ICE brings up-close intimacy to Lang opera premiere at MCA

Fri May 31, 2013 at 12:23 pm

By Gerald Fisher

David Lang’s “the whisper opera” was performed by ICE Thursday night at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

For the season closer of their residency at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) presented the world premiere of a new opera by the prolific American composer David Lang Thursday night. Called the whisper opera, the work turns the whole concept of opera on its head, striving to achieve the most minimal effects in sound and scale, before the smallest audience possible, involving a soprano who barely sings and four instrumentalists who produce the slightest of tones, all cast in the most ambivalent of emotional meanings.

All credit to the composer and his collaborators for attempting something new, and selling out all performances to an audience willing to work with them on a genuine experiment in music. The performance took place on the stage of the Edlis Neeson Theater with an audience limited to 60. Audience members were arranged in single rows around risers that were nose-high and surrounded by white curtains demarcating separate performance spaces peopled by ICE soloists Claire Chase, flutist, Joshua Rubin, clarinetist, Kivie Cahn-Lipman, cellist and Ross Karre, percussionist.

Soprano Tony Arnold held the performance together with her intense physical movements and emotive whispering of barely audible texts lifted from the internet. She took her message to each area and audience member individually while the instrumentalists moved from space to space as well. The high white curtains delineated spaces as sterile as hospital beds in an emergency room.

The musical content, when audible, was at times delicate and engrossing, and one could be quite mesmerized by the gentle scraping, tapping, chiming and microtonal instrumentalism that underlay the vocal score. The subtle lighting effects also helped to keep the performance from becoming too tedious for the duration of almost an hour. For anyone willing to give in to the overall trajectory of the performance, there was payback at the conclusion when the instruments were allowed to open up tonally and dynamically and Tony Arnold’s beautiful voice rang out in what could only be called an aria.

David Lang’s music is at times challenging and at other times sensitive and refined, although fitfully attenuated over the long span. Whether the whisper opera was an artistic success or not is as ambiguous as most of the work’s gestures and is probably only measurable in the mind of each individual witness.

There is certainly room for change, however subtle. The coming performances will no doubt adapt and react to the experience of live staging and audience feedback.

The whisper opera will be repeated at the MCA through June 2. All performances are sold out. The production will then move to New York City.

Posted in Performances

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