Magic Moment and Creative Chaos

Mysterious woman in magic moment

I’ve always been fascinated by the chemistry of the magic moment and the creative chaos out of which it so often emerges in works of the imagination. And I mean always.

Long before I analysed A-Level texts or read any of the learned works on story structure, I knew there was a point in my favourite fantasies where time seemed to slow. Everything became both more meaningful and more mysterious.

They were the places in the book which I re-read, again and again. The moments I went back to in the CD. The words I waited for, breathless, in the theatre.

 Amid Nonsense

Last month I went to Glyndebourne, always beautiful in countless ways, to hear a seldom heard Baroque opera, Hipermestra by Cavalli. Now this is my sort of music and I expected great things of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, under William Christie and the singers. (I got them.)

death dealing bride and her victim, GlyndebourneBut frankly I didn’t expect much from the production. The story is violent, loopy and unbelievable. The Spectator called it insufferable rubbish.

Eastern potentate has 50 daughters, whom he makes marry his 50 nephews and then murder them on their wedding night. A soothsayer told him that one of the boys will kill him. The girls, all but one, do as they’re told.

Guess the rest.

Magic Moment

British soldier playing violin on a tank, 1st world warBefore the opera started, the director, Graham Vick, had brides and grooms going walkabout in the blissful gardens.

But post wedding, he’d gone from love to conflict, in a Middle Eastern War vibe. In current world circumstances, I found this hateful and shallow.

BUT there was this magic moment…

Start of the second half. The set is a bombed city in ruins, real believable ruins. A single violinist is on the stage.

She is dressed in Middle Eastern work clothes, playing to the open sky and the rubble that war has left.

Magic of the Unexpected

Magic Moment William Christie handAt the very top of the ruined wall a hand appears, flailing, feeling for a hold. I know that hand.

And then, as another violinist joins in, then another, conductor William Christie, in costume, gropes his way down twenty foot or so of set and into the pit. And all the while, the music mourns and yearns and endures.

Meaningful and Mysterious

And suddenly this is The Musician and War. This is more than a ridiculous story that nobody can bring themselves even to pretend to believe.

Ivor Gurney composer and poetThis is Ivor Gurney writing his songs by candlelight in a dugout and returning changed for ever.

This is Myra Hess playing her lunch time concerts at the National Gallery during the Blitz.

This is a Syrian refugee persuading a hostile policeman to release him by playing his violin.

This is Theresienstadt.

Magic Moment in Otello

Covent Garden has just mounted a new production of Verdi’s Otello, Jonas Kaufmann as Otello and Maria Agresta as Desdemona. A devotee of the opera took me to see the live broadcast performance on last Wednesday night.

Magic Moment Otello and Desdemona GuarnieriI know Shakespeare better than Verdi and I think Otello is an idiot in both. How could he believe Iago? But a devotee can open your eyes.

And yes, Otello was still an idiot – especially as this Iago looked positively devilish right from the start. Desdemona was dim, too. And yes, there were some unfortunate directorial decisions on staging which made me giggle, when I wasn’t averting my eyes.

Otello Act 1 Jonas KaufmannBUT there was this magic moment when I was utterly there –  Otello and Desdemona, twits both, look at the stars and reminisce about how they met and fell in love.

The terrible irony is that the seeds of their conflict are already starting to sprout. They think that they have reached their safe harbour. We know this is the lull before the storm. But in just the moment they are so divinely content. Perfection.

Magic Moment Stands Alone

My point is that the magic moment stands alone – you can dislike, even despise, all sorts of elements of the surrounding paraphernalia. The story can be drivel, the protagonist a moron. That moment of absolute magic is all the more powerful because it comes flying out of the stars and hits you in the solar plexus.


Moral: to all writers and artists everywhere, You don’t have to be perfect!

8 thoughts on “Magic Moment and Creative Chaos

  1. Louise Allen

    My father used to go and listen to Myra Hess playing in the National Gallery when he was on leave in London – even decades later hearing Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring could stop him in his tracks with tears in his eyes

    1. Sophie Post author

      My mother too, to both.

      She used to walk to Trafalgar Square from Langham Place where she worked for the BBC. Apparently it was accepted that you had a longer-than-usual lunch hour if you wanted to go to a National Gallery Concert. She had the sheet music of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and it was one thing that she would still play, long after she’d stopped playing regularly. As a result, I suppose, it means a lot to me too.

  2. christinahollis

    A wonderful post. It was good that your patience with ‘Hipermestra’ was rewarded, and I’m glad somebody else thinks Othello was a twit for swallowing all that nonsense. Jonas Kaufmann as the operatic lead must have been worth seeing. I was told that during one of Myra Hess’s lunchtime concerts the air-raid siren sounded. Everyone got up and began to leave, until Dame Myra thundered; “Sit down. I haven’t finished yet.” And they did!

    1. Sophie Post author

      Dame Myra was seriously impressive. But then so were all the people who went. Apparently one day the National Gallery had taken a hit and they had to move venues, but they were back the next!

    2. Joanna

      The Myra Hess story made me laugh. Thank you, Christina. Dame Myra seems to have been truly impressive. Of course — whisper it softly — we have a scary Dame of our own, in the hive…

    3. Joanna

      Christina, I’m another who agreed that Othello was a twit for swallowing it all. Then I saw the NT production in modern dress, with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear. I thought the handkerchief nonsense could never work in modern dress. But I was wrong. The stunning acting of those two made me believe. Another truly magical moment.

  3. Elizabeth Bailey

    So agree about magic moments. I’ve seen films and plays both where I was fidgeting most of the time and then suddenly, something happens that captures you, even briefly. Memory is dotted with these moments, often I can’t remember the rest of the story or the title, but the magic moment sits there to be revisited.

    As for Othello, is there ever rhyme or reason to a man’s jealousy of his lover/wife? Or vice versa. Is it insecurity rather than idiocy? Unable to believe that this beautiful woman truly loves him. Shakespeare makes Iago very persuasive and clever, which I think makes Othello’s belief allowable.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Interesting that you’ve had the same experience, Liz. I’ve been a long time catching on!

      As for Othello, in Shakespeare, he starts off as a man of good sense and perfect judgement – “Put up your bright swords for the dew will rust them,: he says to the squabbling Venetians. And when he’s dying he describes himself as “one not easily jealous, but being wrought, Perplexed in the extreme.” So it’s all Iago’s doing then!

      The only Iago I ever saw make Iago believable was, oddly enough, neither Verdi nor Shakespeare, but the rock musical of the story put together by Jack Good. Iago was physically the most impressive person on stage (Lance le Gault I think) dressed up like a cross between The Lone Ranger and a really grim Country and Western Singer. Rough Power personified and just a bit scary. Also a good ol’ boy whom other men would be glad to have on their side.

      I can still hear the chill with which he said after the departing Othello, “Ah’m a-gonna catch yo soul.” Othello didn’t have a chance with that Iago unless he cut him right out of his life. If you engaged with him at all, you went under his spell. As, of course, they all do.

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