ISOLATION OPERA

ZOË IRVINE

This project came about in a time of isolation for so many people in Europe and elsewhere. People are inventive and adaptable and we saw such a diversity of cultural connections moving into the online worlds.

THIS EVENING’S PERFORMANCE was not an online or streaming project it was an event that took place on phone lines. Over three evenings in early summer 2020 people were invited to call a number and connect to another real live person, someone who was part of one of the postponed or cancelled opera productions. This person was their usher, guiding them round sounds from the performance they are involved in.

The event was participatory and joyfully chaotic. It was not a small ask to suggest that instead of sitting back and receiving a performance, an audience member would interact, negotiate a conversation, find out more, as much or as little as the dynamics of their particular conversation lead to.

What interested me particularly was trying to create a setting in which personal connection could occur and the telephone seemed an ideal candidate. The idea of linking listeners with the world of opera by telephone is far from new. This is not the first piece of work where I use this technology [1], but it is far older than my own explorations. In fact, I first came across it when reading a biography of the writer Marcel Proust. Just over 100 years ago Proust was living in Paris, spending most of his time in a cork lined room to keep the noise out, writing his masterwork In Search of Lost Time. He did let some sound in though – Proust was a Theatrophone subscriber. This meant he was able to connect live to the Paris Opera and a variety of other Paris theatres from his bedside phone. His favourite opera on the phone and one he repeatedly dialled in for, was Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande at the Paris Opera [2].

The Theatrophone service in Paris was not unique. There was the Electrophone in London and in Budapest the Telefon Hírmondó was a first telephone newspaper, bringing news and entertainment to its subscribers as did the Araldo Telefonico in Rome. However, with the advent of radio broadcasting and the phonograph all of these services ceased in the 1920s.

Fast forward to the spring 2020 and throughout Europe we were in, or emerging from, our own isolations. All of us who could, moved our work, activities and social lives online. The outpouring of culture through streaming was been amazing, hope giving and encouraging.

For those of us whose homes are connected there was a feast of content to choose from. Here in Scotland, at the time of the first evening of THIS EVENING’S PERFORMANCE at the end of May, it was our 9th week of lockdown, day 57 in which video conferences and online quizzes were just the norm. However, one of the things that didn’t move online so easily was a feeling of connection. People talked about Zoom fatigue as we grappled with the situations that those new encounters threw up – the frozen computer screen, the weird delay in response where we are forced to wonder if what we have said has been received in the way it was meant. The vacuum silence of multi user, muted microphones that doesn’t give us a sense of connected silence or concentration.

Suddenly in this period as well as being isolated, our homes and home lives were on display to our work colleagues in ways we couldn’t have imagined pre covid-19. We were forced into considerations such as ‘How to position that camera best so that the mess of my life doesn’t influence what I want this video call to be about…?’ All of our social roles were taking place from the kitchen table and it could feel invasive.

So it was, that the phone felt like a positive if retro route. Asking both performers and audience to engage in a call, a one-to-one space in which we could explore the operatic work currently lost in its intended form. Perhaps in this way THIS EVENING’S PERFORMANCE HAS NOT BEEN CANCELLED had something in common with a trip to the theatre with the telephone offering a live space that is at once prescribed and a little risky.

Now as I write this, a couple of months on, the time in which this event took place feels like another era. We are not able to share any of the audio that the ushers presented to the callers, but we do invite you to dip in to some of the call centre recordings. The sound archive of telephone conversations presents an oral history of people on both sides of the call grappling with the ever changing circumstances as they were then.

The idea for THIS EVENING’S PERFORMANCE was hatched in conversations with Mary Miller of Bergen National Opera and developed in zoom gatherings of Edinburgh art collective Ethel Maude, in particular, artist Lindsay Perth who created the website and graphic identity of the project.

Zoë Irvine, August 2020