The Artist’s Struggle: In Honour of Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston (1963-2012)

When someone of significant talent and stature dies, the world stops to look. The world stopped to look at Whitney Houston on February 11, 2012. Some of you might be wondering why I would post a memorial to this artist who had nothing to do with opera. Well, this blog is not specifically about opera, although that’s what I tend to write about the most. It is about music, about artist, and about consciousness. Frankly put: Whitney Houston had one of the greatest voices in the world, she excelled at her craft, and she was a true Diva in the elegant and classic sense of the word. My heart broke after hearing the news of her passing and for me it felt much like when Luciano Pavarotti passed away, or Joan Sutherland. The feeling of loss, of that voice leaving, ceasing to vibrate, was just as great.

Why is it that now, after all her very public suffering, we have stopped to look at what we now realize was great; what we now realize was in our midst and perhaps taken out of the equation due to Ms. Houston’s own battles and struggles. Let’s not be trite people! If we think that the great opera singers of the past didn’t have their issues and their struggles with personal or psychological issues, addiction, or relationships, we can think again. Even in Chopin’s day, artists struggled. Isn’t it really the struggle of the artist that lures us most unequivocally into their world? And what kind of artists would we be if we didn’t struggle? I continue to see examples of the media’s perception, that which they project on Ms. Houston’s life as a “screw up,” as a “drug-addict,” as an “erratic woman.” I am not saying that Whitney was without blame.  She made certain choices that absolutely affected her voice and her public image, however this is not the time to flaunt those choices and the media ought to be ashamed of itself.  Interestingly enough, centuries ago, Beethoven, Puccini, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, and Schumann (to name but a few)were perceived in the same way, based on their behaviour and on their choices, on what they couldn’t help but display to a society that had NO IDEA what truly brewed within them.

A stunning woman all of her life, and perhaps even more lovely in her 40s than in her youth (at least in my opinion), Ms. Houston gave. She was blessed with a magnificent voice, a type we may never hear again in this lifetime or ever. But as much as she gave, the public always wanted more, didn’t we? We always push, we always seem to get a thrill over watching the artist’s struggle, don’t we? Look at yourself and ask, “How thrilling is it to go to the Met and watch (fill in the blank with the name of your favourite artist) sing (fill in the name of the most difficult aria you can think of) and hope that they don’t crack or waiver or go out of pitch, or fall on their face?” Artists walk a tight rope every time they get on a stage, especially in opera where the luxury of auto-tuning and PA systems don’t really exist. We’re so quick to judge and we even pay money to go and judge.

And so what if Whitney was unhappy. So what if she struggled with her own demons. So what if she got tired after 20 years of travelling the world and singing with that amazing instrument to screaming audiences. How soon we forgot that instrument and instead judged according to her habits, her weakness. And don’t we all have our own weaknesses, or are we invincible and Ms. Houston, unfortunately, wasn’t as strong as the rest of us? I’m sure you can tell that my tone here is slightly angered and frustrated and it is not directed at the majority of people who felt like they lost a childhood friend, it is directed at those who continue to look at her and see a bottle of pills or a bottle of wine and somewhere behind that mirage is the glimmer of the voice. It’s kind of like that drinking and driving commercial where they continue to put a beer glass in the way of the windshield while someone is driving. As glass after glass is placed in front of the other, the vision in front of the car is impaired and this is what I feel happened to Whitney Houston. Because the media kept placing glass after glass in front of us, on TV, in magazines, newspapers, gossip blogs, etc…the vision in front of us got blurred and we soon dismissed it.

I wonder what it would have taken for Whitney to receive the kind of attention she’s getting now, had she remained alive? It is quite sad that her new movie “Sparkle” was due to come out in August because apparently she was great in it and she certainly looked magnificent in the interviews that have already been broadcast.

And what if she was your sister, friend, mother, daughter? For most of us who grew up with her, she was a friend. I spoke to many people over the weekend who were in mourning as if they had been part of her life. I felt the same. I sobbed. Sobbed outright when when her voice began “If I…should stay…” as those men lifted her glowing casket into the air in front of her bereaved mother and daughter. In my mind, I kept thinking, “As good as she was, she was a human being and she suffered more than anyone should have to.” None of us knew what this sensitive soul actually felt and whether or not she felt she was good enough. Kevin Costner’s tribute hit the nail on the head and his words rang truths that everyone should keep in mind the next time they want to “judge” an artist.

The next time you go to an opera and watch a singer get on stage to deliver their best, think about the fact that they are a human being and that they have a life that might be filled with struggle but they still choose to get on that stage and sing for you. Sure, music criticism exists and it has existed as a craft and and art for centuries now. Constructively criticizing performances based on excellence and authenticity to the style is one thing, standing in judgement of the human being in front of you, is not. Whitney Houston was on her way back, wanted to have our attention, wanted to give again, had seemed to conquer her struggles at least for awhile, and yet too late. Whatever happened to this dear soul doesn’t matter. What matters is what she ALWAYS gave, that she always had our attention, and for those of us who loved her, she always had our hearts.

Who could forget this?

Wherever she is now, she will never be forgotten and in the months to come we will learn what caused her death, perhaps why, and be reminded of her beautiful presence when “Sparkle” is released in the movie theatres. As Twitter and various blogs continue to pour in with condolences, grief, and shock, eventually that will die down. Eventually, only a few people will show up to a cemetery that has now barred its entrance to the general public in order to offer some peace to a family that lost a loved one. Eventually, the name Whitney Houston will become legendary but how we choose to remember her TODAY, in the time that she lived, seems more relevant than how she will be remembered in the future. God Bless this yet young woman who gave us her heart and on February 11th broke ours. I think if we all had a wish, we would love to have her back. Perhaps this will teach us to love and show our adoration to those artists who remain and continue to give. Remember that the next time you go to a concert and absolutely the next time you go to the opera.

Whitney Houston