Mostly Mozart (5): Excavating Human Communication and Finding Disquieting Moments

United StatesUnited States David Lang, the whisper opera: International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Tony Arnold (soprano and conductor), Claire Chase (flutes), Ross Karre (Percussion), Kivie Cahn-Lipman (cello), Joshua Rubin (clarinets), Clark Studio Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, 12.8.2013. (JE)

Tony Arnold (whispering, soprano, and conductor)
Kivie Cahn-Lipman (whispering, cello)
Claire Chase (whispering, flutes)
Ross Karre (whispering, percussion)
Joshua Rubin (whispering, clarinets)

Jim Findlay (director and designer)

At least since David Lang’s the difficulty of crossing a field, his 2002 chamber opera, he has dug into and quarried the ambiguities of outrageous fortune—tapping veins of loss, longing, and faith. In the whisper opera, which received its New York City premiere as part of Lincoln Center’s 2013 Mostly Mozart Festival, he excavates human communication and finds an astonishing source: disquieting moments of emotional connection.

These moments are exposed through carefully honed theatrical presences: a condensed gesamtkunstwerk that literally—physically—layers audience, staging, and performers. The hour-long performance is felt from the beginning, as the audience is led in groups of six to eight rectangular pits within an elevated stage, constructed to allow forty-eight people placed close together to feel disturbingly detached from one another. In each pit, the group sits with backs to another one, and each row can see one other row placed at a right angle. The stage is at mouth level and lets the audience appear to itself as rows of heads along the edge—perhaps an allusion to the overburden of daily life. Designed and directed by Jim Findlay, the construction feels enclosed and infinite at the same time; thin muslin hanging from the ceiling separates or unifies performance spaces, allows some musicians to seem distant or shadowy, directs attention upward or at acute angles, and diffuses lighting from above and beneath the stage.

The inclusion of the audience in the staging—the way they are formally seated—beckons the entrance of four musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), who quietly walk to different quadrants of the platform, crouch down and spin cymbals (scraping their edges periodically) and whisper sentences that begin “when I am alone I always,” or “it’s not my fault that I am so” among others. These parsings were captured when the composer entered the phrases into the Web and allowed search algorithms to realize them as sentences. The whispering instrumentalists may also be characters in the opera or conduits for the enigmatic and disjointed libretto of intimate phrases, but for the audience the consequence of the staging is smoothly shifting attentiveness and conditions of awareness. From my seat, ICE artistic director and flutist Claire Chase was close enough to hear distinctly and to touch—I have heard her play on many occasions and spoken with her socially—but in this setting she was unreachable, simultaneously present and far away.

As the opera progresses the musicians move about the stage, continue to whisper phrases and play instruments, sometimes in unusual ways or from offstage, and always quietly. They are joined by soprano Tony Arnold, who also whispers, conducts the ensemble, and emerges as the opera’s leading participant. The immediacy of the whispered phrases—disrupted by delicate and nuanced flute, clarinet, cello, and percussion—mixed with my musings, inspiring recollections from Wim Wenders’s film Wings of Desire. In the former West Berlin, Wenders’s angels hear the private thoughts of humanity, but can’t feel the experiences that stirred these thoughts; one angel embraces the limits of humanity and accepts mortality in order to experience transcendent emotions.

But my private reverie was interrupted by the diffused passion of Lang’s instrumental interlude. During the interlude Ms. Arnold leaves the stage and is soon heard singing a yearning melody, calling forth a desire for human communion, and at that moment I was startled by fleeting eye contact with an audience member. I turned away quickly to avoid intimacy with a nearly disembodied stranger. And yet the music—the entire operatic production—acknowledges the tension of being alive together while remaining strangers, sentiments that preclude genuine human contact and convey furtive communication and beauty as the tender amelioration of loss and longing. David Lang’s deeply affecting the whisper opera is, after all, the experience of the Internet.

Jeffrey Edelstein

For a second opinion, see Daniele Sahr’s review: Being Present Quietly, But Not in Control