The act of whispering is always a little mysterious. Someone may whisper to share an intimacy, or make a confession, or be seductive. But if it goes on, whispering soon becomes annoying, even aggressive. You want to shout out: “Just say what you mean!”
That tense ambiguity permeates David Lang’s “the whisper opera,” which opened at the N.Y.U. Skirball Center on Wednesday and runs through Feb. 4. Mr. Lang’s aim in this 65-minute piece, he explains in a program note, was to write something so quiet and personal that the audience would need to be right next to the performers to hear anything at all. A few years after its New York premiere in 2013 at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart festival, “the whisper opera” felt even more eerily intimate in this revival, again directed and designed by Jim Findlay.
A soprano, the closest this opera has to a protagonist, mostly walks across intersecting white platforms, amid white lace curtains that billow as she passes. She sometimes hums softly but mostly whispers cryptic phrases and fragments of sentences. The words themselves are often unclear, especially when she wanders away from you.
Credit Emon Hassan for The New York Times
Four members of the International Contemporary Ensemble, playing a cello, various flutes, clarinets and percussion, produce myriad hushed sounds, sometimes scratching their nails or rubbing their hands on cymbals or on suspended bass drums, and playing halting motifs that almost form lyrical phrases. During more intense episodes, the instruments align into softly pungent chords or a bit of contrapuntal interplay.
More than mere accompanists, these players are participants in the drama, following the singer across the platforms with their instruments, and often whispering their own indistinct phrases. All of them on Wednesday, especially the flutist Claire Chase and the cellist Chris Gross, were compelling actors. (The soprano Alice Teyssier is alternating performances with the haunting Tony Arnold, whom I heard — and didn’t — and other members of the ensemble are also taking on instrumental “roles” through the run.)