ICE: David Lang: the whisper opera

Featuring a world-premiere chamber opera by David Lang, commissioned by ICE with Tony Arnold as solo soprano, this one-of-a-kind work is performed with the musicians, singer, and audience enclosed in an intimate, onstage set. Composed for flute, clarinet, percussion, cello, and solo soprano, the music and the environment work together to convey themes of secrets, and the tension between what we hide and what we choose to reveal. "the whisper opera" (2013) is inspired in part by Lang’s visits to rural Italy, where he was surprised to experience the powerful intimacy of small opera houses. Jim Findlay directs the work and creates the particular stage design needed for the intimate setting of "the whisper opera." Findlay is an influential and provocative force as a designer and director in New York’s experimental theater world, including collaborations with The Wooster Group.

What if you made something that was so quiet that you need to be next to the singer to hear what it’s about? That the sounds of the instruments are so tiny and fragile and so evaporative that if you’re not there watching it happen, you won’t know that it happened.

The piece was actually commissioned by a group called ICE, the International Contemporary Ensemble, which has a home here at the MCA and I’ve worked with them many times in the past. Fantastic, fantastic ensemble.

The thought behind the whisper opera comes out of a very long-running series of thoughts I’ve been having about why we have live performance at all. I began in the live performance world and if live performance is going to be meaningful, we need maybe to invent new reasons to keep it.

What if you made a performance, which was so intimate and so fragile and so personal that a recording couldn’t capture it?

I think one of the things that you can have in a live performance that you can’t have on a recording is you can see the people struggle, you can see music that’s too hard to be played.

No one is going to record a piece of music that has mistakes in it or isn’t completely perfect, but in live performance you actually see the people fight. So in a lot of the music that I’ve made, I’ve tried to make pieces, which accentuate that fight, that struggle, so that you see that human element of someone trying to overcome something.

Because the whisper opera is so quiet, not many people can see it at the same time. And the way the people see it actually is hugely important to the piece.

The director and the designer of this piece is Jim Findlay. Jim Findlay is a long-time collaborator of the Wooster Group. He’s somebody who is a playwright, an actor, a builder, a designer, a lighting person, a video person. He’s someone who has in his life been called upon to have many, many, many different kinds of experiences in the theater world and I’ve given him the charge in this piece to take these weird, intimate ideas and to make them as delicate and fragile and as intimate as possible and I am incredibly excited about what he’s come up with.