In Norse mythology, Odin sends two ravens called Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory) out into the world to acquire information and knowledge for him.
Handy that. I could really use them right about now. Instead, I have to stick iTunes on repeat and brew yet another vat of coffee. Such is the difference between Wotan and the poor sods who have to memorise him.
Today I was yet again confronted with the bothersome truth that my memory is not what it used to be. I know, I know, this happens to us all, but it is galling nonetheless. I’ve always had a pretty sharp old noggin when it comes to memorising music, but these days I’m having to face the reality that things are not so…y’know…what’s the word?…
Nowhere is this more apparent than when I attempt to learn new repertoire. That which used to take mere days to completely memorise now takes weeks. Months even. And that’s just the new stuff. I also find myself forgetting older rep that I considered bulletproof, etched indelibly on the hard-drive for life.
As I see out my last few shows as Wotan in Houston, I’m preparing for my next job, singing Don Giovanni in Gent. The first time I performed the role, the production was in the original Italian, but all subsequent productions have been in English. In Gent, it’s back to Italian.
Opening the score once again, I was genuinely pleased by how much I managed to remember, but was equally disappointed to recognise some yawning chasms of emptiness where I was hoping for even the tiniest residue of Da Ponte’s brilliant text. And this, I fear, is owing to my age. At 40, I’m still young for a singer, and many years from the scrapheap I hope, but 22 years of memorising endless pages of music and text have definitely blunted the sharpness of ze leetle grey cells.
Singing through the Don (or The DonG, as I like to call him), I found myself stumbling over lines here and there. It’s frustrating, particularly when it’s a part you’ve sung many times, and I began to suspect that the problem might be that I wasn’t hearing the cue lines from the other characters. I know this sounds like a bit of a stretch, but the reason we singers rehearse so much is so that we have a kind of Pavlovian-dog response to text and music. We call it physical memory – you hear your cue, and your line pops into your head without your needing to consciously seek it out.
Singing the cues helped a little, but there were still a few small (and not so small) gaps. I pressed on regardless, reworking the forgotten lines over and over, and it wasn’t until I got as far as the Act 2 trio that I noticed a curious thing – on my way through the piece, I had barely needed to glance at the text (or the notes for that matter) for Leporello and Masetto, neither of which I have sung for nearly a decade. I first sang The DonG when I was 35, having spent the previous few years singing his put-upon manservant Leporello (which I first performed at 26), and before that, the peasant boy Masetto (first performed when I was 20).
There is an irritating irony in being able to effortlessly recall the roles you no longer require, whilst being unable to hold on to the ones you really need. I’m sure that my memory of those roles was being constantly, subconsciously topped up every time I sang The DonG, but I’m sure it has more to do with age than anything else.
Many athletes and sportspeople find their careers over by the age of thirty, and even those truly exceptional individuals who manage to carry on late into their thirties find they can only very rarely continue into their forties. Bodies age, and while these people will always possess great skill, the tiring flesh stubbornly refuses them the ability to fully utilise those skills.
Without wishing to open the whole barichunks-are-athletes-too can of worms, surely it’s a fair assumption to say that a singer’s brain might age in just the same way as an athlete’s body (it is flesh and blood after all), and that mental performance will begin to deteriorate around the same age?
All I know is that Masetto went into the memory banks in just a couple of days, when I was young and my brain was empty and hungry. Even Leporello only took a couple of weeks. The DonG was harder and took a little longer to go in, so to speak, but it was still memorised in about 3 weeks – it’s just that I’ve failed to retain it.
This year I am staring down the barrel of 500 or so pages of music to memorise – Wagner was not the most succinct of librettists – and so a great deal of my time will be spent alone, locked in practice rooms, repeatedly battering notes and words into my thick skull. Life would be so much easier if I could have the experience I have now, coupled with the fresh, receptive mind I had when I was twenty.
If you happen to see me muttering to myself, please don’t think I’ve gone off my rocker, it’s just a tired old brain negotiating a busy year.
And if you happen to run a coffee shop, I’m open to sponsorship.