NYU Skirball Theater, New York
January 24, 2018

“What if a piece were so quiet and so intimate and so personal to the performers that you needed to be right next to them or you would hear almost nothing?” That is the intriguing premise for The Whisper Opera, the latest boundary challenging work from Pulitzer Prize winner and Bang on a Can founder David Lang. An antidote to the easily available, eminently snackable music grabs that are on offer nowadays via the internet, the piece is designed to combat our sedentary stay at home tendencies. A work with a score stating that it may never be recorded, or filmed, or amplified demands that we get off our backsides and experience it live. So far, so good.

Alice Teyssier (voice) and Chris Gross (cello) in The Whisper Opera. Photo © Ian Douglas

Entering the Skirball auditorium, the first thing question that arises is where do we sit? On the stage, that’s where. The modest set, draped in white gauze like a microscopic corner of heaven (direction and design are by Jim Findlay), has a mere 52 seats distributed across eight trenches. We perch, heads poking up at stage floor level like troops about to go over the top. Sitting alone waiting for the off, one listens intently, acoustically aware that you can hear every word as the rest of the audience chats. Across the way, two men discuss the merits of Sonya Yoncheva’s Tosca and her chemistry with Vittorio Grigolo; someone in my trench seems to know David Lang; across the way, a handsome lady ducks under the rostra where we exchange a subterranean wave.

One by one, the four musicians enter. Unlike the average opera house auditorium (more like a sanatorium at times) you can hear a pin drop. Simply spun suspended cymbals initially make no noise at all. We crane our ears for the first sounds. “Cry”, “Think of you”, “Seek warmth”, “Hear my friend in my head”… At first it is the musicians who speak, each one isolated in their own quarter of the theatrical space, the texts displaying a penchant for fragmentation of which Becket or Kutág might be proud. Flutist Claire Chase, Zachary Good on clarinet, cellist Chris Gross and Ross Karre on percussion turn out to be adepts of the art of whispering, their eyes, which occasionally lock with individual audience members, heightening the sense of confidences shared. Despite the fact that the musicians (each one a part of the brilliant International Contemporary Ensemble, or ICE) appear to play from iPads, there’s clearly an element of “in your own time” about The Whisper Opera.

Finally, a voice sings a wordless three note refrain and the soprano Tony Arnold enters the space, a gifted singer noted for her commitment to experimental work. In fact, this is almost all she will sing, as she rapidly relapses into the same fragmented phrases as the others. Of course, describing any of these moments feels transgressive, as if this is exactly what the composer doesn’t want. Only the immediate experience is valid – the here and now. It’s the intensity of our concentration that counts, and a blessed stillness so rare in today’s concert hall or theatre. “Think about you, dream about us together”, “I feel like my husband’s shadow follows me”… You sense there’s something conspiratorial at hand.

Percussionist Ross Karre in The Whisper Opera. Photo © Ian Douglas

A cello plays, followed by a flute and clarinet who join a glockenspiel, but quiet, oh so quiet, their notes flecking the silence. In fact, the quartet are required to play quietly enough throughout so that we still hear every phrase whispered by the singer during her endless perambulations. (The text has the quality of thought rather than a speech, and perhaps that’s the point. We are inside heads here, not quite in the real world). “I’ll show them”, “I knew who I was”. Paranoia and neuroses are in the air, plus a whiff of the asylum accompanies Arnold’s obsessive movements. “I’m not the crazy one”, “I’m not the one whispering out loud”. An ironic laugh relieves the moment.

Fingernails on a drum sound like gentle wind or heavy breathing while bass flute and bass clarinet underpin memories of lovemaking on a balmy summer afternoon. At times we catch only some of the notes, like half-heard sentences. At one point I am acutely aware of the sound I make scratching my head. Does any else hear? And what if they did? Would I be part of the opera? Probably, but then the audience is more than ever a crucial part of this work. Without us to hear it, what would remain?

By the time we reach the final aria – the only time it feels like Lang offers us something complete – the singer has retreated to another space, her voice sounding like it’s coming from the room next door. As we leave, I feel myself tempted to offer up a fragmented review or a review half written. The lady next to me thanks me for sharing the experience – she cried. I am made of sterner stuff (more’s the pity, perhaps), and there will be those no doubt who fear this particular Emperor might not be fully suited and booted. Nevertheless, the chance to sit in near silence and actively listen for an hour is all too rare in the modern world, and if you have ears to hear, The Whisper Opera has plenty of secrets worth the mining.

The Whisper Opera is at NYU Skirball, New York until February 4


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