Unlike most musicians, a vocalist’s instrument is completely hidden from view, so the inner workings of an opera singer’s organs have remained relatively mysterious, until now.
Dr. Eve Klein, an operatic mezzo-soprano, will perform whilst wearing a laryngoscope, a device that streams the deeply personal inner workings of her voice to a very intimate audience. The performance is a part of her immersive, interactive exhibit, Vocal Womb, which will be unveiled later this month.
The exhibit will also feature microphones capturing the sounds of her lungs, heart, and other organs, which the audience will be able to remix back into the vocal performance.
The wonderfully alien performance will feature at Mofo from the 19th to the 21st of January, before touring around the country later this year.
Mofo is the powerfully provocative annual Festival Of Music and Art held by Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). Entering its tenth and final year at MONA, the festival has built a reputation for showcasing an extremely diverse range of international artists across an equally diverse range of art forms.
Nothing lies out of the scope of what Mofo will feature.
We interviewed Eve about Vocal Womb and what it’s like to perform with a tube down her throat.
Vocal Womb will see you perform whilst wearing a laryngoscope broadcasting your internal workings to both a live and online audience. What was the process that led to this kind of performance?
“I have been an operatic mezzo-soprano for the last fifteen years. Vocal Womb came about because I wanted to create an experience where the audience was invited inside my body. Opera singers train for a minimum of 10 years and, unlike other musicians, our instruments are hidden from view.
“At its best, opera is able to transport audiences to the sublime heights and depths of human emotions, but only if the voice is perfectly rendered. For singers, performance can be a fight against the agency of our own bodies which are fallible, volatile, and highly responsive to our inner emotional state.
“In performing opera, we seek to control our bodies and conceal our own self in service to the music we sing — but there are many times when our human fragility is involuntarily asserted in the cracked note, the quaver and the glitch.
“I’d been thinking about the conflict-laden relationship between singers’ bodies and the music they perform and I tried to imagine a performance work which challenged this paradigm. Since then there has been a lot of research and rehearsal to make the work possible.”
Okay, we have to ask, what is it like on a physical level to perform whilst wearing a laryngoscope? What sort of preparation would you go through prior to a performance?
“I’m fairly lucky in that I’m not squeamish. I find the scope a little bit irritating when in place but otherwise it is bearable. It’s a bit like going to the dentist—it’s not a great experience but something that you cope with.
“I’ve chosen to work with a thin scope of about 3.5mm which gets inserted through my nose. This keeps my mouth and tongue clear so that I can sing in a relatively normal way.
“The process for performing with the device is a little bit different every day depending on how my body is feeling. If my nose is congested or swollen it’s harder and I need to clear it before I can comfortably insert the device. Would you like more of the gory details…? 😉
“Opera singers rely upon resonance, particularly from their sinus cavities, to colour their voices and to adapt their voices to different performance spaces. It’s difficult to feel this resonance with a scope inserted which means that you lose that sensation of how your voice fits into a space, an obstacle between you and the bloom of your sound.
“Otherwise, preparation is the same for any performance – be well rested, warm up the voice first, avoid certain foods, remain calm and focused.”
Vocal Womb features an intimate level of audience engagement. Can you explain how the audience participates in the performance, and how it feels as a performer to connect with them in such a way?
“The audience gets to witness me being “dressed” in medical devices. I’ll be inserting the laryngoscope with the audience present and also attaching stethoscopes to my heart, lungs and intestines so that the sounds of my internal bodily functions can be heard in real-time.
“There is a mixing station in the performance space and the audience is invited to remix the sounds of my body while I’m performing – isolating audio from my heart or stomach.”
“One fascinating part of opera singing is that you sing with your whole body, so the resonances of my voice will be present in each of the audio feeds, distorted by inhalation, tissue and bone. This also allows the audience to verify that the performance they are witnessing is genuine.
“Importantly, my voice won’t sound “pretty” because of this process, but real and raw. It’s not possible to maintain a perfect operatic vocal technique while wearing the devices. This level of “exposure” is an important part of presenting my body in an intimate way because it contradicts the normal artifice of opera.
“Given this, it’s a bit terrifying to performing in this way which is so counter to my whole training and experience as an opera singer. I’m trusting that my audience will be able to find something meaningful in my fragility.”
What are your plans for Vocal Womb after its premiere at Mofo? Do you have any other projects on the horizon for 2018?
“Vocal Womb will tour international festivals and galleries for a couple of years after the Mofo premiere – I’m currently negotiating these, so stay tuned!
“There will also be a Vocal Womb audio-visual album coming in early 2019 to allow everyone to experience the work. The album will showcase the original compositions which structure the performance and the underlying texts written by Quinn Eades and Virginia Barratt.
“In 2018 I’m also composing two other operas, Red River and Tryptich and Postscript.
“Red River confronts the realities of drought and how it affects those living in the most remote areas of Australia. Jordin Steele is Red River’s artistic director and she’s been working closely with communities in Central Western Queensland to capture real people’s stories as a key part of the work.
“Tryptich and Postscript is a radio opera drawing parallels from Australia’s colonial past to the current day offshore detention of asylum seekers and will feature text by Ravi Glasser-Vora and vocal performances by Shawn Brown and Sarah Crane.”
When she is not performing avant-garde new age opera, Eve is a lecturer in music technology and popular music at the University of Queensland. Her other works have been featured at festivals across the country and internationally.