Stephane Senechal sings from his window in Paris, France on March 26. Photo: AFP
Faced with the fear and boredom of the coronavirus lockdown, music is playing a small but important part in making life more bearable for some French people who are being treated to nightly balcony performances.
Every evening at 7 pm, tenor Stephane Senechal throws open the window of his apartment in Paris’s 9th arrondissement and sounds off with an aria.
“When I see the smiles that I bring each evening with my songs, that gives me great pleasure,” he told AFP.
“All day long, we are told of tragic things, such as the dead. When I see smiles, I see hope. It’s a little moment of freedom, of escape,” he said.
Senechal says he lives in a neighborhood where “there are a lot of elderly people” and it was a moment of reflection from an 80-year-old neighbor at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown that pushed him to sing at his window.
“She told me we will feel even more isolated. I was rehearsing the role of Don Jose in Carmen at the time and after this remark I decided to sing at the window,” he said.
Senechal started by singing the “Marseillaise.” Then he linked each nightly recital with variations of “I gave you my heart” from Franz Lehar’s operetta The Land of Smiles, the 1935 Mexican song “Piensa en mi” – sung by Luz Casal in Pedro Almodovar’s High Heels — as well as the song “Caruso,” Edith Piaf’s “The Hymn to Love” and an “Ave Maria” dedicated “to all the suffering.”
Senechal also likes to let go with “E Lucevan le stelle” from Puccini’s opera Tosca. He considers this especially apt because of its last sentence: “‘E non ho amato mai tanto la vita! (I have never loved life so much) We understand the importance of life. And we can’t give up now,” he says.
His balcony recitals appear to have drifted far across the rooftops of the 9th.
“A patient with COVID-19 and hospitalized in Bichat [a hospital in the north of Paris] saw one of my videos and said ‘keep going.’ For me, that makes it all worthwhile.”
Since the start of self-isolation in France, as in Italy and Spain, initiatives like this have flourished. Montreuil, in the eastern suburbs of the capital, has been particularly active, regularly sharing videos of a violinist, a guitarist or a singer on their balconies.
The “BachDesBalcons” online initiative, launched by Classical Revolution France, a movement imported from the United States, encourages musicians to play Bach at their windows.
Across the nation
“There are dozens of us playing every week from Montpellier to Paris, via Nantes, Strasbourg or Lille,” Sarah Niblack, director of Classical Revolution France, told AFP. “Bach is the greatest of companions, you are never alone with your music.”
An American who has lived in France for several years, Niblack has been based in Prades, in the southwest, since the beginning of confinement, and says she is happy to bring “comfort and a little moment when people come together,” in these times of isolation.
“People recognize me now, even when I do my shopping with a mask and gloves. I am told in the streets that I am the girl who plays Bach,” said Niblack, a violist who has played in several national orchestras.
Like many freelance workers, she has suffered professionally from the lockdown, and having seen six contracts canceled since the outbreak, she remains upbeat about the power of music.
“We are not useful in a hospital, but we can make a little difference in people’s lives. They appreciate that we are thinking of them.”
Also in Paris, from his balcony overlooking Boulevard Saint-Michel, in the heart of the bohemian Latin quarter, Camilo Peralta, a cellist with the Ile-de-France National Orchestra, plays Bach suites at noon, much to the pleasure of neighbors and the occasional passersby.
“We are inevitably caught up in the situation because every time I play, an ambulance drives by,” he says.
Newspaper headline: France sings lockdown