Music Monday #3: The Ahhh Factor

I’ve been feeling pretty anxious the last few days, due to factors in life that can’t be controlled or changed. Usually, if anxiety shows up, I clam up, which means I don’t do anything with music other than listen to it. That might sound perfectly lovely, but I generally sing along. If I find myself riding silently while U2 is playing in the car, I know I have a problem. So I have to force myself to sing along, instead.

I can’t be sure why this helps, but I have my theories, one of which is that singing (properly) requires controlled breathing and controlled posture. Sorta like yoga. And controlled breathing can really help with those times when your nerves are shot. It doesn’t really matter what you sing; all that matters is that you sing. At least, that’s all that matters to me, because I always wind up feeling better. Even if all I’m singing is U2.

So with that in mind, I was trying to think of something I’ve sung that I’ve found the most relaxing. And what I realized is that, although some things go much farther toward relaxing me if I’m just listening… it doesn’t matter what I sing; the effect is the same. More fodder for my controlled breathing theory. The other theory, for me at least, is simply that singing puts me in a better place, and a place in which I have to concentrate if I want to do the job. I can’t – and don’t – think about anything else once the music starts. My focus has to be completely on the notes, the language, the conductor (if applicable) and the demands of the piece. The fact that the complexities of music simply shove everything else out of the way makes singing work better for me than any other form of stress relief.

All this is very helpful… for me. But if you need something to which you can just listen and be relaxed, I think I have the piece for you. And it’s not even obscure. It’s the Flower Duet from Lakme’. You may think you’ve never heard of it, but I bet you’ve heard at least four measures.

Lakme’ is an opera composed by Leo Delibes. It’s set in India, under British rule in the mid 19th century… but it’s sung in French. (That happens a lot in opera. Stories set in China but sung in Italian, etc.) Lakme’ is the daughter of a Brahmin priest. She, of course, falls in love with a British imperialist soldier. But Lakme’s father is enraged that the soldier has been on his property and vows to avenge his daughter’s honor, yadda yadda yadda. The Flower Duet’s actual title is “Sous le dome epais,” (there should be some accents in there that I can’t make happen… an ^ over the O in “dome” and a ‘ over the E in “epais.”) It’s sung very early in the opera… first thing, in fact. It’s called the Flower Duet because Lakme’ and her servant, Mallika, are singing it together while they gather flowers from a riverbed.

It’s been used in a lot of commercials, which drives me crazy, because a few of them have taken some liberties that I find offensive. Anyway, British Airways and Godiva Chocolates have both used it in major ad campaigns in recent years, and it can be heard playing in the background of a scene in Aaron Sorkin’s “The American President” when President Shepard goes to Sydney’s house for dinner. (I can’t find a clip online. Grrr.)

What entrances me about this piece, and particularly this recording from Dame Joan Sutherland and Jane Berbie’, is how absolutely flawless it is, and how effortless it sounds. If you don’t sing this kind of music (arguably a coloratura, which Sutherland was famous for), you have no idea how hard it is to make a duet this closely composed sound like it’s a walk in the park. The lilts, the ebbs and flows, the turns of musical phrase in perfect symmetry in volume, accent and tenuto (which means a sort of drawing out of a note) are astonishing. Opera singers are often divas and don’t really worry about whether another singer can keep up, but Sutherland and Berbie’ clearly listen to each other so well and so closely, and the music is written so impeccably, that the recording can do nothing but make you feel good. So, sit back, relax, close your eyes and click here. (And then possibly click the play button, I dunno).

Happy Music Monday.