National Sawdust 2018 Review – The Secret Diary of Nora Plain: An Immersive Experience That Explores Surveillance & The Inner Mind

By Jennifer Pyron

Surrounded by the puzzle-like figurations on the walls of the National Sawdust performance space for a Classical Sunday series, audience members discovered Nora Plain as she stood on stage. The Ragazze Quartet circled Nora as she began to sing in a speech-like style.  She shared with listeners a private confessional as she performed “I Did Some Things,” and invited all to wander in the alternate universe of her own mind.

“The Secret Diary of Nora Plain,” composed by Morris Kliphus with a libretto by Otto Wichers (a.k.a. Lucky Fonz III), is a 21st century song cycle depicting the intimate and modern life of Nora Plain through her personal diaries.  Before the musicians stepped foot on stage, Otto Wichers explained that the song cycle was a thorough examination of the mind and emotions of someone functioning in a futuristic society where surveillance culture was the norm.  

As singer Nora Fischer masterfully told her stories with a crisp and coherent line of text, her vocal tone illuminated each phrase and gave life to her character.  Fischer herself, a fascinating person herself, grew up in Amsterdam. Her father is the conductor Ivan Fischer and her mother the recorder player Anneke Boeke.  

Classical music was instilled in Fischer’s bones.  She especially had an affinity for Baroque music and has caused a stir in the vocal world with her questioning of the overall classical voice role.  Specifically, she argued that “the authentic performance practice tends to get in the way of [one’s] understanding and enjoyment of the music.”  In fact, she was expelled indefinitely from a conservatory in Amsterdam for her strong opinions and since then has paved her own way to a whole new style of singing.

Fischer selectively used vibrato in her singing and mixed it with an ethereal and soothing tone. Displaying a well-trained singer’s agility, she played into the dynamics  of each phrase, which emphasized her honesty as a story-teller in a modern song-cycle.

The song cycle opened with “I Did Some Things,” where Nora explained who she might have been in the past in comparison to who she became in the present.

“I did some things

It was a long time ago

It’s water under the bridge

But I did some things”

This confession could be translated into several meanings, however, one might relate strongly to this text if they have ever attempted to shy away from their past. More specifically, someone who is fully engaged in a social media society, could carry a loathsome fear of being discovered for past mistakes. Recent developments in Facebook’s downfall due to users everywhere concerned about their privacy, could also be related to this song.

“I was young 

Maybe too young

Forget about me

Let bygones be bygones be bygones be bygones”

The Ragazze Quartet, an all-female string quartet from Amsterdam, played with fervor and heart.  They showcased true mastery during their dynamic sweeps and mysterious twists. With an authentic flavor of sound, the song “The Elm Seeds” portrayed a beautiful street lined with Amsterdam’s signature tree.  Nora sang about how she experienced freedom as she walked around and enjoyed the the present moment.

“Back and forth between

What is and what can be

Today a bird is seen

To fly so bold and free”

The string quartet lulled listeners by gently rocking back and forth in music that imitated a breeze stirring around the lyrics. This song highlighted the idea of spending the day in reality, outside of the virtual reality bubble.  Nora sang “no mirror called for love,” which could mean that her character decided to refrain from engaging in self-sharing behavior in order to rediscover personal freedom.

“Rat in My Room,” the fourth song in the cycle, was full-volumed and loaded with high intensity.  Remco Menting played the drums with precision and passion, before the string-quartet entered. One could see and feel the audience react to Nora’s perfectly crafted screams and the Ragazze Quartet’s wild determination to evoke total paranoia. Nora’s diction was like a razor sharp blade that cut through her accompaniment. She drove home the need to dig deeper and genuinely let herself go in the moment, which created an overall vocally-maddening-bliss. One could say that relief came only when the listener gave into her madness. It was jaw-dropping, raw, and phenomenal to watch and hear everything unfold between all of the musicians in this moment.

After “Rat in My Room,” the sound settled in the theater and Nora was ready to continue her story by singing “A Soul Is On the Line.” In this specific song, one is guided into the mental static of someone that is questioning every facet in their own life and trying to understand the meaning behind everything.  

“A soul inside the camera

A heart behind the web

A soul is on the line

You tap tap tap

I thought I had one father

But I guess I have many more

I have a father to keep me safe at night

From the fathers at my door”

The strings created a soundscape of eery pitches that bent and twisted inside of a dreamy bubble. One could see Nora’s character process the truth behind it all. Her voice was a beacon of light that transformed the music around her. She innocently wondered aloud and listeners reveled in her melodious story-telling, only to be shocked back to reality when she declared her discovery.

“They’ll throw me in a lake!

They’ll drown me if I’m innocent

And if I’m not, they burn me

Burn me at the stake”

In the seventh song “To Be Watched,” Nora explained how she reacted to knowing that she was being watched and how it made her feel touched. An array of different meanings could be used to interpret this song. Aiming to satiate her mind full of desires, the song cycle continued and the listener’s mind expanded in order to relate in a personal way to each of her stories. Mixing angst with paranoia, the music and narration fueled one’s desire to journey further with Nora. 

“Keyhole” was a straight-forward depiction of a life lived under total surveillance. Nora poignantly whispered as she described in detail about where to find every watching eye, which also included inside of herself.

“Ghost above

Ghost in me

Ghost police

Police me”

Remco Menting played the vibraphone percussively which imitated bell tolls, that played into Nora’s lyrics as she sang “soft surrender, subtle force.” And one could see the audience lift from the backs of chairs in order to catch a full glimpse of Nora while she crouched on the floor of the stage. Everyone was awe-inspired at this point in the song cycle and it was visible how they eagerly wanted more.   

The last two songs of the cycle, “Here Is My Arm” and “The Turnaraound,” told of Nora’s submission to the cultural norm and her hopes of turning herself into a lesson to be learned and experienced. However, instead of focusing on herself in one dimension, Nora left the interpretation open to the audience. The theater’s lights turned on over the audience, and Nora took a walk-around, in between the seated sections. Everyone was forced to look at themselves, as their eyes followed Nora. And as a result, the audience was enlightened by the full experience of “The Secret Diary of Nora Plain.” 


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