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Secrets Found Online, Shared Softly: David Lang’s ‘whisper opera’ Mines Truths From the Web

David Lang '89DMA, composition faculty
August 2, 2013

New York Times
By WILLIAM ROBIN

Opera and technology have long had an uneasy relationship. The one has always required the other — from the Baroque spectacle of 17th-century operas, with their deus-ex-machina gimmickry, to the stagecraft required to mount any contemporary production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle.

Historically, though, opera tended to avoid confronting the technological head-on. Composers stuck to timeworn subjects from literature, myth or history. Machines controlled the staging; they didn’t usually appear onstage.

But we live with a different set of myths today, and contemporary opera has begun to reflect the age of Mark Zuckerberg and Edward Snowden. Thus, Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys,” a story of intrigue and murder in online chat rooms, which will arrive at the Metropolitan Opera in October; and Tod Machover’s 2010 “Death and the Powers,” a “robot pageant” featuring animatronic sets and a wealthy industrialist who downloads his own consciousness. And in David Lang’s “whisper opera” — which will have its New York premiere on Saturday at the Clark Studio Theater at Lincoln Center — the Internet takes center stage.

Online communication forms the backbone of “the whisper opera,” which will run through Aug. 13 as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival. Mr. Lang, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and a founder of the Bang on a Can new-music collective, has created a libretto out of what he calls Internet secrets. He typed short, personal phrases like “When I think of you I think of” into a search engine and cataloged the results. The opera consists of these poignant aphorisms, made anonymous by the omission of sources. A kind of one-man version of the Prism project, Mr. Lang trolls Internet data for clandestine truths.

“It is about the difference between our live persons and our hidden persons,” Mr. Lang said in a recent phone interview. Invoking Mr. Snowden, the composer noted the paradox between recent anger over government surveillance and the willingness of consumers to give information to advertisers. “There are things that we’re happy to reveal about ourselves through our corporate purchases or through our chat rooms, or through our political speech, or through all sorts of incredible communications that we make” through the Internet, he added. “And yet live, we would never say these things.”

Except in Mr. Lang’s opera, in which they are whispered by the soprano Tony Arnold as well as four instrumentalists from the International Contemporary Ensemble, who will also perform the composer’s hushed music. Removed from their original context, lines like “It’s not my fault that I am so pretty” recall the plaintive, mesmerizing repetition of Mr. Lang’s recent works, like “The Little Match Girl Passion,” a reinterpretation of Bach and Hans Christian Andersen; “Death Speaks,” a song cycle deconstructing Schubert lieder; and “love fail,” a meditation on the tale of Tristan and Isolde.

In drawing on Internet secrets, Mr. Lang illuminates the contradictions in modern life, the contrasts drawn between what we reveal in heated comment threads and what we conceal in the real world. “When we go search something on the Internet,” and then suddenly “ads for it show up for the rest of the year — whatever site we visit — we don’t have any problem with this,” he said. “And yet if there were a marketer calling us every day, if there was a human part of this, we would be very upset”…

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