YERMA Turns Audio Operatic – Aron Canter responds

Photo by Stephanie Berger

Let’s take a second to tune into how the sounds that surround us tell the story of our lives. The sounds we make up, that make us, have a particular timbre, for me an auburn I at times can’t recognize. The voices and cries around us are an allegory. Our every phenomenon is accompanied by their sounds, and they sing our every experience.

There’s a litmus test in the Opera: I should be able to listen to an opera on the radio, in a language I don’t speak, with no context to the design or what not, and still always understand the circumstance unfolding, the type of character singing, and the feeling that character is experiencing. The much discussed Lorca adaptation up at the Park Avenue Armory, Yerma, is an opera of a community’s tragic spiral. The sounds of their experience and how the production hones into every little sound and tells a story through them is without question the most dynamic and interesting aspect of the performance.

This may come as a surprise as Yerma is rightly celebrated by the New York City kingmakers as a must-see for the performances. But the sound design allowed the performances to assert themselves to the massive Armory house, buttressed the performances, gave the production all of its rhythm and pace, and gave the vital texture to the play world.

Despite the intimidating scope of the legendary Armory performance hall, with its 80-foot high ceiling, Yerma achieved an unusual closeness. Minor sound gestures — a slight inhale, two hands rubbing down a shirt, the squeak of realization — were given great forward presence; emphatic sound gestures, like slamming a briefcase on the floor, even greater emphasis. The powerful PA brought the smallest conversations right to me in the back of the house.

And those conversations were also told at a brisk, somewhat styled pace. The text of course mattered, but the timbre of the conversations impressed itself more so on the spectators, did more to tell the emotional story of the play. I recall the unapproving, distant, melodic brogue of the mother, who spoke just a hint harsher as the play twisted down and out of control. The sounds of the words, to even a greater extent than the meaning of the words, conveyed, really surrendered, the arc of the story.

The casting was all about that, and the specificity of each characters voice correlated to their feeling relevance to the play. The firecracker friend in her 20’s had the rumble and spike of one of those good drugs that don’t ever go bad, right? The sister, slightly depressing, slightly way more put together than she lets on, spoke with a firm underbelly and a steady sound that tumbled out of her with a confidence which betrayed the worry the character attempted to project. The former boyfriend spoke with a settled ebullience, never the sound of sex but of a youthful caregiver. Like in an opera, their sounds were key to their presence and guided us through the events.

I’ve been a bit derelict, keeping the specifics of the tragic arc from you for all this time. Yerma is the story of Her, the unnamed protagonist, performed by the acclaimed Billie Piper, trying to have a child, and her surrounding family struggling alongside. It takes a Herculean performance to do this well — in fact, it takes a Medean performance, and because of the sound focus of the production we are provided direct access to Piper’s journey.

And we devour that journey, not unlike, at least I imagine, the Met audience devoured Leontyne Price in her last run as Aida. In the Opera the power and presence of the singers voice is vital to reaching the spectators; in Yerma the PA did that for us. Piper was able to perform with subtlety and detail that is usually too small for the theater and so just found in mediated performances. Her quizzers and yelps, the need of her sound, the holes in her anger revealed through the unsteady rocking of her delivery, created the tapestry that was her performance.

There is something at the heart of the art experience that is found in such a performance. Anne Carson likes to say great works feel the real deep things for us, so spectators can feel with them at a distance. The innate co-presence of the theater, vitally with the closeness the production provides, brought the deep shit to the house at the Armory. And the sounds that did the storytelling connected us to the story, as the sounds of a collapse are universal, and could’ve been our own sounds in another world.


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