Monday, October 22, 2012

Socks for the Lilac Fairy?

The other day the Royal Opera House held a Q&A session on Twitter with two of the Royal Ballet's top stars, husband and wife team Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soares. Fans tweeted their questions and at 5pm Marianela - everyone's favourite Lilac Fairy and Odette right now - and her lovely resident prince picked a selection and answered them online. The questions ranged from favourite roles/choreographers to issues about dancing around difficult sets to the challenges of a dancer's physical regime. One fan even asked Marianela what her shoe size is... because she wanted to knit her some socks.

It struck me that I've never heard a classical music fan offer to knit socks, or indeed anything else, for a favourite soloist. A test tweet I put out, pondering why nobody's yet offered to provide Lang Lang with home-made gloves, produced a flood of snide witticisms. One person said mittens would do better. Another quipped that perhaps Schumann's hand-stretcher would do him some good.

OK, so perhaps Lang Lang wasn't the best choice... and it was probably a little unfair on our dancers... But the attitudes of ballet fans and music fans to the top practitioners of their art is so different that I started wondering why.

Ballet fans queue outside the stage door for autographs. They send or even throw flowers (well, they used to, pre recession). They offer to knit socks. They want to know what the stars eat, or don't eat. They're disappointed yet concerned when a favourite dancer is off with an injury; they wish them a speedy recovery. They trot back to the same production time and again to test out the different casts and enjoy the compare-and-contrast process (our friends at The Ballet Bag often post about this). There's a high degree of sympathy and rather a lot of love. Ballet fans seem to be seriously nice about their enthusiasm.

And classical music fans? Be too successful a musician and they start to hate you. Be a woman and you risk having to fight a patronising, sexist atmosphere. Bring out a recording and someone will tear it to bits online if not in print. Give a concert and someone will bring in a recording device without your agreement - and the halls won't even stop them. Hold a political opinion and someone tells you to shut up and play, or shreds your musicianship because they don't happen to like your views. Suffer injury or be ill - especially if you're a singer - and you get a reputation for cancelling and letting people down. Hey, they've paid a lot of money for their seats and that apparently means you can't lose your voice even if you have. And you don't get true adulation until you're over 60. Our fans not only don't like their soloists; it often seems they don't even respect them. If you're a fan, be enthusiastic about a favourite performer and you're regarded as a non-critical idiot who's over-impressed, or suffering a post-teenage crush, or second only to a stalker.

Why this discrepancy? Looking at the questions for Marianela and Thiago on Twitter (hashtag #askthedancers), it seems that many come from people who themselves dance, professionally or semi-professionally or just for fun (like me), or did so as kids. They're concerned with issues of daily life: how do you eat, manage injury, spend your spare time if there is any? Ballet fans identify with the dancers. There's always someone they'd like to be, given the chance. They understand the processes better because they do it themselves, or have done at some point.

Now, I'm not saying that concert and opera-goers don't play and sing, because a lot do. Yet the degree of ignorance about what it takes to be a top-flight musician is much more extreme. Anyone can see how devoted, indeed possessed by the profession, a dancer must be; but some concert-goers don't even realise that a pianist has to practise every day ("Do you have a piano at home, then, love?" someone asked a well-known soloist friend of mine. "What's your day job? D'you work in a bank?").

The sheer physicality of musical performance is frequently downplayed in favour of the high-falutin' issues of poetry, philosophy, historically informed whatever, artistic fulfilment and so forth. That means that little consideration is given to, for example, performing conditions. The number of excellent musicians who have to face their craft being hobbled by the effects of freezing cold venues, lack of food or even tea, or lousy, badly-maintained pianos doesn't bear thinking about. International soloists travel much more than star dancers. Nobody seems eager to make air travel any pleasanter anytime soon, but the toll it takes on the body and mind can be severe. Why do we still expect soloists to function like automatons and regard them as unprofessional if they're unable to give 500% in an unheated venue on a snowy day after a long, stressful journey? Our lack of understanding of the profession means that we often don't let them do their best, even though that is all that they want to do.

Perhaps it is time to start communicating a little better regarding the absolute slog involved in a high-level musical career. Injury may not be quite as hefty an issue as it is for dancers, but it is really not that different. Being a professional musician involves intense physical labour, yet the number of performers who suffer serious injury or illness yet are simply denigrated for their own absence is quite alarming.

How to tackle these issues? Ideally, more people should learn to play musical instruments themselves. We need to identify more with the people who perform the music we love, and that means learning their craft from inside. Meanwhile, maybe we need to hold knitting lessons for classical music fans. My first pair of gloves will probably go to Benjamin Grosvenor.