Tristan Perich with the Meehan/Perkins Duo in MoMA Summergarden
Mostly Mozart: Iván Fischer and Budapest Festival Orchestra Perform "Marriage of Figaro"

Mostly Mozart: ICE Performs David Lang's "the whisper opera"

ICE, the whisper opera

I couldn't imagine a sharper contrast to Monday's turbulent, often violent performance of George Benjamin's Written on Skin than Tuesday's performance of David Lang's the whisper opera at the Mostly Mozart Festival. The performance was given by the International Contemporary Ensemble, who had also given the world premiere in Chicago earlier this year. It was set in the intimate—miniscule is more like it—Clark Studio Theater, which only held a total of 48 people. 

Part of the room's small capacity was due to director Jim Findlay's unusual staging, which had the audience seated in nonconsecutive rows cut into the stage, so that all you could see were people's heads and shoulders. The instrumentalists—Claire Chase, flutes; Kivie Cahn-Lipman, cello; Josh Rubin, clarinets; Ross Karre, percussion—stood in one of four corners while soprano Tony Arnold, a specialist in contemporary music, moved freely about the space. 

david lang's the whisper opera

The hallmark of the whisper opera is its quietude: the entire libretto, which Lang crowdsourced from the Internet, is literally whispered, such that I was only able to catch every fourth word. Not that the words mattered very much, as this was an opera in name only, without any discernible plot or action. 

In the program notes, Lang said he was inspired by the theaters of Florence, where operas were first performed in chamber-size spaces to a small gathering of patrons. Lang also said that he was motivated by the proliferation of recordings on the Internet, and wanted to produce a score that could only be heard live. Indeed, Lang stipulates that the whisper opera cannot be filmed or recorded. Fortunately, an usher politely but firmly reminded each audience member to silence their cell phones upon entering the space.

Unfortunately, the whisper opera was more an interesting experiment in performance art than a bona fide opera. At just over an hour, it actually felt too long. After all, even full-voiced American operas have surtitles to help audiences comprehend what's being sung. 


(Photo credit: Tina Fineberg for The New York Times)

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