Above: A short video about the Whisper Opera from the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
Opera: It's big and loud, right? The mezzo belting her eleven o'clock aria, a stageful of chorus members singing at the tops of their lungs. That's a stereotype that's soundly undone in “Whisper Opera,” a performance so quiet and intimate that it's not much louder than a sigh.
The work is the brainchild of Pulitzer-winning composer David Lang, who cofounded legendary New York City-based new music collective Bang on a Can. Though it premiered in Chicago in 2013, it was developed right here in the Catskills, at artistic incubator Mount Tremper Arts. This weekend, “Whisper Opera” comes home to roost as the centerpiece of MTA's annual Summer Festival.
To make the piece feasible, Lang turned to director-designer Jim Findlay, who created an audience setup and a sound design that would make “Whisper Opera” both intimate and, well, just audible enough.
"I had to make sure everyone hears and sees and experiences something different," Findlay says of staging the show. "I had to balance the music and the design of the space so that things are always on the verge of not being there."
Featuring soprano Tony Arnold and members of the International Contemporary Ensemble (which commissioned the piece), “Whisper Opera” is just what it says on the tin: an opera performed at a level barely above a whisper.
A small audience (no larger than 35) is privy to the murmurs of a single singer and a group of musicians playing as quietly as possible. The content of the singer's text is drawn from auto-generated search engine results. Which makes sense for the performance style—the things we type into the Google search bar are often the questions we're too embarrassed to ask out loud.
During the development process at Mount Tremper Arts, Lang, Findlay and the ICE musicians worked to discover just how silently instruments like clarinets and saxophones could be played while still making sounds. Lang also wrote most of the opera while in residence.
What makes “Whisper Opera” so special is that it can only really be experienced live and in a small, intimate space. It forces audience members to reexamine the concept of watching a live performance.
"I think it tries to activate our most basic skills of listening and other perceptions in a very simple and direct way," says Findlay.