Isolation Opera

This project comes about in this time of isolation for so many people in Europe and elsewhere.

But people are inventive and adaptable and we see such a diversity of cultural connections moving into the online worlds. The idea for this project was hatched in conversations with Mary Miller of Bergen National Opera and in zoom gatherings of Edinburgh art collective Ethel Maude.

THIS EVENING’S PERFORMANCE is not an online or streaming project it is an event taking place on phone lines. Over three evenings in early summer 2020 you are invited to call a number and connect to a real live person, someone who is part of one of the postponed or cancelled opera productions. This person will be your usher, guiding you round sounds from the performance they are involved in. This event is participatory and no doubt rather joyfully chaotic.

The idea of personal connection and individual story seems very powerful at the moment.

However, this idea of linking listeners and the world of opera by telephone is far from new. 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 telephone opera and one he repeatedly dialled in for, was Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande, with Scottish soprano Mary Garden as Mélisande (see Jean-Yves Tadié’s biography of Proust for more detail).

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 present day and throughout Europe we are in, or emerging from, our own isolations. All of us who can, have moved our work, activities and social lives online. The outpouring of culture through streaming has been amazing, hope giving and encouraging.

For those of us whose homes are connected we have a feast of content to choose from. Here in Scotland as I write, we are entering our 9th week of lockdown, day 57 in which video conferences and online quizzes are just the norm. However, one of the things that hasn’t moved online so easily is a feeling of connection. People talk about Zoom fatigue as we grapple with the situations that these new encounters throw up – our screens freeze, that weird delay in response where our brains wonder if what we’ve said has been received in the way it was meant. The muted microphones of multi user calls don’t give us a sense of connected silence or concentration, but instead it’s more of a vacuum. At the same time as being isolated, our homes and home lives are on display to our work colleagues in ways we couldn’t have imagined before. 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 are suddenly taking place from the kitchen table, it can feel invasive.

So, it feels positive, if retro, to pick up the phone, and instead of watching or reading, I make a call. And this is the space in which THIS EVENING’S PERFORMANCE takes place. In the private one-to-one connections of phone calls we can explore some wonderful operatic work which is currently lost in its intended form. Perhaps this event will have something in common with a trip to the theatre – the phone-line is a live space, at once prescribed and a little risky. On the evening of Sunday 31st of May, our first event, the ushers will be poised at home, phone in hand, with an array of sound fragments from their productions at their fingertips, ready to take you on a bespoke journey into their world. No one knows who will be connected with whom, or how many brief conversations the evening may hold, but it will certainly be playful way to share opera!

Zoë Irvine, At home, Edinburgh, 18th May 2020