Silence is golden in Lang’s ‘Whisper Opera’

When most people think of operas, they think of booming voices, elaborate sets and costumes, and all the other accoutrements that go along with the proverbial fat lady singing.

David Lang Whisper Opera at MCA Chicago

The set of David Lang’s ‘Whisper Opera’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

David Lang has other ideas. His Whisper Opera, which I caught at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in late May and which is scheduled for Aug. 10-13 at the Mostly Mozart festival in New York, has only a few moments that are operatic in the conventional sense of the word.

For the better part of the performance — which comes with no intermissions for sipping cocktails, another opera staple — musicians whisper a variety of enigmatic statements and phrases, while silently walking about a raised stage and softly playing a variety of instruments. At MCA Chicago, the audience sat on chairs in channels throughout a stage, which was raised above them. The soaring stage, coupled with billowing curtains, suggested that viewers might be underwater, or at least in a dream sequence.

The performance is so silent that even more so than at a typical opera, the audience is conscious of every cough or sneeze–a hyper-awareness that is at first terrifying, but soon yields to a meditative experience. Perhaps the best way to describe the performance is to call it Gregorian chants with the volume turned way down.

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