MCA's Whisper Opera Review - A Bold Experiment in "Fragile" Music

ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) David Lang: the whisper opera from MCA Chicago on Vimeo.



Composer David Lang tells us that his commissioned piece, The Whisper Opera, is the culmination of a long rumination on how to keep live performance relevant. 


He aimed, and achieved, in creating a musical performance where one must strain to hear the music and experience the difficulty of creating the ephemeral sounds from each instrument.  Music and song were faint.  


Four musicians of the International Contempory Ensemble play and soloist Tony Arnold accompanies.  We did strain and if that was the goal then it was absolutely “mission accomplished”. 


If the American Psychiatric Association ever produces an auditory supplement to its huge and controversial diagnostic manual, “The Whisper Opera” would be a darn good definition of perseveration.  We hear the singer and the musicians whispering haunting thoughts of an injured soul. 


The set was beautiful in its minimalist simplicity.  White gauze curtains separated short single rows of audience members from each other. We faced the stage at eye level. 


A large drum dangled over one of the rows of audience members in each of the stage quadrants.  Simple stands for cello, flute and other instruments were the set. 


Presumably because Lang wants us to feel uncomfortable, we also have glaring stage lights below us- going from white to blue and emitting heat.  My experienced builder husband in fact became quite concerned about the electrical smell from these lighting boxes, worrying that something might be seriously askew.


That needless heat source just might have been the thing that pulled me back from going along with this bold and welcomed spirit of invention and experimentation.   


Lang’s presumption, after all, is that live performance is somehow in jeopardy by the sophistication of electronic recording equipment.  Hence, he created something so “fragile” that you needed to be there.  


Ironically, there were probable few, if any, in the crowd who don’t find live performance quite exciting despite the achievements of sound recording miracles.  Why else would we venture out to a concert?



As a pretty frequent flier of live performances I’d say that even the most traditional do not disappoint in being “live” as opposed to recorded.   Are we saying that seeing one diva or another play Lucia di Lammermoor is somehow passé?  Not to me, and I daresay not to the  many who crowd the famed opera halls of the world or now watch Live HD performances of the Met, Tosca, etc.


How can one not applaud the bold experiment of “The Whisper Opera”?  Experimentation is great and the MCA does us all a service by commissioning the most cutting edge works on the planet. That said, sometimes experiments fail.  By my lights, the problem here is in the concept.  Live theater and live music are not dead.  


Gosh, just when we were straining our necks to hear the whispers the Rolling Stones were screaming at Chicago’s United Center for tickets rumored to go at scalpers’ rates of 1000$.   


Or, consider that two of Lang’s compositions absolutely delighted attendees of the MCA’s Eighth Blackbird concert just a few weeks before--- including at least one young man who reportedly came just to see the rock star among the guest artists on the stage.


Just like Mark Twain’s demise, any rumors of the death of live music are much exaggerated.


 David Lang. Photo: Peter Serling

International Contemporary Ensemble. Photo © Armen Elliott

Set photos by Peter Kachergis

Peformance photos courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art




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