Invisible Cities: Composing an Opera for Headphones

Artbound provides an exclusive look at the avant-garde opera, "Invisible Cities." Watch our one hour special focused on the making of "Invisible Cities." here.

I discovered Italo Calvino when I was an undergraduate. As a young composer interested in combining words, visual art, and music, I was immediately drawn to his books. Their combination of conceptualism, postmodernism, but also his luxurious prose were all highly appealing to me. Unlike many other postmodern writers whose imaginative works I greatly admired -- DeLillo, Wallace, even Nabokov -- Calvino's writing was always lyrical, and inspired a strong musical response in me.

I tore through half of Calvino's catalog -- "If on a winter's night a traveler," "Cosmicomics," "Mr Palomar," "the Baron in the Trees," "Marcovaldo" -- before finally discovering "Invisible Cities." More than any other of his books, this one cried out to be sung. After reading the first few chapters of the novel, I sat down in a practice room at Yale, where I was a graduate student at the time. The opening of the opera just flowed out of me.

"Invisible Cities"
"Invisible Cities"

As I began composing the work, I tried to image what "Invisible Cities" would sound like. I wanted the entire opera to germinate from just a few musical ideas, just like Marco Polo's ideas of cities also coming from his memories of Venice. I began with the idea of decay, and how sounds resonate and change as they resonate. The Khan's empire was decaying; this seemed like the perfect sonic metaphor. I would record myself playing piano, and cut off the attacks, just getting the ringing and resonating sound.

Listen to piano decay:

As I wrote the overture, these sounds found their way into my orchestration, so that every instrument in my orchestra would be an extension of this evolving piano resonance.

Sketch of the overture to "Invisible Cities"
Sketch of the overture to "Invisible Cities"

As the overture begins, we hear the pang of Kublai Khan's anxiety, followed but the lush sounds of decaying harmonies.

This gesture is one of the musical touchstones of the opera. It returns again and again, reminding us of Kublai Khan's worries, his anxieties, his fears. It opens the explosive attacks in the third scene, "Language," where Kublai is confronted by a phalanx of ambassadors, none of whom speak his language.

These sounds of anxiety return later in the opera, as Marco Polo takes us to "Adelma," the city of the dead, and addresses what Kublai Khan fears most: his own end.


The gesture of anxiety is one of the main musical elements of the opera, but it is complemented with an ever-present flowing, water-music, which opens the prologue.

Sketch for Scene 1: Prologue
Sketch for Scene 1: Prologue

This music is placid and and pulsing, reflecting Kublai Khan's sense of resignation and melancholy. Its simplicity allows the words to predominate and proved very appropriate for Calvino's luxuriant text.

"Invisible Cities"
"Invisible Cities"

The water music, like the pang of anxiety, emerges again and again in "Invisible Cities" and forms the basis of the fifth scene, "Venice." In "Venice," rather than having Marco Polo describe cities, Kublai Khan begins to interrogate Marco Polo about a city of his own description. He describes a city with "bridges arching over canals," "palaces with doorsteps immersed in water," "island gardens glowing green in the lagoon's grayness." (What city could that be?) The water music, lush in the prologue now becomes more active. The music is sharper, darker, and has more of an edge.

In the city of the dead, "Adelma," both Kublai Khan and Marco Polo confront the specter of their own death. Here the water music is mixed for the first time with the gesture of anxiety.

In the final scene, "Epilogue," after Kublai Khan laments, "but it is useless if the last landing place can only be the infernal city," the water music returns. Finally we get an answer to the questions that Kublai has been posing of Marco throughout the whole opera, the question of what do to in the face of his failing empire, in the face of his own imminent death:

"Kublai Khan
seek and find
who and what
in the midst
of the inferno
are not the inferno
make them endure
give them space."

Sketch for prologue, with variations for opening pattern.
Sketch for prologue, with variations for opening pattern.


What has excited me most about The Industry's conception for "Invisible Cities" is the way the music will make it into people's ears.

In composing the music for "Invisible Cities," I created a highly diverse fabric of color in my orchestration, with many levels of detail that would evoke the elaborate and fantastical places that Calvino imagines.

With headphones the listener can actually hear a remarkable level of detail in the score. Similarly, there are moments when the singers are called to sing extremely quietly, barely louder than breathing. Here too, headphones can make the sonic world anything we wish.

The acoustic of the music is variable too. A space's acoustics creates a mood as much as anything else. Composers of acoustic music like myself often bemoan our lack of control over the sonic spaces we are given.

With "Invisible Cities," I was able to work closely with the sound design team to create a different acoustic for each scene of the opera. From the acoustic reality, we are now in sonic worlds as diverse and imaginative as the cities that Calvino describes.


Read more about Invisible Cities:

Invisible Cities: The Dematerialization of the Opera
Artistic director Yuval Sharon details his inspiration for "Invisible Cities," and the endless possibilities opened up by the use of headphones. The presence of wireless technology in the experimental work creates a new operatic experience -- and maybe even expands the definition of opera.

Invisible Cities: The Science of a Silent Opera
Sound designer Martin Gimenez explains the challenges of getting wireless technology to deliver the extraordinary sonic experience that befits the unconventional opera.

Invisible Cities: The Choreography of Union Station
Dancers in "Invisible Cities" execute an array of moves in Union Station that range from rigorous solos to improvisational and hip-hop-like explosions, to glacially slow stances.

Finding Space in the Inferno: Observations on Calvino's 'Invisible Cities'

Union Station is an ideal place to realize the opera "Invisible Cities," an adaptation of Italo Calvino's book about relationships between built environments and social and economic life.

Invisible Cities: The Finale
Here's a roundup of Artbound's behind-the-scenes features examining "headphone" opera "Invisible Cities."

Artbound Special Episode 'Invisible Cities'
Artbound presents a one hour special focused on the avant-garde opera, "Invisible Cities."



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