Imagine waiting for a long time. You can’t see anything, so you can’t entirely trust your unfamiliar surroundings. Imagine heightened senses: sounds with sharper edges, drafts of air crawling across goosebumped skin, scents stretching out to you in the darkness. Imagine an opera in which the performers can watch the audience rather than the other way around. The audience has been blindfolded before being led to their seats, and the singers circle around them, heard but unseen. The performance incorporates searing music, a wide range of atmospheric sounds, a narrative based on the Maeterlinck play Les aveugles, and multi-sensory elements – but no visuals.

Lera Auerbach © F. Reinhold
Lera Auerbach
© F. Reinhold

All of these limitations and special effects might sound gimmicky, but Lera Auerbach’s a cappella opera The Blind, directed by John La Bouchardière, explored the concepts of imagination and communication in such a stunning, effective manner that the final product wasn’t gimmicky at all. We were told “the story so far” before filing, suddenly sightless, into the Stanley Kaplan Penthouse: a group of blind people and a sighted infant, all under the care of an elderly priest, have been left on an island, where they collectively await his return. We then experienced for ourselves the rest of Maeterlinck’s story, a blend between Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and José Saramago’s novel Blindness, with a dash of the TV show Lost (though of course the 1890 original predates all three).

Mr La Bouchardière’s decision to have each audience member blindfolded before Ms Auerbach’s opera was logical, considering its subject. But the blindfolds also substantiated the power of the individual mind in constructing an inner vision of outer circumstances. The restless and occasionally fearful tension resulting from the blindfolds placed all of us in roles in the story. Before I could be sure the opera had even begun, a voice leaned over and droned into my ear, “You must wait here without talking”. And so the scene was set: waiting, waiting, waiting, never sure what to expect.

First, we heard the sounds of the invisible island: rumbles, howls, and whines. Animals might have been shoving through foliage. We heard leaves shifting against each other as breezes snaked across our skin. Then we heard the anguished melodies questioning and pleading across each other. “Where are we?” “Where are you?” they wondered, but nobody knew. The singers, conducted by Julian Wachner, moved stealthily throughout the space, so that the sounds were enveloping us rather than coming at us from a single angle. At one point, certain performers were standing so near, I could probably have reached out and touched them. Instead I fidgeted nervously in my seat as the characters discovered the dead body of the priest. The hopelessness escalated.

There were six female voices and six deeper male voices, which were joined towards the end by the bawling baby. The voices crescendoed as they recited a prayer in Latin, begging for salvation. The electronic effects matched them forcefully with wind and waves crashing across each other. The sounds grew louder and louder and were joined by an acrid smell, like something singed or burning. Finally, we were lulled into silence by a gentle humming. Was it over? “Where are we?” All we heard was the velcro rip of a few impatient audience members taking off their blindfolds. Then we waited again, until eventually a round of sheepish applause brought everyone back from the island.

Musically, the opera was beautiful, if sometimes unexceptional and even a bit flat. However, the singers were remarkable, and the electronics, often distorted in ugly and interesting ways, never overpowered their twelve voices. The score on its own is adequate, but Mr La Bouchardière’s direction created a unique immersive environment that will hopefully be explored by other artists in the future. The spatial aspect kept the music from dripping into syrup, and the additional sensory effects harmonized with the spectrum of sounds in a rare and fascinating way.

Most significant were the blindfolds. While initially limiting and worrisome, the “blindness” achieved a sort of liberation from the usual limitation of “seeing” an operatic work through the lens of another. Behind each blindfold was each person’s version of the island and the terrible scenes faced on it. Rather than a cheesy exercise in disability awareness, they served the purpose of the libretto and music by eliminating what Ms Auerbach refers to as “the illusion of predictability”. Cast into an abyss of fear of the unknown, we could only wait: physically surrounded by others, but never seeing what they were seeing.