Soundstreams’ Whisper Opera and the meaning of meaning

It’s a cute phrase I heard in a Tom Robbins novel, as someone speaks in passing of “the meaning of meaning”. I love it because it simultaneously references our understanding (and what it means to mean) and yet sounds like nonsense (repeat any word enough times and it becomes pure sound, while becoming less meaningful).

David Lang, composer & librettist of The Whisper Opera (photo: Peter Serling)

David Lang, composer & librettist of The Whisper Opera (photo: Peter Serling)

David Lang’s The Whisper Opera, presented by Soundstreams at the Theatre Centre struck me as a new flavour of minimalism. I invoke that word not because we were hearing anything I’ve previously understood as minimalism such as pattern music. Lang is both the composer & librettist. His text takes fragmentary passages, suggestive phrases sometimes barely heard, and tosses them around, sometimes repeating them obsessively, sometimes going from one thing to another.

If we accept the axiom that meaning is created in the mind of the observer –beauty in the eye of the beholder, right?—then it’s a fascinating game to offer enticing little bits for the observer to assemble. The observer can’t help making sense from the incomplete fragments, particularly because they’re presented meaningfully, presented with conviction. We attribute sense and even weight to these phrases, having no full context except the immanent moment of performance.

Lang’s subtext almost sounds like a manifesto. He stipulates that the performance must never be recorded or videotaped, a small rebellion against our usual practices. It’s therefore designed to be intimate, so that only a very few people can hear it at a time. That’s one reason it’s the whisper opera.  We’re therefore in a rare social situation. As you look at the stage, you see a few heads popping up through the risers in which our seats are embedded, foregrounding our selves in the most curious way. I was reminded of a horrific yet comical image from David Hockney’s marvellous designs for The Rake’s Progress, where the heads poke up through the floor, in this scene from Bedlam.

David Hockney’s design for the scene in bedlam from Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress

Our heads —in the audience—become a creepy / comical part of the backdrop of the performance. The design is by Jim Findlay, a wonderful representation of the world Lang is presenting to us in The Whisper Opera.  See what i mean? the heads are part of the show.

©ARMEN Elliott1030 - The Whisper Opera NYC 2013

©ARMEN Elliott1030 – The Whisper Opera NYC 2013

Lang wonders about authentic connections between people, problematizing it for us in this presentation where the real heads of this tiny audience are juxtaposed against the dada realm of text swirling quietly around our ears. We are in the bedlam of the virtual world, making sense out of nonsense.

click for more information about Soundstreams’ presentation of The Whisper Opera

The music is quite lovely at times, never boring, often arresting. Yet it’s a very visual kind of concert, the performers above us on their risers, while our heads poke this way and that trying to see everything. It’s a bit of an installation really, because one can’t see everyone easily, and some of us –like this writer—are partially disabled and therefore unable to turn their heads very far. It’s a mixed blessing, as it brought my focus on everything in front of me, especially my fellow audience members, when the performers had wandered to another part of the performance space. The work is presented by soprano Tony Arnold and The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE).

The Whisper Opera, a splendid metaphor for our world, continues at The Theatre Centre until March 1st.

This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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