Conversation and Curlew River

A river crossing is at the heart of Curlew River, Benjamin Britten’s opera now on-stage at Carolina Performing Arts. Some colleagues (Amy Weil and Aaron Shackelford) and I decided to create a river crossing of our own bringing medical students and social work students together to view and discuss this visually stunning yet perplexing work. We got together today after watching the performance last night. Over lunch, we began with one word responses to the performance: interesting, haunting, intense, dark, conflicted, provocative, and…confusing.
Yet, the story seems straight-forward enough. There is a madwoman who wanders from her home searching someone, although at first she does not tell others on stage for whom she is looking. There is a traveler who brings word of the mad woman’s ranting to a group of people waiting to cross Curlew River. There is a ferry-boat conductor who gate-keeps, choosing who and who not to let onto his boat. In time we learn that the madwoman is searching for a lost child, a child who is in fact dead and buried on the other side of the Curlew River. Although the group does not realize at first that the dead child and the person the madwoman searches for are one in the same, they take pity on her and advocate that she be allowed onto the ferry. The central question of Curlew River is how and to what degree the community represented on the stage embraces her thereby transforming her madness. The simple version is that they embrace her, a miracle occurs, and she is healed. The reality seems likely to be more complex.
Medical and social work students struggled through these questions together. Sorting through the libretto, speculating about gender roles, [note: All roles were sung by men in keeping with the Japanese Noh Theater tradition in which Curlew River was written.], wondering about the medieval Christian church’s role – helpful, superficial, callous?, talking about grief versus madness, ambiguous losses and the challenges they bring, and then…we talked about us. How do we understand the clients we see who struggle with grief and loss? How, over the course of a career, does a health care provider understand each person’s loss as unique? How do we not become callous to suffering? How do we understand each others’ professions? What are the stereotypes we carry about each other?
Quite a lot for two hours. But that’s what the arts can do. Paintings, performances, photographs, plays, symphonies, given a chance they all become, in Pastorzy’s words, “things to think with.” And perhaps as important, “things to talk with.” Even better, “things to cross rivers with,” a ferry-boat that takes us to a different shore where new journeys, not easier, but more bearable because we’re in it together, await.

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