- 14 Oct 2016 9:00 AM
About a year ago, a mate of mine tried, rather unsuccessfully, to explain a project he was working on: a frequency opera called The Birth of Color. I was never the quickest study in the class but I’m quick enough. But try as I might, I couldn’t get a handle on it at all. He suggested I meet the woman behind it, and the man behind that woman. He invited me for coffee and I met Honora and Dahlan Foah.
Over the course of the next twelve months or so, they kept me posted on developments. At varying stages, both did their level best to explain to me what it was all about. And while I was slowly beginning to get my head around it, it still defied belief. I simply couldn’t see it happening. Now, I’m not short of imagination. In fact, I’m prone to flights of fancy. And I can exaggerate with the best of them. But no matter how much detail they gave, I just didn’t get it.
Last Friday night, 8pm, in the Kiscelli Museum in Budapest, I had the privilege (and I don’t use that word lightly) to see the world premier of Honora Foah’s creation. I had no idea what to expect – I’d heard tell of crystal bowls coming in from Austria. Of a 3-meter pool of water. Of a 60-strong chorus. Of narrators. Of swathes of translucent material. Of lights. Of sound. Of all sorts of stuff that go into such productions. But no matter how I figured it, I still couldn’t do the math.
I invited some friends along, friends who have a greater appreciation for music that I could ever pretend to have. But I fessed up that I had no clue what it was about and couldn’t guarantee anything other than it would be an experience. I’d met Honora Foah. I knew I was safe in saying that it would definitely be an experience.
The Kiscelli Museum dates back to the mid-1700s. The Baroque building was once a Trinitarian Monastery and vestiges of holiness still reside it its walls. Not necessarily a religious holiness but that sanctity that attaches itself to dedication. Back in 1935, then owner, antique dealer Miska Schmidt willed it to the city of Budapest. And today it is a museum. I was there at a ball some years ago and was mesmerized. It hadn’t lost its magic.
When the doors opened, we were each give a single symbolic rose petal and led downstairs into the crypt along a candlelit path offset by myriad frescoes. It was a tad other worldly, the perfect entrée to what would be even more surreal still.
As we sat in a circle, four narrators took their stations around a silver pool in a darkened stone-walled chamber. Dressed completely in black with their hoods drawn, their faces and voices seemed to separate from their bodies and float free. Two spoke in Hungarian, two in English as they told the story of the birth of colour.
The uplight from their tablets cast a spectre-like glow that I would only later appreciate. Nothing in this production was a matter of chance. Everything, from the white in the sheets of music to the stone grey of the walls, everything had its role, its purpose, its place.
Initially I tried hard to hear all the words, to understand what was being said. I like words. I like how they can be strung together to fashion new forms. And I can listen. But I stopped trying to follow the story and instead let myself float on the tide of words and phrases that had a music of their own. I heard of secrets whispered between night and morning, of breathing in a perfume of magenta, of dark being wisdom and light being illumination. And I listened on a whole new level. The story wasn’t unfolding in front of me, it was unfolding within me.
When the Budapest Cantate Choir filed on stage with the much-lauded Dr Sapszon Ferenc wielding the baton, the silence in the room was deafening. They put music to all we had just heard. At times they weren’t singing words, but sounds. It was exquisite.
Someone started to play the crystal bowls. And you could feel the room pulsating with energy. The swathes of material suspended from the ceiling were for all the world how I could now imagine frequencies to look. The lights, the sounds, the voices, the story – everything married, including darkness and light.
The entire performance lasted just 1 hour and 10 minutes (and I suspect the 10 minutes had to do with the bilingual narration) but in that 70 minutes, time was transcended. When it was over, no one moved. When the choir filed out, no one moved. Even the air was in deep thought.
Gradually, people came to. And reality intruded.
I was interviewed afterwards and ask for a reaction. And I cried. On camera. I have no clue where the emotion came from. It was as if something, deep, deep down in my soul had been awakened and didn’t quite know what to do with itself. A birth, a rebirth. I still don’t know. Thirty-six hours later, I’ve stopped trying to name it. To classify it. To label it. If I learned anything on Friday night it’s that there is no need to be all-knowing, there is no need to understand everything. Sometimes, we simply need to attune our emotions and remember to feel.
So, serendipity, once again you have my thanks. The wait was worth it. I am truly grateful to have borne witness to the Birth of Color: The Marriage of Darkness and Light.
By Mary Murphy