By Tennyson Rodrigo –
On the evening of 4th April 2016 the auditorium of the Russian Cultural Centre was adorned by an angelic entry of two bright stars in Colombo’s musical skyline. Donned in a dazzling pleated dress as befits an operatic soprano, Kishani Jayasinghe appeared from the right while Soundarie David in a flowingly elegant saree sneaked in unobtrusively from the left and hid beside the piano.
The program was the second in a series of classical music recitals that Kishani has undertaken to present in order to entertain, educate and kindle interest among Sri Lankan audiences in the high art of classical singing. The repertoire was mainly Lieder, typically 19th century German art- song bearing a poetic text. It turned out to be high class and yet, thanks to Kishani’s dual role of singer and presenter, the atmosphere was intimate, informal and inspiring.
Homage To Strauss
In the pantheon of Lieder composers Richard Strauss, like Gustav Mahler, is often placed somewhat apart from the big four—Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Hugo Wolf. Indeed, Schubert created some 600 hundred lieder most of which have never been surpassed in beauty and voice/piano coordination.
Strauss was given a gift that most great classical composers were sadly denied—health and longevity. He died in 1949 in the twentieth century at the age of 85 (Schubert died aged 31, Mozart aged 35, Schumann aged 46 and Brahms aged 64). Strauss composed 16 operas and is regarded as one of the two greatest operatic composers of the twentieth century, the other being Puccini.
Strauss’s wife was an accomplished singer and it was from her that Strauss discovered most about the intrinsic quality and scope of the female voice. The great majority of the 200 songs Strauss wrote were intended for soprano voices and they were written over several decades of his prolific compositional carrier. Strauss’s final work “Four Last Songs” is an eloquent meditation on a peaceful death. Barely a year later Strauss died in Garmisch, Switzerland, where he lived in retirement.
It’s fair to say that Strauss’s lieder are a veritable paradise for sopranos. Perhaps this explains why Kishani paid homage to him by dedicating the lion share of her song-selection for the evening’s recital. From what I can recall (vaguely) Kishani’s choice of Straussian songs included Zueignung (1885, “Dedication”), Beim Schlafengehen (1948, “When falling asleep”), and Morgen (1894, “Tomorrow”). For serious music lovers it was a rare treat to hear and see an accomplished artist profoundly expressing her heart and soul to these songs which are deeply personal to the composer’s life.
Atonality has been a vexed question even for composers and music theorists. The ordinary uninitiated listener therefore has considerable trouble in appreciating atonal music without help. Kishani adopted a simple way of conditioning the audience to cope with Alban Berg’s lieder “Nacht”. She suggested that if the listeners hear something wrong with Nacht, then they are hearing it right. Though I am more in love with tonality and heard nothing wrong with Bergs’ Nacht I might have been in the happy middle ground of a synthesized hybrid.
Before transitioning from pure song to operatic arias Kishani had a point to make about singing German opera. The comment, though made light-heartedly, need not be taken too lightly. She alluded to the French being a bit elastic when it comes to ‘song and wine’. Not so said she when it comes to singing an operatic aria in German; there is no permitted deviation from full-bloodedness and blood-redness. Two arias one from Mozart’s Magic Flute and the other from a Korngold opera were sung with authority and precision.
A Developing Collaboration
In voice/piano partnership the pianist’s role isn’t secondary and is even more than complementary. Kishani exemplified this in one of her songs that did not end with the completion of her vocalization. Whilst the voice remained silent the piano maintained the continuum until any unfulfilled anticipations or ambiguities were peacefully resolved. Rehearsing, discussing ideas and playing together allow the vocalist and pianist to thrive as a collaborating partnership. In this series of recitals Soundarie David with her untiring commitment and versatility has been Kishani’s settled accompanist. Their partnership is crucial to the new journey to kindle appreciation in serious music.
The Power Of Song And The Promise
Ultimately, all music comes from vocal music and hence from the human voice. And the power of song is uniquely expressive and multi-layered in that, unlike the piano, violin, or any other musical instrument, it has three ingredients: a story; a tune and a language in which the story is told, even if that language is unintelligible or nonsensical.
To be an accomplished soprano it is not sufficient to be able to sing a song. Kishani I believe is fluent in some eight languages and that in itself is not sufficient. The voice is a tone-generating instrument which has the power to couple tones with words and their components, vowels and consonants.
The auditorium of the Russian Cultural Centre is a compact space that at times was sharply pierced by the bountiful reserves of power in Kishani’s voice. Her chosen repertoire was a sumptuous bagful that allowed her to traverse her range with ease and darken or lighten the voice expressively and control the dynamics to produce a variety of colour.
Thus far Kishani has successfully entertained her Colombo audiences with art-songs in two cultured European languages. The several rounds of applause at the end of her lieder recital were not successful in coercing her to give an encore but instead she had a surprise of a different kind. The opportunity was grasped to foretell the audience that her next recital will comprise Italian songs. And declaring in a mood of exuberance “who could be more Italian than Puccini”, she launched into his beloved aria “O mio babbino caro” (Oh My Beloved Father) from the opera “Gianni Schicchi”.
This turned out to be much more than a glimpse of Kishani’s forthcoming repertoire. Instead, the rapt attention, allure and lyrical beauty were intoxicating. As it ended my fragile feet spontaneously lifted my body and the worn out vocal chords uttered Bravo!
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org