I’m not a particularly “feely” person. A friend of mine described how I function with emotions as a “low reactor”. It takes quite a bit to get me upset/mad/sad/lonely. I remember getting really mad for the first time in college. My poor, sweet (although totally deserving in the situation) brother was the first victim of Furious Laura. She hasn’t shown up much throughout my lifetime, although Disgusted Laura makes regular appearances (see Inside Out for more reference). I always say I feel positive emotions very deeply and find the negative emotions pointless and unhelpful. (This should help explain why the turmoil and frustration of the vocal transition has been so difficult for me. I HATE crying, especially when its over the same thing over and over and doesn’t fix what I’m crying about or when I wasn’t prepared to cry or don’t know exactly which issue is making me cry. Negative emotions are ridiculous. sigh)
HOWEVER, one of the most amazing parts of what I do is that it gives me regular access to one of my favorite emotional experiences.
The experience of Sehnsucht.
The word Sehnsucht is a word for which I haven’t found succinct English equivalent and brings together my Faith, (as spoken through my favorite writer, C.S. Lewis), love of my career in opera, and the beautiful and real experience I have when listening to music that touches my soul. Sehnsucht is a German word that embodies a huge theme in all of Lewis’s writings. For Lewis, Sehnsucht was the sense of deep, inconsolable longing, yearning, the feeling of intensely missing something when we don’t even know what it is. I found a blog post that explains his ideas on it pretty well. It is also related to his experiences of joy:
“Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.” – Surprised by Joy
I think most people have experienced this sometime in their life. I describe this intangible concept as a moment of sheer bliss or contentment, that only lasts a moment, but begs for more. I often feel it when driving through beautiful areas with the windows down. Also, when I get engulfed by a piece of music I’m listening to that is especially beautiful or meaningful. It can even happen when I’m overwhelmed by warm, fresh wind. I love wind. I love standing in the impact of something I cannot see, but obviously know is there. It is such a beautiful representation of my experience with God.
The opera world also uses this concept. I remember learning about it back in undergrad at St. Olaf. Alice Hanson, the BEST and most terrifying teacher I have ever had (who passed away in 2013, leaving a legacy of St. Olaf music majors who remember more from her lectures than all of our other classes combined), explained it as a concept of the Romantic Era, especially in regards to Wagner. Richard Wagner used themes or “leitmotifs” in his operas; these are musical melodies or chords that represent characters, items, or concepts. They are the groundwork for his operas. He introduces a leitmotif, repeats it, develops it, and combines it with other leitmotifs to represent the coming together of two people, or an object with its owner, or a character and the emotion they are feeling. It is brilliant. This made Wagner my favorite composer to study. The more you learn about the music, the more you love it.
Wagner wrote a “Sehnsucht” motif in The opera, Tristan und Isolde. Sehnsucht is also connected with the romantic concept of “Liebestod”, which refers to the theme of erotic death or “love death” meaning the two lovers’ consummation of their love in death or after death. It is also representative of sexual fulfillment/climax. Yep, opera is basically about sex and death. It’s super sexy. Go buy tickets.
I love that this concept is not only felt when listening to music, but also in the construct of it. This is why it is one of my favorite words. I am toying with the idea of getting a very small tattoo of this word. Yes, mom and opera world, it would be done so it is easy to cover up or hidden from others.
I recently found this quote about one of THE great sopranos, Maria Callas:
“Of all the female singers, Callas’s expressiveness, the intensity of her performance ‘was such that for him time stood momentarily still, keeping at bay fear – even fear of death – and thereby promoting a state of happiness and a feeling of immortality’ Callas embodied the most extreme feeling of “Sehnsucht” (yearning), yet simultaneously the fulfillment of “Sehnsucht”.”
I LOVE this. Callas was a complete performer. She threw herself into every character and every performance. Even if her singing wasn’t perfect, she left the audience in tears. When I lived in Italy, Claudia, the mother of the family I stayed with, put on a recording of Callas singing Bellini’s “Casta Diva”. She sat with me, doing some sewing, and silently cried at the beauty of the music pouring through the speakers. This memory will never leave me. It inspires me to continue trying to “let go” when singing and to barrel forward with complete and genuine commitment to each moment, with each character. THIS is how Callas gave the world Sehnsucht. It does not come from technical perfection or mechanically calculated singing. My brain that desires those things needs to take a back seat to my love of the Sehnsucht experience and my desire to give this to others. It’s time for Joyful Laura to take the reins.