In review: The Whisper Opera

In review: The Whisper Opera

Tony Arnold, soprano. The Whisper Opera, by American composer David Lang. New York, 2013. Photo: Armen Elliott.

On Saturday I had the chance to see David Lang's The Whisper Opera, presented by Soundstreams at The Theatre Centre; with a sold-out run, I was lucky to catch this in Toronto. It was one of the coolest things I've seen in a long time, made better by the few expectations I had beforehand. The Pulitzer Prize winning composer (the little matchgirl passion) asks, "what if a piece were so quiet, and intimate, and so personal to the performers, that you needed to be right next to them or you would hear almost nothing?" The Whisper Opera is aptly named; it's certainly a piece that achieves Lang's aim to write "pieces that try to highlight things that can only happen live."

Lang also wrote the libretto, starting by typing in short Internet searches like "when I am alone I always", and collecting the different ways people have finished the sentence. The Whisper Opera is divided into four parts; the text in each part was delivered in whispered answers to four unfinished searches.

  1. "when I am alone I always" ("…think," "…think of you," "…cry")
  2. "they said I was crazy but I" ("…did it anyway," "…knew it,")
  3. "when I think of you I think of" ("…us together," "…love," "…your sexy body")
  4. "it's not my fault that I am so" ("…sexy," "…busy")

I thought David Lang's piece itself was fascinating, and it was entirely integrated with the direction and design by Jim Findlay. The "stage" was raised to about chin-level when seated, and the audience was placed in small aisles that extended towards the centre of the space (we were informed that the seating arrangement would be unusual, and they weren't lying). The International Contemporary Ensemble (Claire Chase, flutes, Joshua Rubin, clarinets, Kivie Cahn-Lipman, cello, and Ross Karre, percussion) inhabited different corners of the space throughout the piece, playing Lang's eerie and beautiful score. They whispered along with soprano Tony Arnold, who was the central voice throughout. Their instruments were part of the design, which was beautifully raw. Bare lightbulbs hung alongside bass drums, and even the creaky set added to the earthy, inclusive feeling to the piece.

Composer David Lang. Photo: Peter Serling

The performers were all mesmerizing, and the score was full of new sounds. David Lang makes his listeners lean in close with his sonic palate, and he throws in curious sounds, like fingertips on a xylophone, to keep the attention fixed on the players. The text setting was entirely whispered, which demanded a lot from Tony Arnold; she had by far the most text, and she delivered it with incredible precision and meaning, even without her voice.

The Whisper Opera happens all around you, making your ears more sensitive; I realized that each section of audience seating would show a completely different experience of the piece, and I was unusually curious to see another performance from a new vantage point. I just thought the whole things was so neat, and one of those rare performances that have you completely rapt. I love the piece, and Jim Findlay's production visualized Lang's concept perfectly.

I'd tell you all to run and see the final performance of The Whisper Opera, but it's indeed sold out. At least this great show isn't going unnoticed.

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Written by

Jenna Simeonov

Jenna Simeonov

Jenna is the editor and co-creator of Schmopera.com. She's also a pianist, vocal coach, and répétiteur, and working with singers is how she fell in love with opera. Her favourite operas include Peter Grimes, Ariadne auf Naxos, Tristan und Isolde, Written on Skin, and Anna Nicole.

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