October 31, 2019
Arts & Culture

The gift of song

Lee Mingwei’s live installation at Art Gallery of SA, Sonic Blossom asks you to open your heart and mind to song.

Opera singer Brock Roberts is accustomed to performing in front of hundreds, but singing to a one-person audience is shaping up to be among the most challenging experiences of his career.

The experienced Adelaide-based singer, originally from the United States, is one of nine classically-trained vocalists who successfully auditioned for Sonic Blossom, which launches at the Art Gallery of South Australia at 5pm today (Friday, November 1).

Created by internationally-renowned Taiwanese-American artist Lee Mingwei, Sonic Blossom sees a singer adorned in ceremonial costume, roaming the various spaces in the art gallery and approaching a visitor at random to offer them the gift of song.

If they accept, the person sits down while the singer performs a three-minute lieder by Austrian composer Franz Schubert.

“Schubert’s songs just have a way of getting under your skin sometimes, when you least expect it,” says Brock, who is a chorus performer with State Opera South Australia.

“An audience of one is an incredibly intimate thing and we have to convey the message of the song to that one person. It can be just as profound for us as it is for the person receiving the gift,” he says.

“With a large audience I can just glaze over the crowd and enjoy the moment, but with this you respond to what the person is giving back to you. These pieces can sometimes catch us off-guard.”

Based between Paris and New York, Mingwei originally created Sonic Blossom for the opening of South Korea’s Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. It has since been performed 16 times around the world.

The piece has a particularly special place among Mingwei’s internationally-renowned installations, with a spiritual connection to his childhood in Taiwan, where his mother would play Schubert recordings to calm the “rambunctious” young boy. “She would play it at a very soft volume as a way of encouraging me to be quiet and listen,” Mingwei says.

When Mingwei’s mother was recovering from heart surgery several years ago, he played the same songs back to her. “At that moment I thought it would be really lovely to transform this into a gift between strangers,” Mingwei says.

“The project found me, and that’s usually how it happens,” he says. “It’s now a living performance from an opera singer to a stranger with an element of fate or chance.”

Each day, two singers take turns to be in character, wearing a costume of Japanese kimono fabric designed by esteemed Australian-based designer Akira Isogawa. The gown has a ceremonial elegance. “Once the singer steps out of the green room, they are on stage. Majestically they walk between the gallery’s spaces to find someone and lead them to the chair.”

“I call the costume the ‘transformation cloak’ because it transforms them from a human into a demigod. It gives them power to give a quite sacred and moving gift.”

Each singer has learnt five of Schubert’s pieces. It’s when they find someone who wishes to receive the gift of song that they decide which piece will be performed. “When a walking artwork comes up to you it’s unusual and the receiver is often surprised at first,” Mingwei says.

The experience lasts little more than three minutes, which can be deeply profound, joyous or personally moving.

“Quickly, the singer realises they can transform the person in such a way, they themselves are moved to a point of realising the gift is coming back to them – realising their power, their talent. The role of gift giver and receiver is fluid in these three and a half minutes, it’s really quite remarkable,” Mingwei says.

Other visitors watch on, and children are often the most captivated listeners, without preconceived ideas of how an art gallery experience should look or sound.

Mingwei describes his role as that of a film or theatre director. “My part is creating and directing these elements to help realise this performance,” he says.

However, the singers have one specific direction – choose anyone to perform to, except Mingwei. “Although I’m the creator of this work, I’m actually a very shy person, so I find it very hard to experience it.”

Mingwei has sat to receive the gift of song just once. It was the end of the last day of an installation, and a singer approached him to offer him the final song.

“So I sat down, but then all the other singers came out and started singing together and quickly you could just see the mess it had gotten me into, I was just balling. We all started crying and couldn’t finish the song.”

Sonic Blossom opens November 1, from 5pm to 9pm, then running daily until December 1 from 11am to 3pm.

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