

In real life, there’s someone near and dear to me who often skips that step, tending to leap over empathy and straight to reassurance.

In this case, the cure for toxic positivity is extremely simple: It would only take a witnessing moment for their support to be meaningful.

Without that––and it just has to be a mere moment–– kind words feel disconnected, even hollow.

One’s traumas may be a fraction of a holocaust survivor’s, but we still need ours to be registered.

In fact, although braced for an evening of gloom, that night at the theater was completely hopeful, not just because these were the tales of survivors with lots of grandkids

Particularly after tragedy, such an encore can’t help but inspire and uplift, all made possible by a resource we can always access: the enormous power of bearing witness.

Namaste for Now

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