BWW Review: Lang's MILE-LONG OPERA is a Voyeur's Paradise on New York's High Line
THE MILE-LONG OPERA's composer David Lang says he is trying to expand the definition of what an opera is. Well, AIDA this ain't.
If you live in New York--or have been a tourist here--you might know the High Line, a modern elevated walkway built over abandoned railroad tracks that stretches from the West Village to the Westside Highway at 34th Street. It is a voyeur's paradise: High-priced apartments and hotels are built right up against it, giving you a peep show thanks to people who have lost their inhibitions (if they ever had them) about who sees right into their windows, and their lives.
THE MILE-LONG OPERA, subtitled "a biography of 7 o'clock"--conceived by composer Lang, architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro (they designed the High Line), poets Anne Carson and Claudia Rankine and directed by Elizabeth Diller and Lynsey Peisinger with music director Donald Nally--does the voyeuristic aspects one better. It's a whale of a show, lasting about 90 minutes. If you walk the entire mile during one of the remaining performances, you'd better bring comfortable shoes--you'll need them. There are performances through October 8, though there are only standby places at this point.
The librettists-storytellers-poets Carson and Rankine reached out to a cross-section of New Yorkers to find out what the hour of 7 pm means to them. Judging from what I could hear, most of the answers weren't fascinating or original, or enlightening, but that's not the point here. It is the performance by 1000 or so singers--some from local choruses across the city, some professionals brought in to fill out the music--that is fascinating.
Composer Lang, a Pulitzer-Prize-winner, said in the press material that you see a bit of everything from up on the High Line and that he "wanted the music to work the same way: 1000 singers each have their own solo stories to sing, and you walk by them. You might hear them all together, in a haze, as you walk by. Or you might lean in and hear each story." (There were also some performers placed in apartments and offices along the route, wiping the windows with a white cloth.)
And that is exactly the experience that has been created.
Taking place after sunset (seen October 4), the production employs a variety of lighting techniques that add to the experience. Some performers have lights built into their baseball caps, while others have spotlights in their Styrofoam coffee cups (grandes, of course). Whole areas have overhead blue fluorescents, while others are lit from below.
The audience wends its way through a forest of performers, in a variety of configurations, many repeating the same snippets of story--describing a dining table that was the first furniture they ever bought, or how they eat in front of the TV or propose to "Amber" or the smell of wet cement, among other things--but each has his or her own take on it.
Some are animated, some quiet. Some of the voices sound operatically trained while others aren't more than a whisper. Some seem in suspended animation then suddenly spring to life. Sometimes performers seem to be making contact with the audience, but it's only an illusion, as you hear them starting the same spiel for the next group of viewers.
The atmosphere changes many times during the mile-long performance, although I found that the stories themselves weren't nearly varied enough: You heard descriptions of dining tables too many times and even the most gifted of the performances couldn't quite make them interesting enough every time.
The sounds being created on the High Line are supplemented by others from the streets--traffic, sirens, people screaming at one another. You'll also hear lots of complaints that New Yorkers have (and make known) all the time: "The rent's gone crazy," "there are no supermarkets in the neighborhood," "there's a level of anger; no, not anger..." There are comments about racial tension, personal relationships and all aspects of the everyday existence most people live.
It's an experience that I was happy to have. You can get a look at it at milelongopera.com, where videos are being unlocked every day (thanks to Target) and a full list of the participant organizations can be found.