Eve Klein is a mezzo who invites audiences to witness and experience the internal workings of the voice in her experimental project Vocal Womb. Part performance and installation, Klein wears a laryngoscope that captures footage of her vocal chords while she sings, as contact microphones pick up and enhance her inhalations and exhalations, amplifying the sense of bodily organs at work. With this project, Klein asks audience members to consider what having a voice means. Klein spoke to Limelight about the project.

Eve Klein, Vocal WombEve Klein

Where did the idea for Vocal Womb come from?

I have a background as a professional mezzo-soprano and have been training and working as an opera singer for the last 15 years. Opera singers train for a minimum of 10 years and, unlike other musicians, our instruments are hidden from view inside our bodies. At its best, opera is able to transport its audiences to the sublime heights and depths of human emotions, but only if the voice is perfectly rendered. For singers, performance can be a fight against the agency of our own bodies which are fallible, volatile, and highly responsive to our inner emotional state. By performing opera, we seek to control our bodies and conceal our own self in service to the music we sing – but there are many times when our human fragility is involuntarily asserted in the cracked note, the quaver and the glitch.

My relationship with my voice, while perhaps exaggerated by my profession, is symbolic of the struggle of many who are seeking to find or assert their literal or metaphorical voices against forces beyond their control. Vocal Womb was inspired by these reflections and a question: how would our understanding of ‘voice’ change if rather than emanating from within, its quivering mechanisms were exposed to view?

What will you be performing?

I have composed original music for the Vocal Womb performances thanks to a commission by the APRA AMCOS Art Music Fund. The music sets text by two Australian writers, Quinn Eades and Virginia Barratt and takes the form of two extended operatic arias. The work has an ambient post-classical feel about it and the sonics will change everyday in response to audience interactions.

How does the audience engage with Vocal Womb 

Audiences can watch an entire performance like a concert or drop in and out as they wish. There is also an installation component where the audience can experience a non-real-time version of the work. Importantly there is no “correct” way to engage with the work.

During the performances, the audience will witness me being “dressed” in medical devices. I’ll be inserting the laryngoscope with the audience present and also attaching stethoscopes to my heart, lungs and intestines so that the sounds of my internal bodily functions can be heard in real-time. There is a mixing station in the performance space and the audience is invited to remix the sounds of my body while I’m performing – isolating audio from my heart or stomach etc. One fascinating part of opera singing is that you sing with your whole body, so the resonances of my voice will be present in each of the audio feeds, distorted by inhalation, tissue and bone. This also allows the audience to verify that the performance they are witnessing is genuine.

Why do you think audiences will be drawn to something like this?

Vocal Womb is a playful and intimate experience which encourages interactivity. Audiences can get very close to me while I’m singing and see how my internal physical body is responding in real-time through live video and audio feeds. Audience interactions will be part of that encounter and my physical response. Vocal Womb presents a novel experience for new audiences and opera aficionados alike and will definitely attract the curious.

How long has this project been in development? Has it been a smooth or difficult journey to its realisation?

Vocal Womb has been in development for two years. There have been many challenges to bringing the work together, ranging from technology integration to funding. As a performer, learning to sing with the device inserted has been one of the creative challenges driving the work. I’m grateful to be working with an excellent creative team including my main collaborator and technical creative Ravi Glasser-Vora, performer AñA Wojak and writers Quinn Eades and Virginia Barratt. The work also wouldn’t have been possible without SITUATE Art in Festivals, the Australia Council for the Arts, the APRA AMCOS Art Music Fund and the University of Queensland’s School of Music who have all provided support which has enabled the development of this project. With a project of this size and complexity it takes a whole community to bring it to fruition.

Have you always been interested in the inner workings of the voice? 

My training as an opera singer always made me curious about vocal function and its impact upon musical sound, but I’ve also been preoccupied with the emotional and philosophical nature of having a “voice”. Where we are born, to whom, the physical structures and limitation of our bodies, and the ways our lives progress all shape the kinds of voices we have, and our ability to express ourselves to the world both individually and collectively. For those without voices, or with different kinds of voices or vocal expressions, their experiences are negotiated in relationship to the context of voices around them. It’s this collective negotiation of voice that makes vocal music so compelling. The fact that certain kinds of voices and vocal expressions – say, the extremities of voice deployed by Diamanda Galás, or heavy metal growling or rapping or opera – are still confronting to some of us, while being celebrated by others, shows how contested a space voice remains. And it’s these challenges and affinities of voice that enable it to be such an evocative and vivid part of our cultural expression.

What kind of responses have you received when you’ve explained your project to others? 

Most people have been extremely curious about how the work will look and sound. I’ve had lots of people asking me what it feels like to sing while wearing a laryngoscope. 

Do you see the festival atmosphere as being complementary to your show? 

Absolutely! Vocal Womb is being staged in MONA’s Barrel Room which is a cool, quiet, light-sealed space. To enter the Barrel Room you descend down a set of stairs and enter a concrete chamber which is highly reverberant and almost church-like. It’s a wonderful sounding space and smells like old port because of the barrels of wine maturing around the walls. Vocal Womb complements the rest of MOFO because it provides a space for stepping out of the festival bustle allowing you to resettle your bodily senses. The work’s thematic also connects very strongly to the bodily-orientation of the main MONA gallery collections.

Are there similar projects in the pipeline for you?  

In 2018 I’m also composing two other operas, Red River and Tryptich and PostscriptRed River confronts the realities of drought and how it affects those living in the most remote areas of Australia. Jordin Steele is Red River’s artistic director and she’s been working closely with communities in Central Western Queensland to capture real people’s stories as a key part of the work. Tryptich and Postscript is a radio opera drawing parallels from Australia’s colonial past to the current day offshore detention of asylum seekers and will feature text by Ravi Glasser-Vora and vocal performances by Shawn Brown and Sarah Crane.

Vocal Womb will also tour international festivals and galleries for a couple of years after the MOFO premiere and there will be a Vocal Womb audio-visual album coming in early 2019.

What do you hope audiences will take away?

I want each audience member to have an individual encounter with my body and my voice. If audiences reflect on some of the themes that have been shaping the way I’m developing the work then that’s a bonus. In particular, I’m hoping that audiences will confront the contradictions of our voices – who gets to wield them and what that means for our humanity. But you can never predict how an audience will interpret a work, and in allowing the audience access to manipulating the outputs of my body I’m placing my trust in them and their own ways of making meaning from the experience.

Vocal Womb plays as part of MONA FOMA from January 19 – January 21.