Mostly Mozart Festival(5): Being Present, Quietly, But Not in Control

United StatesUnited States Mostly Mozart (5): David Lang, the whisper opera: Tony Arnold (soprano), Jim Findlay (director/designer), International Contemporary Ensemble, Clark Studio, Lincoln Center, New York City. 10.8.2013 (DS)


Left-to-right: Ross Karre, Tony Arnold and Claire Chase in "the whisper opera." (Photo: Nathan Keay, ©MCA Chicago)
Left-to-right: Ross Karre, Tony Arnold and Claire Chase in “the whisper opera.”
(Photo: Nathan Keay, ©MCA Chicago)

David Lang: the whisper opera (2013, New York premiere)

“when I am alone I always”
“they said I was crazy butI”
“when I think of you I think of”
“it’s not my fault that I am so”

International Contemporary Ensemble
Kivie Cahn-Lipman, Cello
Claire Chase, Flutes
Joshua Rubin, Clarinets
Ross Karre, Percussion
Tony Arnold, Soprano

The International Contemporary Ensemble has made a lot of noise (the good kind) in New York City’s new music scene, so their quiet entrance into this year’s Mostly Mozart Festival might seem uncharacteristic. Joined by soprano Tony Arnold and director/designer Jim Findlay, four ICE musicians performed the low-decibel New York premiere of David Lang’s the whisper opera in the bijou-size Clark Studio. But it’s not size or volume that counts. It’s presence.

A stage broken into four quadrants took over the studio’s entire square footage. Minimal space was provided for spectators, who were separated into four groups of 11 with their seats placed so that their view of the other three was obscured by white sheer drapery. Literally trapped inside the stage, the listeners shared a powerful presence with the musicians who performed the 60-minute work. Lang wrote the whisper opera to create an experience that must be heard in person and would lose its striking qualities in a recording.

So this begs the question, what would be the difference between a live or recorded performance? Is it just Walter Benjamin’s concern for aura, tragically lost with the invention of a gramophone? Yes, we might call it that. But in the case of the whisper opera it would be sensory experience. Hearing live what you can’t see is a more jarring experience than you might think. At one point, percussionist Ross Karre walked the enclosed perimeter playing a strangely familiar yet distinctly bizarre metallic instrument, but it was impossible to tell what it was. (Don’t peek around the curtain!) After the performance I learned he was rubbing two Swiss cow bells together, very carefully ensuring they wouldn’t suddenly clang loudly and break Lang’s crocheted fabric.

While the musicians played their tiny sounds of minimal magnitude, the libretto also tested the meaning of our presence. With phrases pulled from four internet searches—each denoting one movement—Lang conjoined disjunctive banal expressions that one could only discern if the interior winds happened to send Arnold’s voice in one’s direction. I grabbed a “wonder where my sister is” and later a “wear it 24/7.” But often, I was left in the dark—no fancy Met Opera subtitles (and, anyway, Lang has forbidden it). We must be present to pick up what we can and accept losing the rest. (Don’t bother reaching over for the volume button.) Presence is experience, but it isn’t necessarily control.

Front row seats are usually cheaper in a concert hall because most listeners don’t want to have their heads pressed up against the stage, heads slung uncomfortably back. But this was all Findlay allowed for in his set design. And, in a successful ironic move, the audience placement juxtaposed the anonymous expression afforded billions of people by the internet (so poignantly expressed in Lang’s libretto) with an up-close-and-personal experience of the performers. Arnold’s facial expressions became as powerfully relevant to the audience as her tightly focused dynamic fluctuations. Karre, who carefully rubbed the edge of a cymbal directly above my head, struck an acutely concentrated balance between simultaneously whispering text and keeping the volatile instrument from erupting as loudly as usual. Presence also breeds appreciation. Anyone can bang away at a bass drum (there was one hanging like a swing from the rafters), but as ICE quietly revealed, only the best can make a whisper resonate louder than a roar.

Daniele Sahr

For a second opinion, see Jeffrey Edelsteins’s: Excavating Human Communication and Finding Disquieting Moments (ed.)