When I agreed to perform in a London nightclub this past summer, I hadn’t really thought about the challenges the venue would pose to the music. I was told the concert would be in Bermondsey Tunnel, which I took to be the name of the club. And when my car stopped in the middle of an actual tunnel, I feared that I might be taped up, transferred to another car, thrown in the trunk and held for ransom! But it turned out that this serviceman’s entrance in the middle of the tunnel was the entrance to the club itself.
Going in, I saw brick walls and a black hole that would become my stage. The London tube rumbled overhead. There were beanbags for chairs, crates for stairs to the stage, and an open bar within eyeshot that would be serving drinks throughout the performance. I felt like a firefighter assessing the damage of a burning blaze and found myself becoming methodical: I had one hour to convince myself and my fellow musicians that this classical set — a Baroque set, no less — was going to work in the space.
After mapping out where the orchestra was going to stand and wedging the proverbial bull — in the form of a harpsichord — into the china shop, it hit us: how was anyone going to hear us amid the noisy crowd and all their clinking drinks? How do you amplify a classical band without sounding tacky and fake?
I insisted on mics for everyone, choosing to amplify our sound a bit in order to even it out for all the acts. At this point, I started to imagine future headlines: “Danielle de Niese Amplified Classical Set in Nightclub! Disaster! Failure!”
But I could not have imagined the throngs of enthusiastic, screaming fans — grown adults squealing with delight — queued for the small venue. As a performer, I love to connect with the audience, but have gotten used to not always knowing how or when the public will react, given that concert-hall audiences hold their emotions and applause until the end of a concert. I was so grateful that this nightclub audience felt free to respond immediately.
And I have to say, Baroque isn’t broke! It not only worked in this atmosphere, but thrived and got a whole new audience tapping their feet to the sounds of Handel, Monteverdi, Purcell and Bach. The same screaming audience fell dead silent during the arias and songs. Had this been a classical-venue performance, I would have been proud to present that concert to the strictest of purists, as I felt nothing had been watered down or compromised to fit the venue. What started out as an experiment actually turned out to be a viable avenue for people to see classical music performed in a new context.
Soprano Danielle de Niese’s latest album is Beauty of the Baroque (Decca).