While travelling through a small Tasmanian town I passed a bric-a-brac shop – in the window was a luminous green vintage sewing machine. Upon entering the shop I was submerged by the honeyed tones of a counter tenor singing baroque – my senses converged on the waves of music, the array of objects – wicker baskets, tea cups, crocheted rugs, books, glassware – a jumble of times past, a hoard of the bygone.
The proprietor was singular, commanding. She wore a large kaftan with a satin sheen and sharp red lipstick. Her hair was audaciously black and her eyewear too – but it was her voice, her voice… It was deep and sonorous; its tones billowed and caressed like the slippery folds of her kaftan and hinted at a life beyond bric-a-brac.
I complemented her taste in music and as we chatted she disclosed that she herself had been a singer – she had been known as the ‘lady bass’. She was a contralto who had specialised in baroque music and had trained with the best, but had had a crisis of confidence and had fallen silent for the past 12 years.
It was striking to discover the parts of our stories that overlapped. I too am a trained contralto and have not sung professionally for many years now; I too had a major crisis of confidence. As I commiserated and began to hint at my own decade of silence, I asked what had caused her to stop singing, if she missed it. It was then that a wave of pain crossed her face, a wave that I recognised – I had stepped too close to the source of her pain. She did not answer.
Song is a beautiful tyrant – its absence is felt as keenly as its presence. A singer in the exile of silence endures the horrible nagging ambivalence of losing faith in the thing that once defined them. A lapsed singer understands that song is both a source of transcendence and destruction; it has been the thing that constituted your very being but has also dismantled you in some way.
In the silence doubt and yearning grow. In trying to rebuild your identity without song at it’s core, you keep your own voice hidden from yourself, erase it from any imagining of future possibilities – but the seed of it sits there in the back of your mind and throat like a degrading heirloom, a missed opportunity.
We stood quietly for moment, eyes not meeting.
I bought the green sewing machine and a single elegant, yellow cup.