The Breathless Beauty of Jacques Brel
Operatic mezzo-soprano Jacqui Dark discusses what makes the master of chanson such a pleasure to sing.
What makes the music of Jacques Brel so special to you?
"Let me become
The shadow of your shadow
The shadow of your hand
The shadow of your dog."
… and with those words, I fell in love with the extraordinary poetry of Jacques Brel.
These lyrics are from one of Brel’s most famous songs of heartbreak Ne me quitte pas (Don’t leave me), sung by a soul desperately in love but knowing that there is no longer any hope, yet still offering to give anything in the world if their lover will just stay with them. Don’t leave me. I will give to you pearls of rain from countries where it never rains… I won’t cry anymore. I won’t talk anymore. I will hide over there, to watch you dance and smile. We’ve all been there, and it aches right down to the very core.
Brel’s songs hit me squarely in the heart. They kick me in the chest and leave me breathless. His lyrics are deep and cynical and true and beautiful, and singing them is the greatest gift because he can encompass a human soul like no other. From a grimy, belligerent sailor who dies ‘full of beer and full of cries’ in an Amsterdam port to a privileged, spoilt ‘early morning hangers-on’, he invites you to exist inside these lives and for a tiny sliver of time inhabit these other beings, these other worlds.
Do you have any favourite songs/chansons by brel?
Ne me quitte pas has always been one of my favourite songs, and I always thought it would be my standout favourite if I were ever to write a Brel show… but as I delved deeper into his incredible worlds, I found that I could no longer pick a favourite. I love singing about The Devil observing all on Earth and seeing that it is good, about the two old lovers who have been together for so long that passion has ebbed away but what remains may be even stronger, about the sons we have lost, about being alone, about the kind of people who might turn up at your funeral, about how the very worst thing is watching a friend cry. Every song is a masterpiece and a study of the human condition. From the very top of the social strata to the very bottom, nobody is left untouched by Brel’s razor-sharp yet elegantly expressed observations.
Singing Brel is dipping your toe into different worlds and being sucked deep into different lives, emerging shaking or heartbroken or elated or ecstatic… and ready to dive straight into the next one! You cannot just sing these songs; you have to live them. You have to inhabit them, and honour the worlds and people he has created by throwing every part of your soul into them and bringing your whole self to the stories. It’s exhausting and wonderful and cathartic, and after the carousel, I always feel that everyone in the room has met some new friends and seen some new hearts open before them, and we have all spun around on this wonderful, kaleidoscopic ride together!
What’s in store for your A Little Lunch Music performance?
I am so excited to be bringing Brel to City Recital Hall. Brel is all about simplicity, truth and atmosphere, and the Recital Hall seems the perfect venue to pull the focus down to a fine point on the storytelling. It’s one of the things I love the most about singing here – you can create moments of huge drama and moments of intense silence. You have the whole spectrum of dynamics, both vocally and emotionally, to paint with, and that is a rare and wonderful opportunity. I cannot wait to hear how Brel’s brilliant songs sound in that incredible acoustic!
You've recently appeared in a number of big ensemble productions, How does it feel to be switching gears for a solo cabaret show?
I’ve just performed The Loves of Apollo and Dafne with Pinchgut Opera at City Recital Hall, so it feels a bit like coming home! Apollo and Dafne let me flex my comedy chops, and there’s certainly a bit of that in the Brel show, albeit the darker side of the comedy spectrum. I went straight from that to singing in Anna Karenina with The Australian Ballet, which was brilliantly expansive Russian singing, with moments of lyrical tragedy seamlessly interwoven with folk songs of hope and joy, so I feel that my lead-up to this show could not have been more appropriate!
When I began writing this show, I sat down with my Musical Director Daryl Wallis and Creative Advisor Sam Russell and shared the list of Brel songs I was dying to sing. Suffice to say, the show would have been seven hours long. At least! One of the toughest parts of creating the show was deciding which songs to keep and which songs to cut. Every single song is a sliver of genius and my heart broke a little each time I agreed to lose one from the list until those still standing had well and truly earned their place in the program.
That said, I’m utterly determined to pop them all back in for my sequel shows in years to come. Brel II? Back To Brel? Brelentless?
I’m not fussed about the name, as long as I get to sing his songs forever!
Jacqui Dark sings Brel at City Recital Hall on Tuesday 20 July, as a part of our A Little Lunch Music series.BOOK NOW