Wednesday, February 19, 2014

My secret (whispered) moment with Yoko Ono

Back in November 2013 when Yoko Ono was in town with her show, War Is Over, I got a text from my friend Royden who was working as production manager for Ideas at The House (that's Sydney Opera House of course).

Yoko needs people for her performance on the 17th. Can you do it?

Sure, I replied, just tell me where and when...

On the following Sunday I arrived at the Opera House stage door a bit before 1pm. Royden appeared and took me up to the green room where I got myself some tea and settled down on a big couch in front of the harbour view.

 I thought perhaps I was in for a bit of a wait, but suddenly there she was, so petite, dressed in child size jeans and black leather jacket, with a gaggle of people, including three big body guards, surrounding her. Royden signalled, I followed and bam — suddenly I was in the lift with Yoko Ono, sharing small talk, feeling slightly awkard and at the same time completely normal.

The lift doors opened onto the stage area and Yoko took charge, letting people know in her soft spoken commanding manner exactly what she wanted.

The set up was quite simple. Two low arm chairs were already in place— one for Yoko and one for MCA curator Rachel Kent who would lead Yoko into an hour long conversation. But before the conversation got going Yoko had a surprise —she would come on alone and perform.

This is where We Whisperers came in. I was one of four people who would be out in the audience somewhere, whispering into microphones.

Let's try it, she said, so we spread out into the empty auditorium armed with substantial radio mikes and found a random spot.

 From the stage Yoko told us to whisper a phrase or a sentence into the mike — whatever comes to mind, then just keep repeating it.

Ok, so my phrase, the one that popped in, was — what I really want to tell you...
what I really want to tell you... what I really want to tell you...

Yoko started vocalising and off we went. The whispers from our mikes were  reverbed, looped and mixed as a kind of backing track to her improv.

We tried it for a couple of minutes, then tried it once more (with all the mikes turned on this time).

Then it was back to the green room to wait until show time at 3pm. The body guards hung about chatting and Yoko went for a nap in the board room.

At 2.40 pm I went to find my allotted seat. It wasn't where I had rehearsed, but was bang in the middle, not too far from the front. I squeezed past the knees of my fellow audience members with the  microphone hidden in my bag and wondered how they would react when I burst into whispers.

When I spied Paul Capis, the fabulous cabaret diva, sitting in front of me, I had to lean over and show him what was in my purse. (Is that a microphone in your bag or are you just pleased to see me!) When I told him what I was up to, he was thrilled.

I do love a secret, he whispered to me behind his hand as the audience went quiet.

The house lights dimmed to darkness and tiny Yoko came out on stage alone as planned. The audience started clapping and wouldn't stop. So she just began her vocal and soon they were listening in awe as this wee famous figure with her signature sunglasses perched on her nose, began her moaning improv, and, one by one, we began our whispers.

Her moans rose and fell, gathered urgency then dropped away, began again, built to a screeching climax then ebbed away once more. Several times we faded away as she did, thinking this will be the end, but then she took off again, revelling in the reverb echo of her voice mixing and merging with our invisible soundscape. At times I could hear myself in the mix and it was tempting to break out of the whisper into moans and screams like her, as I have been known to do in my own vocal work, but like a good chorus member I kept to my part.

There was a moment in the middle that seemed made for us, when she was repeating:   I wish........ I wish.......... I wish..........

and with my whisper it became:

what I really want to tell you ...... I wish.....what I really want to tell you.....I wish.....what I really want to tell you....

only nobody could decipher my whisper, and nobody knew but me.

And another moment as we were building to a crescendo, when I lost track of time and place, when it was just me and Yoko, Yoko and me — nobody else, no audience, no opera house, no other whisperers, just the purity of voice in empty space.

When it was finally over (it went on for a good ten minutes), I put the mike back in my bag, sat back in my seat and went back to being a regular audience member, delighting in hearing this eighty- something icon talk about her life and work.

At the end we clapped and cheered again and as she left the stage she asked us to wait until the alarm of an old fashioned tic-tock clock went off. I turned to the woman sitting to my right and showing her my mike, asked her if she knew what I had been doing.

No she replied, no idea.  I thought it was just all her voice.

The secret was ours.

Later in the green room as I was working out how to get Royden to give Yoko a CD of my songs written and recorded a long time ago, he said, she'll be out in a tick — you can do it yourself.

Yoko emerged with Rachel Kent as we gathered around and gave compliments about the 'show'.

Do you think they liked it? Yoko asked with an innocent curiousity.

Oh yes, we reassured her, absolutely.

That was the moment I shook her tiny hand, thanking her for the pleasure of working with her and gave her my CD.

 For Yoko, I had scrawled on it, Thank-you for your inspiration.

(Corny, but true).

Signed: one of your secret whisperers.