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the listeners

20 november 2022

In a departure for lection, I am going to "review" a book I have only read a few pages of. (I've read all of the others I've reviewed here, at least that's my story.) Jordan Tannahill's novel The Listeners didn't appeal to me much and I did not read far in it. Despite its intriguing premise (a story of "the hum," the worldwide auditory phenomenon, more concentrated in spots like Taos than others, possibly a mystery, possibly a delusion), The Listeners begins with extensive labored exposition – one of those extrapolative fictions like, say, Andy Weir's The Martian that seems all about its scaffolding of facts and ideas and little about narrative or drama.

Maybe the novel gets better. I can't say. But I learned about the novel from the new opera The Listeners by Missy Mazzoli, to a libretto by Royce Vavrek, which streamed recently from Oslo via operavision.eu. The opera has its problems too but it is interesting as both drama and music. If it doesn't succeed, it sure tries.

Claire Devon is a standard American suburban teacher, wife, and mother. What sets her apart is that she hears the hum, and her family does not. Most of the people she works with, most of the high-school students she teaches, do not hear it. It's not just that the noise is driving her nuts – it's the disbelief she experiences from all around her, compounding the hum itself.

Kyle Harris, one of Claire's students, also hears the hum. Teacher and student bond over their mutual affliction, with scandalous consequences. Claire loses her job; she and Kyle join a support group for hum-hearers led by a charismatic charlatan named Howard Bard. Howard is a predator. Some of his followers hear the hum prosaically and are just looking for answers; some are also paranoid, and the hum feeds their conspiracy theories; Howard preys on them all, to gratify his purse, ego, and libido.

Meanwhile Claire drifts away from her husband and daughter, and frankly Royce Vavrek's libretto mostly forgets about them; we get caught up in the cult dynamics of Howard's empire and the whole thing verges on soap opera. But The Listeners is redeemed by an unsettling happy ending, if that oxymoron makes sense. Howard is exposed but the group recoalesces around Claire. Can she remake it in a more truly supportive fashion? Is their fellowship consoling, or is it ominous? We don't get to see; we just hear a final chorus and chord that is far from a resolution.

Throughout, Missy Mazzoli's score is really the central character, because it is the hum itself. Mazzoli weaves in electronic sounds, but she largely uses the resources of the standard acoustic orchestra, plus the chorus of cultists, to put the hum into our own ears and minds. It often isn't pleasant to listen to. It shouldn't be.

The vocal writing is less inspired. There is a lot of atonal recitative of the kind so many contemporary operas provide. Vavrek's prose libretto uses ordinary language, and the vocal lines draw this out to pointlessly tedious lengths. But a series of vignettes where hum-hearers give individual video testimony about their ordeals somewhat compensates; these are tense little monodramas that explore the range of reactions and understandings of the uncanny phenomenon drawn from Tannahill's novel.

Vavrek wrote the libretto for David T. Little's Dog Days (2012), another suburban dystopia. Dog Days featured a guy who thought he was a dog – or maybe a dog who thought he was a guy; I saw Dog Days in a bizarre, partial, interrupted version in Fort Worth in 2015 and it was never entirely clear what the hell was going on. Anyway, there is a (danced) canine in The Listeners as well, a coyote of the alleyways who becomes Claire's spiritual double.

Nicole Heaston is especially good as Claire in the Oslo production, and Eirik Grøtvedt in lovely voice and very affecting as Kyle. One hopes the production will be preserved in some buyable or streamable form.

Tannahill, Jordan. The Listeners. HarperCollins, 2021.

Mazzoli, Missy (music) and Royce Vavrek (libretto). The Listeners. Norwegian National Opera, 2022.

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