Culture Magazine

Opera Review: A Show About Nothing

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
The Whisper Opera returns (quietly) to New York.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Opera Review: A Show About Nothing

Ross Karre hugs a bass drum in a performance of David Lang's The Whisper Opera.
Photo courtesy International Contemporary Ensemble.

For almost five hundred years, humanity has used the form of opera to express itself. And for most of those centuries the argument has always run: which is more important--the words, or the music? (There's even a couple of operas about that very subject. However, in The Whisper Opera, which premiered in 2013 at Mostly Mozart, and returns this week for a run of performances at the Skirball Center at NYU, the composer David Lang provides his own answer. Mr. Lang, who is one of the founders of Bang On A Can chooses "neither."
The Whisper Opera  is an experimental work, performed on a specially shaped stage by a quintet of artists. The audience, which is limited to just 50 people, sits on chairs inside the stage itself, much like Metallica fans who were lucky enough to be inside that rock band's famous "snake pit" stage set on the "black album" tour. However, the aural experience provided here could not be more different. On Wednesday night, each of the five performers: soprano Tony Arnold and members of the International Contemporary Ensemble performed this strange, ethereal work at a bare minimum of volume.
Mr. Lang calls The Whisper Opera "fragile music", a lace-like construction of tiny sounds that forces the listener to focus intently on what is being said. This technique that dates back to Debussy's lone opera Pelleas et Melisande. In some ways, the avant-garde presentation also recalled monodramas like Morton Feldman's (suitably titled) Neither, which also lacks plot and uses an incomprehensible text as an obstacle to audience understanding. However, Mr. Lang's work was also appealing, its mutterings and blurred textures entrancing the ear even as one strained to get some idea of what the five artists where whispering about.
What story were they telling? At its start, the instrumentalists (flautist Claire Chase, cellist Kivie Cahn-Lipman, clarinetist Joshua Rubin and percussionist Ross Karre) in stocking feet, hunched at suspended cymbals, playing the edge of each one with a steel rod to create tiny scraping sounds. As softly as possible, each began to whisper, a text that looped and repeated, sometimes sounding like the ravings of madmen, sometimes like a prayer for serenity and peace. This unsettling libretto was created by Mr. Lang using Google Autocomplete. It was the sounds being whispered, not the meaning of the words that was important.
Into this curtained landscape strode Tony Arnold, a genderless, asexual figure. She entered humming gently to herself, orbiting off the curtained square that contained both performers and audience, a barefoot Joan of Arc walking to an unseen stake. She began to declaim her own text, more tiny sounds dropping from her lips. The audience, some of them gripped by autonomous sensory meridian response, sat on the edge, straining to hear all of the meaningless words, trying to puzzle out the chaos. Others simply drifted, lulled to sleep by the droning of Mr. Cahn-Lipman's cello and the hooting of Mr. Rubin's bass clarinet.
And so it went for about an hour. Mr. Karre stood and played glockenspiel, producing tiny sounds from the metal bars by using his fingers instead of mallets. He and the other musicians went to suspended bass drums that hung like swords of Damocles above the audience. These drums, associated with the oom-pa-pa rhythms of Italian operas here muttered and roared, played by being rubbed in a circular motion or sometimes (very gently) tapped. This ghostly sound added to the gossamer web spun by Mr. Lang's design, ensnaring the audience.
Mr. Karre vanished at one point, playing an offstage snare drum and then orbiting the audience on the same path as Ms. Andrews. He played a series of four large cowbells (the alpine kind) in a spooky cadence, walking slowly as he rang the bells. Tony Arnold stalked the stage, locking eyes with audience members, voice rising above pianississimo as the text became faster and more urgent. The work increased in intensity as the hoots from clarinet and cello became more insistent. And yet there was still the sense of stasis. Only in the last minutes of this hourlong piece did Mr. Lang's vision tunnel upward, as the words became beatific. 

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