I was completely stunned by two video excerpts I saw yesterday on the ubiquitous youtube of Dawn Upshaw singing Messiaen‘s “Saint François d’Assise”, directed by Peter Sellars. (I’m indebted to Alex for posting one on his blog).
The excerpts show the rehearsal process, Dawn’s valiant struggles with the virtuosic music and Peter guiding, encouraging and sometimes being extremely exacting with her.
At times, Sellars appears to be making excessive demands– why on earth is he asking for such elaborate postures and insisting on such a precise quality of movement when the music is already so taxing? Can’t he see that just singing the piece accurately would already be plenty? As a coach myself, I’m an advocate for sensitive treatment of singers, and was at first perplexed.
However, because I have already experienced how gifted Sellars is a director, I was willing to look deeper, and became increasingly aware that beneath the jovial yet meticulous exterior are a heart, a psyche and an imagination that are truly extraordinary. He has realized that by making the singer focus on something else just at the moments that are most technically demanding, she is thereby distracted in such a way that she completely opens up and her singing becomes transcendent.
As he says, “I usually try and build around something the artist doesn’t think they can do, and that’s where you center the entire performance, because then every night, when the artist does do it, it’s miraculous and beautiful”.
This can only happen because the two obviously have such an intimate relationship, built on years of working together. I have the feeling that Peter knows, trusts and loves Dawn more than she does herself. He can see the magnificence of which she is capable, and dares to push her until she has the breakthrough and finds it. This is truly great work.