The Arts are, I believe, superbly funded in France compared to the UK. Julian, as an ‘artiste-peintre’, is treated royally, sharing his status with that of a lawyer. As a new artistic business in our village he is not liable for tax for five years, which means, as a married couple taxed together, we split my meagre income so neither will I be liable. Julian will receive back all 20% of VAT paid on work materials from the government and I, if I get to work my 500 ‘hours’ in a year, will be paid for all the time I do not work.
The system is amazing for us, and untenable of course for a government. For now however, for once in our lives, we benefit from not being the underdogs, and from having what we do valued. It will doubtless soon change and so we are not feeling guilty; we are revelling in it.
The project I am involved with in the artists’ residency - ‘Subsistences’ in Lyon - is the sort of project that would simply not be funded in the UK, and I have very mixed feelings about it.
Firstly, let me say that I believe passionately that time for musicians, actors, and directors to chew upon, taste and digest a subject as big as this – the story of Cain and Abel – together is of great value. I am the first person who will say yea to all the musicians being given the possibility (time and therefore money) to get inside the characters, feel their feelings and their moral dilemmas just as the actors do, so that the sound and gestures we create are truly connected to the whole from the root up.
There is nothing like being given that chance. In how many Bach Passions have I yearned for 5 minutes with the Evangelist to discuss the gesture behind the renting of the veil or his feeling behind the crucifixion, as I wing my continuo on a three hour read-through and a prayer in Canterbury Cathedral or St John’s, Smith Square…?
‘Il Primo Omicidio’ deals with a lot of important issues. They are also current. Amongst other things there is jealousy, shame, homicide, fratricide and the seeds of war. The story also addresses the feelings of a mother who has lost two sons – one at the hand of the other and the other disappeared.
In Saturday’s rehearsal we sang together in a circle - musicians, singers and actors - a heart-stopping aria soaring above a chorale. We sang it over and over again, looping it and knitting our creative bond from the harmonic threads and colours, and each of us took it in turn to stand in the middle absorbing the warmth of the whole, a fleece of sound wrapping around us like a sacrificial lambs-wool comforter. The group was entirely changed as a result. We had a heart.
Then came the aria of the mother lamenting the loss of her sons and, throughout the searing arc of her cry, the varnish on my cello was moistened with the memory of the loss of our own child. As I ploughed through the heavy- hearted bass line, my arm ‘lourd’ with Eve’s suffering, I felt increasingly lighter; washed clean.
These were moving moments. How extraordinary to be given this chance….and yet it is largely wasted. In six dozen hours of rehearsal so far we have sat, just as we would in a pit, unnoticed and uninvolved, whilst the director gathers his clan around him and whispers. Despite our well funded chance, and regardless of our willingness to meet in the middle, the division between imaginary stage and pit was made on the first day.
There are tea-towels laid down for Abel (to signify him being led into the field) and coats impaled on tall planks, a harpsichord is measured and a knife thrown, Cain’s hand is shoved violently in Abel’s mouth (which, I hear, is something to do with the first born scratching at the second’s foetus…). Abel baas a lot and throws cotton wool on a table….We scrub away in the background.
I actually think that, when we finally perform it, it is going to be very beautiful. The music - by Alessandro Scarlatti, a contemporary of Haendel - is certainly sublime. However, there is an English cynic lurking in me still. We have another month of this antisocial schedule still to go and, as far as I can see, nothing much is going to change. Having performed the entire St John Passion and created extraordinary improvised theatre pieces, both on three hours’ rehearsal, I want (particularly at about ten to eleven at night), to cry:
“For heaven’s sake, let’s get this show on the road!”