By Susan Brodie
NEW YORK – Until recently, opera has been largely a passive spectator form, bringing audiences into an enclosed space to sit and watch a narrative drama set to music performed by trained singers. David Lang’s The Mile-Long Opera joins a growing number of recent experimental works that take opera out of the theater and ask the audience to engage with the performance. In this case, viewers participated in the work in early October by walking through it as they listened to “a biography of 7 o’clock” told in fragments by 1,000 singers stationed the length of the High Line, an elevated rail bed turned park on Manhattan’s far west side.
A bit of background is in order, as the work’s raison d’etre was to explore a part of New York City undergoing drastic transformation. In the 1920s, elevated freight tracks were erected in this then-industrial part of lower Manhattan, where street-level freight trains caused frequent pedestrian casualties. By the 1980s, the replacement of trains with trucks and the decline in light industry made the trunk line obsolete, and the decaying structure became an eyesore. One section was torn down before a grassroots organization formed to preserve the structure, now overgrown with weeds, as a park-like haven above the busy streets, comparable to Paris’s Promenade plantée.
The southern end of the High Line officially opened in 2009, with the final northern portion completed in 2014. Walkways paved in various materials, viewing decks, and plantings cover the 1.45 miles from Gansevoort Street to West 34th in a surprisingly varied landscape. On the streets below, designer boutiques, restaurants, and a major museum have sprung up in the now-trendy Meatpacking District, around W. 14th Street, whose cobblestones were once slick with grease and bustling with dodgy nightlife. North of 23rd Street, low-rise factory buildings converted years ago to art galleries give way to luxury condo towers, turning the park’s open vistas into a narrow passage flanked by apartments stacked like glass boxes. At 30th Street, the tracks turn west toward the river, skirting the passenger rail yards and curving back east as they slope down to street level, where trains would have approached the elevated tracks.
30th Street also marks the southern boundary of Hudson Yards, a massive residential and commercial development now rising improbably around and, eventually, directly over the rail yards. Under construction since 2012 and slated for completion in 2024, this long-neglected piece of land nearly became the site of a lavish stadium projected for the 2012 Olympics, but that’s another story. The project, with components designed by a blue chip roster of architects, comprises mostly apartment buildings, with retail, office, and cultural components, and is reached by a shiny new subway station. The project gleams of prosperity but also touches on many issues of public versus private interests, economic stratification, and gentrification that rage in New York and beyond.
For The Mile-Long Opera, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Lang collaborated with Elizabeth Diller, a principal of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, contributing architects on the Hudson Yards project, to create and stage a “biography of 7 o’clock.” Arts organizations from the five boroughs recruited and organized performers, and New Yorkers of all stripes were interviewed about what 7 o’clock meant to them. Distilled by librettists Anne Carson and Claudia Rankine, reminiscences, rants, and ruminations became poetry reflecting a range of experiences of city life.
Thirty-eight diverse choruses from across the city, mostly amateur and semi-professional groups, some formed for this event, made up the bulk of the talent. Another 250 participants joined the fray to arrive at an impressive 1,000 singers, with voices ranging from operatic to theatrical to almost whisper-modest. The singers, most dressed in black and wearing black caps with battery-lit visors that illuminated their faces, were arrayed along the length of the High Line, grouped with their choruses but distant enough from one another so that each was a distinct solo voice. Only one of the groups sang together in anything resembling choral unison. Some of the singers gazed ahead blankly, others made eye contact; a few were so eager to engage that it was hard to resist answering back. Rarely is opera so intimate.
The work was divided into 26 sections of varying length; each section was performed by a separate chorus along the length of the park, with some texts reprised later along the path. Vocal lines ranged from short, sing-songy melodic fragments of just a few words to plainchant-like recitations to spoken monologues. At the start of the work, we heard, “Hello, dusk. What is dusk?…,” introducing extended musing about the twilight hour, a neutral prelude to texts that grew more personal and often poignant. A strolling listener heard only short fragments in passing unless she stopped to listen; the interruption might or might not deepen comprehension.
The singers were by no means the whole show. Even high above the street, traffic noise competed with the voices. Visually, singers and listeners were dwarfed by the long vistas of the streets below and by the increasingly dense skyline as we moved north. In the distance to the east, the Empire State Building glowed red and blue. My attention often drifted from the singing to these surrounding vistas. The set, and perhaps the real “star,” of this opera was the city, splendid and seductive, pulling a viewer out of himself. The players were New Yorkers singing of their lives: describing the table where they eat, memories — happy or not — of their father coming home from work, the 7:00 dance of food delivery, memories of a long-ago romance or of a street arrest witnessed. But the grandeur of the cityscape dwarfed the details of human concerns.
Details nonetheless stood out: Halfway through the performance, in front of the swooping curves of architect Zaha Hadid’s futuristic 28th St. condo building (two-bedroom apartments offered for $6+ million, with monthly rentals in the five figures), a singer intoned, “My friends have moved away, rent’s gone crazy, no grocery store around here anymore.” In an almost empty apartment lit in cold white light, a man fastidiously washed a picture window. From the bushes under the walkway, voices plaintively cried, “Amber, will you marry me?” These New Yorkers, it seems, were lonely.
After more than an hour of walking, the High Line swings west toward the river, around the construction site of Hudson Yards. In front of The Shed, the configurable arts center scheduled to open next spring, the words seemed particularly typical of New York life. Singers contemplated, and mimed drinking from, glowing white coffee cups. A few steps later, beyond a cluster reprising an already-heard riff on “funny how money changes everything/nothing,” a particularly animated group reminded us that “No we don’t talk but people get to know each other just by walking past each other all the time.” The claustrophobia of scaffolding and a measure of fatigue made me quicken my pace.
At last the buildings were left behind as we approached a line of singers widely spaced around the final turn of the trackbed as it curved past the West Side Highway and descended to street level at 34th Street. Their white moon suits were lit, leaving their faces in the dark, but their parting words, “Whatever can happen to anyone can happen to us. Onward rolls the broad bright current,” made a Gatsby-esque envoi as we exited into the bustle of 34th Street. Afterwards, riding the crosstown bus with costumed ComiCon attendees felt like just another New York moment.
Questions may remain about the drastic transformation of the far West Side, but Lang and his team have created a magical and human view of New York at the hour of potential, a metaphor for the intersection of the city past and future. The musical effect was less of a coherent composition than of a pointillistic, shifting soundscape, like the background hum of urban life. The combined sensory effect was exhilarating.