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Haunted

Cincinnati Music Hall has a “paranormal” section in its Wikipedia entry. Built in 1876 over what was previously an orphanage, a lunatic asylum, and a paupers’ cemetery, I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said this place has a certain … vibe. Even the skeptics here seem to acknowledge that weird happenings are more likely than not. “I’ve never seen anything personally,” they say, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw that little boy running around here at some point.” As I go to rehearsal, riding up strange dark escalators (which seem incongruous in such an old, Gothic building), I feel like I’m in the right place for a performance of Maria de Buenos Aires.

As I’ve mentioned before in this space, I’m into the idea of the performing artist as conjurer. We’re obsessed with the ghosts of composers and old styles of music. As we open our books and play or sing the notes written by dead people, unspoken energy is passed among the musicians and the spirit of the composer is brought back to life in real time, ritualistically. And we all know that feeling, when the performance is really good: it’s uncanny. This conjuring that we attempt in music is an old idea, much older than the music itself. Do I believe in ghosts and spirits? Maybe … but I do believe in the conjuring energy.

Maria de Buenos Aires is all about this. In fact, the tango itself is a spirit here, a beautiful woman who walks the streets, is born, killed, and reborn. She causes people to fall in love, to rape and murder, to create, to destroy. She shakes people out of indifference into a heightened, sensual, primal state. In other words, she’s hot. Of course, this is the spirit of the tango itself. We all know the rhythm – it’s hot as well. But what astonishes me about tango is the minor-key energy that gives the rhythm its color. You could call it dark eroticism, but there’s more to it than that. It’s a mournfulness, a sense that it’s already over while it’s happening, that it’s an echo. This is what makes the tango one of the most haunted forms of music I know. When we do enter the rare major-key zones of the opera, they’re jarring. It doesn’t feel quite right, and as a listener one feels a bit like a vampire cast out into the sun. This also happens to Maria’s shadow as she’s exiled to walk the streets during the day, seeking protection in the shadows of the trees and chimneys.

The eroticism, darkness, mournfulness, and nostalgia of the tango create a unique conjuring power: they irresistibly turn the performers AND listeners into … creatures of the night.

It’s a special kind of fun to be one of the conjurers of this energy. I’m glad we’re performing this opera in the ballroom of a haunted hall, and I’m relieved that there’s no matinĂ©e, so when we all walk out of the hall, it won’t be into the light, but into the night and its mysteries.