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A chat with composer David Lang

June 14, 2011 |  9:00 am

Lang A man walks across a field and disappears in full view of his wife, the neighbor and a group of slaves.  Each witness recounts their version of events in a series of seven scenes and by the end, we are left knowing less than we did at the beginning.

David Lang's opera "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field" will have its Southern California premiere Wednesday night at Long Beach Opera.  (Mark Swed reviewed the 2002 world premiere in San Francisco.)

The overriding characteristic of the opera is ambiguity. With music scored for Broadway-style singers as well as opera singers, a string quartet for an orchestra and spoken dialogue the piece resists classification at even the most basic level.

"The opera opens up the possibility that the world is full of questions we can't answer," said Lang. "When there was a choice between being more or less ambiguous, we always chose more."

The "we" is Lang and playwright Mac Wellman, whom Lang met while serving as composer in residence at the American Conservatory in San Francisco.

Wellman suggested Ambrose Bierce's one-page short story "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field" as the narrative for the opera and over "gallons of coffee," he and Lang decided that "the whole opera is all about different ways things could be on the way to disappearing."

Bierce wrote the story in 1909 but set it in 1854, just a few years before the Civil War. Slavery was already on the decline by then and Lang sees Williamson's disappearance as an allegory.

"Even though the opera comes from this world where language itself is on the way to becoming ambiguous it is about slavery and this moment in American history."

In addition to Mrs. Willamson, her daughter, the neighbor's son and a slave woman, there is a chorus of slaves watching the proceedings and commenting to each other as the action unfolds.

"The slaves have a way of explaining the rules of the universe, which is very different to the way their masters do, says Lang.  "The hole [into which Williamson disappeared] is the collision of these two rational systems."

Only one character uses music to express her innermost feelings in the way we are accustomed to hearing in opera arias.  Williamson's daughter is haunted by the last words her father said to her. They are mundane like most of the things we say to those with whom we are close and yet the phrase tortures her.  "She goes over and over the words in her head, mining them for any hope, desperately looking for anything she can build a rational story around. This one thing he said to her is the doorway to something potentially very devastating."

Although called an opera, "Crossing A Field" breaks from the theatrical tradition of Puccini and Verdi in one critical way.  Characters in opera are larger than life and represent extremes of emotion. They are either elated or deeply depressed, not navel-gazing aesthetes.

"Opera brings issues up and ties up everything in a bow," explains Lang.  "The characters are in capital letters.  I really like having characters be ambiguous with emotions that are complicated and unresolved, as is common in theater.  The point is that maybe you think about [the story] and come to a conclusion a month later."

Long Beach Opera's performances of "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field" will be 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach.


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Photo: David Lang. Credit: Jennifer S. Altman/For The Times