Cher Public

Veil song

I was led through a small labyrinth of white curtains, sheer like veils, to a row of seven chairs jutting in between the stage risers. The veils bounded the stage on each side and divided it in four: one quarter of the stage was in front of me at eye level, one quarter was behind me—through a veil—and two quarters I could see by craning my neck to look through the large gap in the veils that connected the four parts of the stage.

When everyone had taken their seat, there must have been 48 of us in these little recesses like orchestra pits (audience pits?), one row of seven like mine plus a perpendicular row of five for each fourth of the space, and the instrumentalists took their places on the tiny stage built upon the stage of what was already a small black-box theater.

Hanging over the heads of the listeners sitting just to my left was a great bass drum; over the row perpendicular to us was a suspended cymbal, and this setup was repeated on the other two visible quarters of the stage. The four performers—the International Contemporary Ensemble’s cellist Kivie Cahn-Lipman, flautist Claire Chase, clarinetist Joshua Rubin, and percussionist Ross Karre—each kneeled and began adjusting a cymbal, manipulating it carefully with their fingers, and when they began whispering we realized that the music had already begun. The first “note” was that sound of the cymbal not being struck or even stroked, just touched.
The text of David Lang‘s the whisper opera was (Lang has said) generated procedurally, by entering one of four sentence fragments into Google:

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

…and setting the most interesting results to complete each sentence—sort of like John Supko’s lovely This Window Makes Me Feel, which sets a long Google poem of the same name by Robert Fitterman.

The resulting text was poignant, funny, intimate, and secret: no excerpts were printed in the program. Lang’s score specifies that no recordings are to be made of the opera, that it is not to be amplified, and that it is to be performed for an audience only one row deep—as an exploration of barely perceptible musical phenomena, it only can be realized by a very, very intimate live performance.

In its New York premiere at least, directed and designed by Jim Findlay, the whisper opera was not just about the nearly inaudible, but also about the invisible and nearly invisible. Soprano Tony Arnold was at first heard and not seen, crooning a simple melody somewhere outside the veils bounding the stage after the other performers had already begun to play. The instrumentalists also left the stage, or moved between its four chambers, as the score required, so that the dozen of us watching were at some point alone with most of the players (Chase I only spied in the next quarter), walking on in their socks so that their steps would be nearly soundless, reading their music from iPads to prevent the sound of page-turns, and playing their instruments as softly as possible. Karre, for instance, played his glockenspiel with the tips of his fingers. Lang’s score was sparing in its use of pitched melodies and harmonies, shuffling between only a handful of notes at a time in thin, highly repetitive textures, but he did pick the right pitches, and his textural procedures, often only loosely synchronized between the separated performers, were highly engaging—even, I’d discover, mesmerizing.

I know I lost it pretty quickly. Oh, I thought at one point, they’re playing a recording of the ocean. It’s must be the sound of the waves, crashing against a ship at sea. In the background of the music, I could hear the ship’s timbers creaking, the roar of the ocean waves, and perhaps some soft thunder off in the distance, and for several seconds, I listened closely to the sound of the ocean, and then only when some element of the music changed did I realize that I was being completely insane. There was no recording. There was no ocean. I had been listening to a pair (I think) of performers drag their fingernails across the heads of two bass drums and hallucinated the rest. I had even seen a performer demonstrate exactly the same drum technique in front of my eyes just moments earlier!

The score, in other words, was literally hypnotic—towards the end of the hour, I found myself falling into trance after trance, triggered by a change in the music or the lighting into realizing that I had been in the middle of a strange dream and then, horrified that I’d fallen asleep during the performance, only to realize that my eyes had never closed, that in fact they were starting to feel dry from staring straight ahead while I had tried to listen as closely as I could to the sounds being made behind and around me.

The part for Arnold, whose recordings of Messiaen and Kurtág have proved her an expressive and precise interpreter of highly challenging scores, was whispered far more often than sung and, when sung, seemingly quite simple—they certainly gave her no difficulty. But the score’s burden was nevertheless immense, calling for her to pace from one area to another hissing strings of decontextualized sentence fragments with full dramatic commitment—like a ghostly character in a Beckett play—and even, at one point, to stand in the center of the stage and manually cue the separated instrumentalists like a conductor. It was an utterly convincing performance, a “star turn” even surrounded by performers who were hardly less charismatic or dramatically acute in the execution of their unusually theatrical parts. I would have expected no less from ICE, which makes it their business to inhabit and embody impossibly fragile works like this.

At the end of the piece, the lights dimmed to nothing, and the players switched off their iPads. The spell was unbroken by the applause; I left the hall still under a trance. I grabbed a beer at the reception down the hall and tried to make lame conversation, but I could barely speak. I left not long after the bottle was empty and headed to my train alone.

  • laddie

    It is nice to read a Dan Johnson review on Parterre, once again. Thank you, Dan. Fascinating piece of reading, though, I imagine, not as fascinating as having experienced what sounds like something entirely new and wonderful.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

  • phoenix

    Sounds like Mr. Johnson took a wrong and wound up at Genevieve’s Castle …

  • Lang’s score specifies that no recordings are to be made of the opera, that it is not to be amplified, and that it is to be performed for an audience only one row deep—as an exploration of barely perceptible musical phenomena, it only be realized by a very, very intimate live performance.

    So … no chance of a dance remix?

  • armerjacquino

    Lovely writing. And a shot across the bows for those who tediously claim that PB is all ‘diva worship’.

    • Nerva Nelli

      Some would claim that PB is all ‘diva hating’. :)

      (That is the passion of Danicin’ Danielle.)

      • oedipe

        One does not exclude the other, by any means.

  • sillybud

    “—and even, at one point, to stand in the center of the stage and manually cue the separated instrumentalists like a conductor.” In fact, Tony Arnold was a conductor for many years before returning to singing.

    • Do you know, I’d completely forgotten that! I remember listening to a great interview with her on the podcast My Ears Are Open a few years ago, and she must have mentioned it there, but it entirely slipped my mind until just now. Lang clearly had her conducting background in mind when he wrote that passage into the score. Many thanks!

  • oedipe

    Intriguing review. I would be very interested in seeing this now.

  • Will

    Having just come from seeing/hearing Little Match Girl Passion at Glimmerglass I found it very easy to understand and envision exactly what was going on in this performance. Thank you for your review which reinforces my feeling that Mr. Lang has done important work so far in his career and will, I hope, continue to develop in new and very compelling ways.

    • phoenix

      Did you also happen to catch Verdi’s Un giorno di Regno at Glimmerglass this summer? Earlier this year I quickly perused the cast list for it (I don’t care much for the opera) and I vaguely remember Christine Goerke scheduled for a turn in this Verdi work -- but when I checked the cast list later on they had Nerva’s old favorite Ginger Costa-Jackson scheduled.

      • justanothertenor

        Christine Goerke being replaced by Ginger Costa-Jackson? That would be like hearing an announcement that says: the role of X, originally scheduled to be performed by Renata Tebaldi, will be performed this evening by Graziella Sciutti. Eeeek.

        • phoenix

          I didn’t read those cast lists very carefully -- the original one has been replaced the latest (actual) cast for a month or so now -- I don’t know Un giorno di regno very well but I assumed the Diva Role was the Marchesa … if I had only heard Ginger Costa-Jackson before (which I haven’t -- only read about her from Nerva) then maybe I could go ‘Eeeek’ too.

        • RosinaLeckermaul

          Actually, it was usually Mary Curtis-Verna replacing Tebaldi. Eek indeed. By the way, WHISPER OPERA was directed by the very talented Jim (not Tom) Findlay.

          • RosinaLeckermaul

            Just back from Santa Fe. DiDonato and Brownlee were brilliant in the Rossini. Graham was in poor voice for Act I of GEROLSTEIN, but improved as the night went on. The production was delightful. The libretto of OSCAR is a piece of hagiography that belies the complex truth of Wilde’s life and his relationship with Bosie. The music is very conservative, but skillfully scored. Daniels was superb. Next season isn’t as starry or interesting as the past few years except for Sun Yat Sen.

            • Flora del Rio Grande

              Rosina, on ‘Oscar,’ VERY well observed. You are on target and I liked the way you worded it. I thought Daniels’ vocal limitations [no top, no bottom and all Thelma Votipka in between], were a constraining factor in the composer’s efforts to find drama and convince us of it. The score was very flat and most of the singing uninteresting. I will grant you that ‘counter-temorisme’ is a matter of taste, I just happen not to like it under the best of circumstances. We will have to grant that Santa Fe gave the piece royal treatment -- wonderful set and costumes and Evan Rogister is the new conductor of the hour! Long may he endure; his energy and control of the orchestra very exciting, n’est-ce pas?

          • Nerva Nelli

            “Actually, it was usually Mary Curtis-Verna replacing Tebaldi. Eek indeed.”

            While I recognize that she was not a front-line, historic singer, surely today we’d rather hear Curtis-Verna than Pop Tart singing DON CARLO and Curtis-Verna singng TOSCA than Deborah Voigt.


            • phoenix

              NERVA NOZE!

            • RosinaLeckermaul

              You’re probably right, Nerva. One had the feeling in the late 50s and early 60s that Curtis-Verna must have always been waiting in the wings. Essential for Tebaldi’s many cancellations, but I also saw her replace Farrell and Milanov more than once. Never heard her Turandot though she sang it often. She would be a star now instead of the eternal standby. Have you heard her Cetra AIDA recording with Corelli? Not bad.

            • steveac10

              From interviews with Curtis-Verna and what little I’ve heard, she had a quality voice, but little temperament or ambition. There was an Opera News interview with her years ago, and it seemed she was largely content to sit in New York, pick up a check and sing whatever Bing tossed her way. Bing must have known it, but also realized he could do worse than have a much better than average Verdi/Puccini soprano on retainer for the season to handle the emergencies. Once she retired it became Elinor Ross, then Cruz-Romo. Now they have what seems like 4 dozen or more sopranos on the roster that are obvious covers. Wouldn’t it be more cost effective to have a dozen or so on salary?

          • Ha! Amazing--I had the program open right in front of me and typed the wrong name. Corrected, thanks!

            • RosinaLeckermaul

              Thank you for correcting it. Jim Findlay was a student of mine, so I’m a bit protective.

  • Flora del Rio Grande

    Error in the above on Daniels: I mean counter-tenorisme, not temor. I suspect you figured that out. Remember Helen Hokanson ladies, the marvelous cartoon series caricaturing middle aged suburban ladies at the bridge table and so on? Very great in their time in the New Yorker; forgotten today. Well, if of those ladies were to sing, it would sound like David Daniels!!! Oups! Just my opinion of course.

    • RosinaLeckermaul

      You’re right, Flora. Daniels’ voice is beginning to sound like a church choir lady. More forced and breathy than of yore. I did think he sang well, given the current state of his voice and the part was obviously written for his current strengths and weaknesses. I liked the music more than you, Flora. It sounded like those operas the City Opera used to premiere in the 1950s, but such classic American late Romaticism is refreshing to hear once in a while.
      I agree that Evan Rogister is an excellent conductor who makes the Santa Fe orchestra sound better than any other conductor there. His KING ROGER last year was memorable and he was very flattering to Morrison’s score for OSCAR. I have often thought that the Met should look to a gifted young conductor with solid experience like Rogister to be Music Director instead of someone more established. After all, that’s what they did when they hired Levine.

  • Flora del Rio Grande

    Rosina, I am so glad we agree about Rogister; it just could be that someone like that could be the artistic savior of the Met, insofar as such is possible. I am not sure the monomaniac Gelb would allow that to happen. It is interesting to me that several people in the opera company while liking Evan are going mad for Hussein! I have not yet heard H., but will next week. Considering the level of conducting in the old days under JOC, isn’t it a marvel that we can be talking about which of the current crowd is better and could ‘save’ the Met! Hah! What did you think of S. L.’s conducting of Lago? The only real clinker was for Mozart, alas, Nelson. He is waaay old, though there used to be some distinction there. Next season? I am not optimistic. They are certainly going to a lot of fuss and trouble over Sun Yat Sen, but I have to wonder.
    As for the Morrison music, it is all linear; nicely orchestrated but almost no harmonic play or interest, and thereby is lost a lot of potential emotional impact. I thought the book was the most compromising aspect of this effort. It is a play with music, and not a very good play. And the production cost a bundle, big bundle!
    Ta -- Flora

    • la vociaccia

      I didn’t realize Gelb had a vendetta against young conductors as well. Don’t tell Dan Ettinger!!

      • Flora del Rio Grande

        la vocia: Nor do I know if Gelb has something against young conductors. Rather, my point was and is that Gelb is clearly not going to be second guessed or in any way questioned about his operatic musical authority -- obvious, eh? It would be easy for him to ignore some young guy like R.,
        whereas a Thieleman could be very authoritative, though of course the Met would never hire a T -- for several reasons. My real point is, back when Gelb assumed the throne he commented to various critics at the time who quoted him as follows, “I don’t know anything about opera.”
        Nothing against Gelb personally, but professionally he’s often thrown out the baby with the bath since being at the Met. Gelb would make mincemeat of anyone who tries to move in on what he, rightly or not, considers his territory. The absence of Levine fueled this perfectly, and now we have — well you can see what we have. We may not agree; that’s fine. But that is what I meant. There are a lot of wonderful young conductors about these days, and indeed we need to see them conducting at the Met.
        Santa Fe is an interesting showcase of such talent. That’s enuff from me!

    • RosinaLeckermaul

      And some of the music is very derivative. The prison scene suddenly turned into BILLY BUDD. I do wish Bosie hadn’t been played by a dancer a la DEATH IN VENICE. Tadzio doesn’t need to speak, but Bosie does. A voiceless Bosie pretty much eliminated any real drama.
      I thought Stephen Lord was fine with the Rossini. Also liked his conducting of DON PASQUALE at Juilliard this past winter. And Villaume gave the Offenbach the right fizz.

    • Belfagor

      Why on earth, is there was to be an Oscar Wilde opera staged in the West, wasn’t it based on Wilde’s truly incredible tours of America preaching culture and aesthetics to the bandits and miners, a truly bizarre and overlooked chapter in a rather over-exposed life -- I think that would make a fascinating subject matter for a piece.

      • MontyNostry

        Fanciulla meets Paul Bunyan, only camper.

        • Belfagor

          Quite! And lots of little allusions to G&S’s ‘Patience’ threaded through…..and a dream sequence in a mine shaft……..

          • grimoaldo

            Yes, Gilbert and Sullivan’s previous works H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance had been huge hits in the US and made lots of money for Gilbert, Sullivan and their producer Richard D’Oyly Carte. However “Patience” satirized the “aesthetic” movement and Pre-Raphaelites “art for art’s sake” and Carte was worried that it was a British phenomenon that would not be understood in the US. So he sent Oscar Wilde on a coast to coast tour of the USA in order that when “Patience” had its premiere in New York audiences would know what it was making fun of and would also be a hit.
            Carte’s strategy worked.

            • Nerva Nelli

              So, Oscar Wilde hit the Mine Shaft in search of bubble trade even before Our Own MM II! :)

            • oedipe

              So he sent Oscar Wilde on a coast to coast tour of the USA in order that when “Patience” had its premiere in New York audiences would know what it was making fun of

              Canary in a coal mine?

  • -Ed.

    What a lovely description of a nigh indescribable evening. Most enjoyable and memorable. The performance would’ve been lost on me however, as I suffer from tinnitus. Alors.

    Your review somehow stirred a personal memory of an evening in 1984, when I first discovered the beauty of hearing great poetry being read aloud, by a particularly fine and dashing fellow I knew.

  • MontyNostry

    Any fracking?

  • Flora del Rio Grande

    Belfagor, yours is an exceptionally interesting point. Wilde’s inter-reaction with the miners is an amazing story — dressed in silks and satins at the height of his “aesthetic period,” Wilde elicited interest and approval from the miners who thought he was most hilarious and entertaining. They liked him!
    What a good idea! Maybe someone will write Oscar II -- Aesthetic life in the West!
    He might hold not a rose aloft while he preached but a Sunflower :)

    • Camille

      Flora delRG—that line about “no top, no bottom, and the middle like Thelma Votipka” was worthy of Nerva Nelli, it was that funny!

      Brava Floradeva! I am currently listening to “our own” opera, the sublime ’68 La Traviata with Anna Moffo.

  • Camille

    Happy to see hat Dan Johnson, like Ulisse, has returned. He was one of the best youngbloods, and I’d wondered about what had become of him.