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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Opera Review: It's Seven o'clock Somewhere

The Mile Long Opera: A Biography of 7 o'clock premieres on the High Line.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Singers at an exhibition: David Lang's Mile Long Opera in performance on The High Line.
Photo by the author.
Composer David Lang is no stranger to presenting operatic and choral works in unusual locations. His latest opus, The Mile Long Opera: A Biography of 7 o'clock is  an a capella opera performed in its entirety by singers stationed on The High Line, the former elevated freight railway on the west side of Manhattan that was saved from demolition in the 2000s. In three phases, this old but structurally sound railway was converted into a public park, a narrow oasis in West Chelsea that served as a spring-point for a kind of frenzied urban development the reminds one of the game SimCity. 



It was a close and muggy Thursday night as my companion and I rode an elevator to the southern end of the High Line, which stands next to the Whitney Museum on Gansevoort Street, itself being rapidly remodeled into an unrecognizable remnant of its meat-packing past. The work begun from the moment we set foot, a pink-vested attendant bid us welcome and we moved forward into the opera performance.

This was sung, whispered, shouted and spoken by one thousand performers, arranged into twenty-six distinct sections. Each text was about some aspect of the time of 7pm, and each group of singers varied widely in how they presented themselves. One had the impression of moving through different "tribes" of these artists, as singers wearing visor caps with LED-lit underbills yielded to groups holding Amazon Fire tablets, wearing glowing backpacks, or holding little hand-held LED lights like sacred objects.

Mr. Lang's melodic ideas are slow, simple and cell-like, the minimalist approach first espoused by Glass and Adams expanded in terms of time, note value, and extended rests between the notes.  Each singer had a small fragment of the larger text, which they stood and repeated. In the tunnel sections of the park, the auditory experience became more intense, as the singers' voices combined to make a mighty, overlapping shout, the chaos of New Yorkers demanding to be heard.

The text, chosen by librettist Anne Carson and carefully set by Mr. Lang, was sometimes harrowing in its content. The banal (endless descriptions of dinner-table drop-leafs and IKEA furniture) contrasted sharply with the terrifying (an account of domestic violence at the hands of a drunken, despotic daddy.) This could be jarring, as one went from singer to singer, tribe to tribe never quite knowing what would come next. Throughout, there was a mix of contradictions, naïve hope and urban despair, complaints about the expense of New York's predatory rents and the problems of living here in this new century. Along the way there was a repeated visual element: performers in back-lit apartments, slowly, obsessively washing their unopenable plate-glass windows.

It was towards the end of the work, where the railway snakes around Hudson Yards (that bloated monstrosity of steel and glass that has thrust itself into the city skyline) that the most remarkable effect was achieved. Six groups of singers sang in unison sections, with the sound moving in a doppler effect as they ruminated on the prevalence of takeout food and urban delivery, always at seven o'clock. It was an acute reminder of the isolation of our current city, and of how such services and plastic boxes have replaced the social experience of dining out.

The silences were important too, as the art experience was enhanced by the presence of ambulances, honking taxis, and on the last section as the High Line curved around the new Hudson Yards development, a landing helicopter. In this last, sweeping curve, the singers took on a new presentation. Wearing reflective white ponchos, they stood in front of goose-neck mounted LED lights. Like ghostly angels they intoned the last secton of the text, a meditation on possibility and futility.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.