It doesn’t feel like an opera at all. Instead of a palatial hall, The Whisper Opera is performed in the Theatre Centre for an audience of 52 people. The stage juts out into the crowd, draped in boudoirish curtains. The musicians ply their instruments gingerly, making faint melodies that sound like they’re coming from another room: the percussionist, for example, rubs two cowbells together and hits a glockenspiel with his fingers, and the cellist plays with a toothed mute stilling the strings. The soprano Tony Arnold doesn’t sing her words so much as breathe them. If you’re sitting more than five feet from the stage, you might not hear anything.
The Pulitzer-winning American composer David Lang has made a career of minimalist mischief. He conceived The Whisper Opera as a kind of unrecordable, sacrosanct event—something that could only be experienced live, in a theatre, in person. For the libretto, he cobbled together Internet secrets, googling phrases like “When I’m alone, I…” and “I wish I wasn’t so….” There’s no plot, just an impressionistic collection of ghostly phrases too private to be spoken at full volume.
The effect is as much performance art as it is music: the performers sit cross-legged on the stage, so close you can touch their shoelaces; the hushed music requires active listening to pick up; the singer practically murmurs secrets in your ear. It’s gimmicky, but it works. The piece is strange, singular and jarringly intimate. That’s something you can’t get on YouTube.
Feb. 26 to Mar. 1. $67.50. The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. W., 416-534-9261, tickets.rcmusic.ca.