Singing for Special Audiences

Charlie:  How important was Pro Musicis to the Voice and Guitar Duo?

Elizabeth:  It was important.  We got to do recitals in Rome, in Paris, in Borge.  I think we were in Metz and in Chartre.  They loved us in the high security prison at Borge.

Charlie:  Talk about that.

Elizabeth:  We took a taxi.  You go through the security gate.  They all know you are coming.  They check and see that it’s really you.  We had to show our passports.  We had to be on the list.  You get processed at the front desk like any other visitor and we were taken straight up to where we would perform. 

It was a big stone building that looked like it could have been a 19th Century military fortress.  They had these scary metal doors and everything goes clang.  They took us up to a gymnasium, their common area.

Charlie:  Was the audience there when you arrived?

Elizabeth:  No.  We were placed in our spot then the audience was brought.  The guards wanted each of the prisoners to sit in their appointed spot.  It was like a class attendance thing.

Charlie:  Did the room have good acoustics?

Elizabeth:  It was alright.  We’ve talked about bad concert halls before.  Often rooms that haven’t been given acoustic treatments are more lively and more fun to sing in than actual concert halls.  It might have been a bit directional but it was alright.  Father Merlet introduced the program and spoke for a moment.  He didn’t make any value judgments to them about what they should think.

Charlie:  Who was the audience?

Elizabeth:  Every age, late teens to 60’s.  Attendance was voluntary.  I was told many were there just to get out for a while and perhaps be able to pass a few notes to their colleagues.  So for the first 10 minutes there was a lot of bending and greeting and note passing. 

They were tough characters too, but we won them over.  Adelaide gets ‘em everytime (play Adelaide, read on).  Singing Adelaide for a bunch of French criminals?  Father Merlet said go for it and we did and that was the one we got them with.  They were right in the palm of our hands after that. 

Charlie:  Did you meet any of the prisoners?

Elizabeth:  (laughs) No.  It’s high security.  They had all these guards everywhere because we were sitting directly in front of them with no barrier or anything.  They wanted to make sure we were safe.

They weren’t anything like a regular audience in a concert hall.  Some had never been to a concert, never heard that kind of music.  Most of them weren’t concertgoers.  They were curious about what was going to happen, perhaps a little uncomfortable.  There were self-conscious grins, how should I behave for these people who have come to perform for me? 

The first impression, when you hear music you’ve never heard before is going to be mild surprise but interest.  I noticed a few who obviously had culture experience and were glad to be there because they’d missed it.  Most of them were on a discovery tour.

Charlie:  Did you present a program that was any different because of where you were going?

Elizabeth:  No.  Father Merlet encouraged us to keep the program as close to the programs we gave in the public concerts as possible.  He didn’t want us playing down to or for the special audiences.  The whole point was to present the same genre, quality and type of music that we were performing for the regular concert-going public.  He wanted us to do Beethoven and Schubert.

Charlie:  How many showed up?

Elizabeth:  We had two groups.  The men first, may be 40.  Then there were 35 or 40 women after that.

Charlie:  Which was the better crowd?

Elizabeth:  The men fell harder and faster because a little eye contact with a female is unusual.  The men were all charmed, you know because--be nice to the lady.  They were all very chivalrous.

Charlie:  Were there any attitudes?

Elizabeth:  Yea, there was an attitude in the women.  I didn’t notice any with the guys, they were too busy being bemused by the presence of a woman singing for them.  The ladies were less prone to that kind of “siren charm” you could say.  They might look at other women in a more competitive way.  There was a certain adversarial mood from some of the, I’ll call them, alpha women.  There was this one woman who was obviously the alpha girl.  She put on an attitude.  She sat right in the front and started staring me down and trying to distract me by wiggling her foot the whole time.  It took a little while to win her over but the moment she quieted down and began to listen all the other women relaxed.  They were taking their lead from her.  I knew she was the one I had to reach.  It was a group dynamic that would be unique to that situation.  You wouldn’t find that in a typical audience.

Charlie:  How did you do that?

Elizabeth:  You use pure sincerity.

Charlie:  Do you remember what piece you were on when she came around?

Elizabeth:  That was the Beethoven, the Adelaide, it’s special. 

Charlie:  Did you do any talking or explaining?

Elizabeth:  A very little bit.  I wasn’t such a good French speaker.

Charlie:  Did they mind?  

Elizabeth:  They were impressed that I even tried.  I had a little help, there was someone there to translate for me.  I did make an effort to speak French.

It takes a lot of organization to sing in a place like that and only a Catholic priest could get it done.

What you learn interacting with special audiences is that your sincerity factor, artistic personality, magnetism, have to be played big.  You also have to play it honest because they will see right through you.  You’ve got to have every ounce of charm in your body to get to those folks.  You are going to learn to put out the right stuff performing for special audiences.

For Pro Musicis we would do a public concert then we would do one of these special things.  They were adventures.  We played in the AIDS ward of a Paris hospital, another interesting experience.  We did bed side concerts because the guitar could go anyplace.  We would go to hospital rooms and play for the patients who couldn’t get up.  Pro Musicis was significant for me.  They sponsored debut recitals in New York, Boston, San Francisco, and then in Europe.  Pro Musicis enriched my career a lot.

(Interview with Elizabeth Parcells 2005)