THIS EVENING’S PERFORMANCE

RACHEL BOYD

Music is transportive: it takes the individual on a journey which is mutually inclusive of both performers and their audience alike; disseminated within the forum of the theatre. In This Evening’s Performance Will Not Be Cancelled, this creative agency is rendered literal by virtue of the call-handling software used to facilitate direct channels of communication – by which the caller was able dial up and key in their chosen destination through a speed-dial service, connecting them with theatre professionals in real time (e.g, press 1 for Bergen National Opera). The performance of the project’s title is a live work performed through the conduit of telephone wires, linking international callers with ushers from across nine European theatre companies – Bergen National Opera, Norway; Garsington Opera, London; The Airport Society, Belgium; Teatro Real Madrid, Spain; Dutch National Opera, Netherlands; Grand Théâtre de Genève, Switzerland; Wuppertaler Bühnen, Germany and Staatsoper Hannover, Germany – whose productions were brought to an abrupt halt by the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.

Furthermore, callers had the option to choose from a variety of pre-recorded excerpts related to the performance. These recordings signal the termination of the call. It is this transfer from live conversation to these disembodied recordings, estranged from view, that I find perhaps the most intriguing element of This Evening’s Performance Will Not Be Cancelled. The recourse to dialogue as a bridge between disparate, trans-continental callers and respondents here signals a commonality between the ‘sounding’ of our most intimate thoughts and experiences – a practice grounded in counselling – and the abstraction of what we experience as music, in all its tonal density, from over telephone lines. To my own mind, conversation constitutes a means of co-production which resembles opera in that – unlike the recordings that follow – dialogue between both caller and respondent operates on a horizontal axis. Conversation is borne out of a process of listening to each other in tandem; levelling gaps in our language, age and experience. These conversations might function as an induction into these respective European productions, hinging on an introduction to the genre of opera itself. For others, the project is a directive for company, for companionship of strangers. Opera, here, is presented as a discursive medium that facilitates personal reflection; where one might concede to hearing and find solace in being heard; the audience, privy to the cavernous echo-chamber that constitutes the theatre, also great and wondrous carriers of sound. One gentleman mused that the project provided a much-needed outlet to talk about opera after the death of his wife, his theatre-going companion.

As the ushers hang up the receiver and the recordings emerge into earshot, there is a benign attempt to fold conversation neatly back into the remit of the exchange; to relate the dialogue the premise of a performance which was never quite realised. Perhaps they do not realise that the conversation that has passed between them constitutes the event. Perhaps those participants do know this – but prefer to think on it quietly. To acknowledge it is to rupture the delicacy of the space they have consecrated together – to pierce that enclosed, dark space of conversation which, like an igloo built in winter, is eventually holed up again, left to silently dissipate.

Opera trades upon the creation of this negative space: isolating the audience from their surroundings by veiling all bar the stage in complete darkness; even as the pit remains hidden from view. The chorus of an orchestra reverberates throughout the theatre in a kind of sudden shock; imploring the audience to acclimatise to the dense acoustics of the space by way of redirecting our attention to the sublime, all-encompassing qualities of sound: that which fills your eyes, as well as your eyes. Our senses are similarly disabled when entering into telephonic discourse. By dialing up and keying in, participants were invited to engage intimately with sound, recalling a quasi-religious dedication to the Opera that necessitated the invention of the 1881 Theatrophone. Telephone transmitters were once set up across the stage of the Paris Opera and broadcast of a specially-designed booth installed in bars and cafes or accessed from within the home by way of a paid-for subscription, which could accommodate listening at close range.

That dialogue is ameliorative in a time of social distancing and isolation, offering up a shelter in which we might briefly press us up against each other. The implicit awkwardness in these initial, shy encounters is tentatively stage-managed in conversation: often, giving way to laughter.
The telephone renders our breath, our exclamations, our pauses tangible. Like warm breath rushing against cold air, telephony renders us vulnerable to “the very being of our sentences, and the climate that fostered them”. Several of the productions featured – such as The Murder of Halit Yozgat, Symphony of Expectation, Voyage vers L’Espoir – dissect contemporary socio-political events, pushing the boundaries of what might be heard in a kind of sonic activism. The traffic generated by opera proper lends itself to polyphony; an imagined symposium in which the shifting floor of discourse is continually unpicked in an act of resistance. Opera accords the temper of the moment with something other than white noise. The plot-line of any given opera treads a contradictory and fluctuating soundscape, oscillating between deep crescendos, harmonies and splinters of creeping disquiet. Making sense of these recorded excerpts after the event reinstates the poignancy of these conversations, bound up in the unprecedented circumstances in which they have occurred. The project renders presence in that which there might otherwise have been an absence; tracing footprints in the snow.

As the poet John Ashbery also wrote, “We are all talkers, it is true… but underneath the talk lies the moving and not wanting to be moved”. Sound Artist Zoe Irvine, the artist responsible for This Evening’s Performance Will Not Be Cancelled, had to resource ways in which to implore ushers from across the nine European theatres to embrace and encourage open dialogue.

The spontaneity of this conversation engendered a tangible sense of unease between both parties; retracting the typical hierarchy between caller and respondent in the giving and receiving of information. Rather, it was the callers who direct conversation and who, in turn, prompt the ushers – the composers, conductors, dramaturges, stage-directors and musicians – who, wrenched from the instruments and apparatus which demonstrate their role, are now tasked with verbally describing their relationship to opera. Many callers had never attended the theatre before. This Evening’s Performance Will Not Be Cancelled destabilises opera from the traditional forum of the classical theatre; from the conventions that appropriate the space as ‘exclusive’, ‘expensive’ and ‘high-brow’. Through the prosthesis of the modern telephone, the audience are also being received.