The Whisper Opera by David Lang was performed on the stage of Reynolds Industries Theater by the International Contemporary Ensemble, a highly acclaimed group in the promotion and performance of new music.
Claire Chase played flutes (bass and C), Joshua Rubin played clarinets (bass and B-flat), Kivie Kahn-Lipman was the cellist, Ross Karre coordinated the percussion instruments and the production starred soprano Tony Arnold. The performance experience described below was 9:00 p.m. on Friday, January 16.
I was seated sixth in a row of eight. Other members of the audience were seated across and to the left and behind me in an area divided by stage scrim. In no incidence did it appear there were audience members seated behind each other. The stage on which the performance took place was on risers about 40 inches high so that, when seated, my head was just above it. In front of my position was a beautiful Zildjian cymbal suspended on its perfectly balanced stand. Lying on the stage just beside it was a stick. Further away directly in front of me were a bass clarinet and a B-flat clarinet both set in their stands. Almost in the center of the stage area in front of me was a stand with some kind of communication device that I presumed held cues for different performance events. On the floor was (again my presumption) a type of pedal that was part of this performance communication device. To my left and on the far side of this stage area was a bass drum suspended from above at a height of about four feet off the stage.
Over further to my left was another discrete stage area also with a suspended bass drum and the same kind of presumed communication device described above. On the stage floor were a bass flute, a C flute and a cello with its bow and a bar stool. In the corner was a Zildjian that looked exactly like the one in front of me.
Behind me were two other discrete stage areas – I think. The seating, on folding chairs, was cozy but not uncomfortable. However, the process of trying to twist around to see what was on the stage area behind me really was not practical. I thought that I caught a glimpse of another suspended bass drum, a large gong and a keyboard instrument; perhaps a xylophone.
After all 52 members of the audience were seated in their proper place, two of the performers appeared on stage. The sound of the stage risers creaking got my attention and I wondered if this was part of the score. The performer on the area to my left went to the cymbal and began to spin it with his fingers twisting the weighted balance atop the device. I wondered if the cymbal spinning in the air made a perceptible sound. I tilted my head, cupped my hand behind my ear, but heard nothing. Then another artist approached the Zildjian directly in front of me in the same manner. Then I noticed he was whispering. I still could not hear anything from the spinning cymbal, but the sound of his whispering was intriguing. I was not able to distinguish words, but the sibilants carried enticingly. Next he picked up the stick that was lying there and gently applied it to the edge of the spinning Zildjian. A soft sound blended with the sotto voce whispering.
After a while, I heard Arnold begin to sing behind me: three slow whole steps sung on vowel sounds, then repeated and proceeding in a rather folk-like, mostly pentatonic melody. It was a most welcome and satisfying sound – recognizable, pianissimo singing and musically meaningful.
There was a sound from behind like an airplane flying overhead. This was followed by bass drums, like distant thunder echoing across the stage areas. The flute, clarinet and cello made soft comments. A flute solo, kind of like a Bach gigue, emerged.
On the first page of the program were these four numbered half-statements in quotes: 1. “when I am alone I always” 2. “they said I was crazy but I” 3.”when I think of you I think of” 4. “it’s not my fault that I am so”
Perhaps these are clues to the structure of the opera. Perhaps some of the whispered content was related to these truncated thought processes. I was not able to distinguish any words in the whispering. So without content, I was left to contemplate context and meaning. The context was obviously performance; art to be specific, but this did not narrow down the meaning of the whispers. One experience I associate with whispers is intimacy, but I saw no indicators of relationships in the performance.
What about conspiracy? Those plotting something cage their plans in whispers lest those against whom they are plotting learn of and thwart their intentions. The other context of whispering is paranoia, fear out of control. (Is that light that keeps brightening and dimming shining on ME?)
Arnold moves from one stage area to another whispering; sometimes as though trying to find an answer, sometimes apparently pleading. (She is looking at me – is she wanting me to do something? Have I failed to respond to what was asked of me? Is she angry with me? What have I missed?)
A slow, measured duet between the bass flute and the bass clarinet began. After what seemed like ten minutes, a new sound got my attention. It came from outside the stage area. It sounded like light rain, or maybe short-wave radio static. I caught a glimpse of a man walking by outside the scrim with a box of some sort. The sound faded away. The bass flute and bass clarinet were still playing their measured duet. It got rather tedious, and I felt a need for a change. Another new sound appeared briefly. Arnold continued her whispered pleas or pronouncements. The bass flute and the bass clarinet continued to play notes together at a dirge-like tempo. I saw one of my neighbors look at his watch, another one, across the stage, yawned and rolled her eyes. But then, a charming and most welcome sound – the chiming of the xylophone (or could it be a celeste?). The bell-like sounds were cheerful and put me in mind of Zauberflöte.
The flute, the cello and bass clarinet joined in as the soprano sang a lovely lyrical aria which faded away in a continuing diminuendo as the lights dimmed to darkness. Unsure, the audience held its applause. Then the lights came up on full with the artists standing with their hands by there side and received the applause. I have not yet fully digested The Whisper Opera.