LINCOLN CENTER FESTIVAL, NEW YORK / TRONDHEIM CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL / GOTHENBURG POINT FESTVAL
Lera Auerbach's rarely performed a cappella opera, The Blind (2001) has been reimagined as a sensory adventure that immerses the audience in Maeterlinck's mystery by blindfolding them and placing them amongst the protagonists. Denying all the power to see and situating the voices within the audience, the performance unfolds in a shifting surround-sound world, in which non-visual senses are heightened and the opera’s theme shared.
Auerbach’s original score has been developed to exploit La Bouchardière’s avant-garde approach and an adaptation of her electronic piece, After the end of time, now prefaces the opera. This accompanies a rite of passage that takes the audience on a physical and aural journey from the bustle of modern-day life to remote solitude as each member of the audience is blindfolded and individually escorted to a seat by specially trained ushers. Isolated and sightless, like the characters amongst them, people experience the opera as if in it themselves, as the smells of the forest, the feeling of sea breezes, the cold falling snow and Auerbach’s music enfold them.
“An adventurous, eerie and thoroughly engaging example of immersive theater.”
The New York Times
“John La Bouchardière's unusual staging... conjured up an environment of emptiness and isolation.”
Wall Steet Journal
“Strips the art form of its conventions – to evocative, thought provoking effect."
New Jersey Star Ledger
“The Blind is not an opera. It is a sensual experience... The sensory bombardment mercilessly pulled us into the blind confusion and fear... When the opera is over, we know hardly what to do. ”
“The physical experience... is truly unique and remarkably executed ... lets the audience come away with an individual learning experience that will stay with them, potentially changing who they are.”
“Sitting there... with mysterious voices swirling around me, I felt blind, all right — vulnerable and strangely alone.”
New York Post
“A one-of-a-kind production and unique theatre experience.”
Lera Auerbach, composer
“I found the performance very moving as well as deeply inspiring both on a creative level and as a life experience.”
New Music Box
“The Blind is not about the people in the play being blind, it’s about people in general, that we are all blind.”
“An experience unlike any other – intensely powerful and intimate – that I will not soon forget”
“Nothing else I’ve ever experienced in the theater has made me so immediately homesick. I longed to be indoors (even though I was). Most terrifying was the end. When the opera concluded... we all sat in silence. It seemed the opera hadn’t merely ended, but decamped. I had been abandoned by The Blind.”
“La Bouchardière’s direction created a unique immersive environment [and] explored the concepts of imagination and communication in such a stunning, effective manner [that] “blindness” achieved a sort of liberation from the usual limitation of seeing an opera through the lens of another.”
Maurice Maeterlinck was praised by the Nobel Prize committee of 1911 as a visionary who could “call up from the secret depths of our souls that which ordinarily remains in a mysterious twilight,” and his early drama Les Aveugles (1890), remains an important and profound study of the human condition. Ostensibly about a group of sightless people abandoned on a desolate island, this pioneering play examines humanity’s perception of itself and its reason to be; like the prisoners in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the characters’ understanding of the world is constantly questioned; a precursor of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, it challenges the rationale of an existence lacking purpose and the futility of unconsidered obedience.
Lera Auerbach’s operatic adaptation is faithful to the existentialist spirit of the original but also gives Maeterlinck’s austere symbolism a terrifying intensity by condensing the narrative and heightening emotion through the sheer power of song. Furthermore, Maeterlinck’s stage direction that some characters should pray throughout the drama is transformed into the musical foundation for Auerbach’s entire score through her addition of sacred texts. This made it conceivable for her to compose the opera a cappella, thus retaining the loneliness of the play (compared to adding an orchestra) and significantly amplifying the religious allegory.
A challenge in presenting this work is to remain true to Maeterlinck’s use of blindness as a metaphor for a society that has lost its way while accepting that his premise—that the blind are intrinsically incapable and to be pitied—is both socially and theatrically divisive. Though Maeterlinck’s setting becomes extremely inhospitable and though part of the reason his characters do not move sooner is out of obedience (having been instructed by their priest to sit and wait in silence), portraying the protagonists as sighted people would be irreconcilable with the literal meaning of the text.
In creating this project, it seemed to me that the main obstacle to our connection with The Blind could be that audiences spectate. The little significant movement by the sightless characters might suggest that nothing much happens, thus removing the audience from the protagonists’ crisis; the observers’ position—as outsiders looking in—would inevitably emphasize the sense of otherness, accentuating the literal blindness of the characters, weakening the metaphoric depth of the story and so discourage empathy completely. By contrast, I felt that the reverse was needed: that the privileged and implicitly judgmental distance of the audience should be removed.
By positioning the audience within the physical action of the characters and requiring that none should move or see, I believed that the story might be allowed to be about everyone. From my experience of working with a cappella music-theatre in The Full Monteverdi, I knew this ought to be musically possible (if not necessarily easy). However, despite certain similarities in the surround-sound worlds of both projects, The Blind has proven a very different task. While the usual prize of drama is to convince the public to identify with its fictional characters, those witnessing The Blind need actually to experience the story for themselves. Their world should be our world, so that it is not one ostracized group but the whole society present that is blind: unable to watch the drama, all might be in it.
The result, I hope, communicates the meaning behind Maeterlinck’s powerful metaphor and, in keeping with the original play’s questioning of our perceptions, will inspire debate and understanding rather than ill-considered prejudice toward those who sense the world differently. Moreover, by embracing the non-visual performing environment, it may become possible to provoke the audience’s imagination into constructing Maeterlinck’s setting in the mind, creating an intimate experience that might—precisely because it cannot be seen—be more intense and more faithful to the essence of opera than the grand spectacle usually associated with the genre.
John La Bouchardière, July 2013