Recitals tend to be, by their very nature, narcissistic ventures. I think this is especially true of singers’ recitals. The process of programming favorite music, inviting friends and family members, standing on a concert stage, and delivering an evening of colorful vocal tricks and technical fireworks can be – let’s face it – an egotistical trip. It can also be a wonderfully cathartic experience, full of profound meaning, and a powerful way for an artist to learn about the intensity of communication with an audience. I’ve been singing recitals for twenty-five years and my fascination with this performance genre has reached a zenith in a new project I am now preparing called Narkissos (Greek for Narcissus).
But first, some background…
Like many singers, I cut my teeth on art song repertoire during my early years of study. In fact, art songs had a particularly strong impact on me since during my undergraduate years my voice was wedged in the no-mans-land that existed somewhere between tenor and baritone. I was told I had to be patient and see how my voice matured, and while learning opera arias was not yet an option, I was encouraged to explore the songs of composers like Fauré, Schubert, Poulenc and Wolf. As I developed my technique, I fell in love with these songs, and found myself drawn to learning subtle ways of presenting each one as a discernible character, each in a specific mini-scene. I was hooked, and found great joy spending the rest of my undergraduate years, as well as six years of grad school, pursuing every recital possibility I could find. But I had to wonder, other than studying the songs themselves, what else about singing recitals did I love so much? Was it the challenge of concentration and vocal stamina? Was it the poetry? Was it just that I enjoyed performing, and if so, does that mean I enjoyed being a showoff? Wasn’t the act of pursuing recital opportunities bordering on…. Narcissism?
After college, singing recitals in a place like New York City became a more daunting venture. Rehearsal space and recital halls cost money, there are accompanists fees, the costs of marketing materials and concert programs, and the overwhelming smorgasbord of other arts events in a great city where a mere song recital is easily lost in the shuffle. And even if one is able to produce a recital, what type of inventive programming will ensure the best audience turnout? In spite of these challenges, I bit the bullet in May 2001 and programmed my own recital. I chose the perfect repertoire, hired a hotshot accompanist, found a great venue, bought a new suit and spent hours perfecting the program notes. On the day of the concert I was in great voice and sang better than I could have hoped. And yet, in the days that followed that recital, I couldn’t escape the feeling that something was wrong. The recital had no message, no heart, no impact, and I felt that I had somehow squandered an opportunity. My self-doubt gave way to bitter disappointment. It was a perfectly forgettable recital.
In the years that followed, I’ve sung hundreds of concerts with other singers and musicians, but I have always felt sheepish about producing another solo recital. Which is why it was such a shock when, about a year ago, I spontaneously asked my good friend, harpist Alyssa Reit, if she’d be interested in doing a recital with me. We had met working together on Benjamin Britten’s canticle ‘The Death of Saint Narcissus,” and I remember at the time wishing there was more repertoire for male voice and harp. The truth, though, was that I missed singing recitals, and this time I wanted to create something beyond a stand and sing concert with no message. I wanted to create an event audiences might talk about and remember.
One night, shortly after Alyssa and I agreed to work together, I went out for a jog to clear my head. I was beginning to feel anxious about finding a “hook” for the recital, and wondering how narcissistic I was being thinking that I could accomplish something like this. That’s when it hit me: instead of trying so hard to resist those feelings, why not embrace and develop them as the theme of the recital? Perhaps I could go a step further and find a way to focus on the egotistical nature of the recital as an allegory for narcissistic behavior in general? That’s when I came up with the idea for Narkissos. The recital about narcissism. Using T.S. Eliot’s text, ‘The Death of Saint Narcissus,” (set by Britten) as inspiration, I conceived a recital project that would not only use the mythological story of Narcissus as a theme, but also use the familiar platform of the song recital as a device for exploring narcissistic personality disorder and the age entitlement now so prevalent in society.
What’s more narcissistic than a recital about narcissism? I’ve enjoyed pushing the envelope to develop this project, which is part song recital and part multimedia theater piece. To make up for the lack of repertoire for male voice and harp, I personally commissioned six new songs for the project, offering my own writing as texts for four of these premieres. The songs are memorized and staged, each one framed and linked together by an accompanying montage of audio and film media, compiled by talented director and media artist Ted Gorodetzky.
Narkissos is an exploration – an artistic survey that asks what the true nature of a narcissistic personality is, and explores those qualities inherent across the spectrum of our society. It is at turns humorous and serious, gritty and beautiful, a carefully arranged kaleidoscope of poetry, music, history and media that, through the conceit of the song recital, strives to understand the ego. It has also brought me back into the wonderful world of solo recital singing, and has given me the unique perspective to unapologetically explore the egotist that lies somewhere within. I’m immensely proud to share Narkissos with you and I hope you’ll enjoy the experience of how it all turned out. Just make sure you stop backstage afterwards to tell me how good I was.
Daniel Neer, April 10, 2012