I saw Robert Lepage’s autobiographical one-man show 887 this week. Lepage came onstage unannounced to make the traditional plea to the audience to turn of its phones and beeping gadgets. His informal and fluent chat established the intimate tone of the show and led seamlessly into the first scene. The performance had begun by stealth. It’s not the first time I have seen this done (think Simon McBurney in The Encounter), but it’s undeniably effective when executed so effortlessly. It was the perfect place to start a discussion with Dr Toby Young and undergraduates on the music course at the University of Oxford, as to what actually makes a performance.
Toby’s students will be taking a course with him next year about Opera and Music Theatre since 1945, for which this was a preliminary sharing of ideas and skills. As well as attending academic lectures, the course requires the students to participate in a performance written especially for them by Toby, which will be directed by my fellow mezzo Loré Lixenberg.
Today we were discussing what defines a performance and how we can control various elements to direct the audience’s attention. Not all of our students are singers, but they were each asked to present a short performance of some sort, in what turned out to be a rich mixture of genres: song, aria, electronic club music, spoken monologue, even a magic trick. Fascinating insights emerged as to why and how performances work, with discussion about boundaries between the audience and the performer, focus, (mis)direction, gesture, text, silence, rhythm, energy, pace and humour.
Walking back through Oxford town centre I was struck by the number of performances simply taking place in the street, some consciously, others less so. Buskers, shop staff offering free samples and evangelists of other kinds were all working the crowd but no-one with the innate showmanship of East London fishmonger Muhammad Shahid Nazareth who enjoyed stardom as One Pound Fish Man when his sales patter went viral.
The students and Toby will now collaborate on a piece for performance during the Hilary (Lent) Term. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.