Let's face it. Sometimes trying to get people to come to your recital is like pulling teeth. In fact, sometimes it feels like people would rather go for a root canal than sit through 60 minutes of Schubert.
Why does 99% of the population think that recitals are such agony? We bemoan the fact that our audiences are uneducated or that TV has rotted their brains and fooled them into thinking that changing the channel is the best way to cure boredom. Well guess what? I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that it is, in fact, OUR fault that recitals are akin to poking a needle in one's eye. Yes, we the performers are to blame for empty recital halls across North America.
I have been consistently frustrated when I work for months to learn a recital only to have less than a handful of people in the audience. It seems that no amount of Facebook invites can lure people out on a rainy night (“it’s too cold and rainy!”) or a beautiful night (“it’s too nice out!”), or a sunny Sunday afternoon (“I’d rather go for a leisurely brunch!”). How can we appeal to our audience to get them out of the house and offer them a memorable, interesting, challenging, fun bit of entertainment?
First, I think we need to look at the language barrier that causes North Americans to balk at the idea of a Lieder or Chanson recital. Simply printing translations in the program isn't enough. We tried to get away with it for a long time, but let’s be honest, it never really worked. Thankfully, more and more people are taking a cue from the opera world and performing song with surtitles above the stage. At VISI (Vancouver International Song Institute) we set up a screen to the side of the stage with the entire poem printed there. I can't tell you what a difference this makes as a performer! Now when I look out into the audience, I see their faces rather than the tops of their heads as they read along. I spend a lot of time practicing the art of story-telling in my recitals and there is nothing more frustrating than seeing that no one is watching the performance. They might as well stay home and listen to recordings. I really approve of the style used by VISI with the whole poem at the side of the performers. It is easier to simply move one's eyes than to go back and forth, trying to adjust to the light and read text in a darkened hall. Having the whole text also allows one to absorb the poem as a whole.
Second, the performance practice of recitals can be reeaally boring. Nobody wants to spend two hours watching a man in a tux stand in front of a piano, droning away in a language they don't understand who barely acknowledges the presence of the pianist on stage with them. I am constantly amazed at how little performers speak to their audience. It's sometimes only before the encore that they pipe up at all. I find it much more interesting when performers talk about the music they are about to present. Giving the audience a little tid-bit of history behind the composer or poet or letting us know why they love to perform this particular music, or just telling a funny story, endears the performers to the audience and makes them sit up a little straighter with attentive ears and eyes. Also, I LOVE it when pianists talk! I know that many pianists suffer from excruciating shyness, but audiences love to hear from them. They are 50% of the team, after all.
There's also the relatively new phenomenon of staging art song. Some think it's a travesty, others, like me, think it makes song come alive in unexpected ways. The audience becomes more involved in actively listening and watching and the performers take on a much deeper understanding of the poetry, style and character of the piece. I've noticed this to be especially true with young singers. In traditional performance, an audience can often see the singer thinking about vocal technique or worrying about whether their memory will hold up. Who can blame them? Young musicians of all disciplines have such an enormous amount to learn in the early years that just getting through the performance while holding on to the technique they only grasped the previous week is a major accomplishment. This is especially prevalent in singers for several reasons: Firstly, singers do not have the luxury of working on their instrument at the tender age of 3 or 4 as so many pianists and string players do. They can sing in children's choirs, of course, but the classically trained voice does not even begin to mature until about the age of 16 and for men it is sometimes even later. Then they must work consistently and wait about 10 to 15 years before the voice is fully ready to take on major opera roles or large song works. Secondly, singing in front of an audience is a very exposed feeling. It is the only musical performance that does not put an instrument in between the performer and the audience. Any stray thought that the singer may have is often shown clearly on their face. The audience may not know whether that stray thought is the upcoming high C or tomorrow's grocery list, but they will feel a barrier go up. If the young singer hasn't yet learned to stand with ease during a piano interlude, it becomes quite uncomfortable to watch. However, when a song is given theatrical elements such as staging, props, lighting, costumes, the singer comes alive. There is magic in the distraction of staging. When a singer has something to do with their body, they are more likely to throw themselves into the character and leave the work of the practice room where it belongs; in the practice room.
The changes in song recital are happening gradually, but surely. Audiences find themselves completely wrapped up in the new style of performing art song. People who have claimed to despise recitals are now going back on their word and talk about how exciting an evening in the concert hall can be! All it takes is one great performance to convince people that recitals are nothing near as painful as root canals and it is up to us as performers to do the convincing. In fact, recitals can be an exciting, edge-of-your-seat thrill-ride. Who'd have thought?
Side-note: Personally inviting people to your recital goes a long way. A simple Facebook invite is too easy to ignore. People are much more likely to come hear you if you phone them or send them a personalized email. Also, little flyers that you can carry with you wherever you go are a handy thing to give out when someone asks you what you’re up to. Sometimes it’s the most unlikely people who show up!