Twenty Men Singing—But Why?

Well, there they stood last night, singing a cappella, performing songs from Schubert to South Pacific, from the 13th-century Middle-English “Sumer Is Icumen In” to Alfred Schnittke’s “Adam Sat Weeping at the Gates of Paradise,” which premiered in 1988. Twenty they were; men of the Welsh National Opera, touring Wales with their aptly titled program Twenty Men Singing. Some of their sonic offerings were tonic, many (and for my taste rather too many) of them somber, reverent, and brooding.

Why were they singing? To amuse themselves, to entertain others, to earn a few quid or to enjoy the applause of an appreciative crowd? Why sing in unison when what you want is to stand out? If, indeed, that is what you want.

According to the program notes, those Twenty Men Singing explore just that: why men raise their voice together in song, whether to celebrate life, to protest or lament. In song, a hoped for unity is being realised in sonic unison. A chorus of disapproval is formed in resistance to voices and actions that may threaten community. Leoš Janáček’s “Sedmdesát tisíc” (1909), for instance (as translated by John Binias), many-voices the pressures inflicted on the national identity of a Czech bordertown by neighboring but less than neighborly Germans and Poles:

70,000 graves they dig for us
Outside Tesin
Beg for help from heaven
Herded like cattle
Like cattle we gaze about
Our own slaughter [ . . .]. 

Let our voices thunder out: [. . .].
Before we are finished [. . .].

This Saturday, performers around the world are singing to bring awareness to what may well be the greatest threat to humanity, regardless how much religion and nationalism, how much faith and terror (and the terror of faith) are being exploited by those who make a fortune keeping us at war with one another. On this day of Live Earth, festivities that coincide with the anniversary of the London suicide bombings of 2005, we are asked to consider the terra we share, not the terror that divides us, to let “our voices thunder out” before we are “finished.” I cannot think of a better reason for joining a chorus.

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