A New Organ for New York: The Miller-Scott Organ at St. Thomas Church
Carnegie Hall's Opening Night with the San Francisco Symphony, Renée Fleming and Audra McDonald

"The Mile Long Opera" on The High Line

The Mile Long Opera17Composer David Lang has never been comfortable with standards of music presentation. Thirty years ago, he - along with Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe - founded Bang on a Can for the express purpose of upending concert hall conventions. Instead of a neat two hour program with a 15 minute intermission, their Marathons run continuously from six to ten hours. And, Lang's music in particular seems to go our of its way to be subversive: among his recent works is a "symphony for broken instruments" (2017) and "harmony and understanding" (2018) for orchestra and audience. 

Four years ago, David decided to eschew the concert hall altogether with "crowd out" (2014), commissioned by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Berlin Philharmonic, and performed outdoors by "1,000 people yelling." He followed that up two years later with "the public domain" (2016), written for 1,000 singers (including your's truly) performing on Lincoln Center Plaza.

Now Lang, along with architect/designer Liz Diller, has come up with his third work for 1,000 performers, "The Mile Long Opera," which is being performed this week along the entire length of The High Line on the west side of Manhattan. (The final performance takes place tonight, starting at 7pm.)

I attended last Thursday's performance, and it is, first and foremost, an impressive feat of logistics and stage design - if you can call the High Line a stage. Some 40 professional and community choirs from around the city have been recruited to participate, comprising a patchwork as diverse as the city itself. There were choirs of Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Ukrainian, and Hispanic descent. There were baptist choirs, new music ensembles, women's choruses. Even Opera on Tap was there.

The Mile Long Opera10What sets "The Mile Long Opera" apart is that the audience moves through the space while the performers remain stationary. Some performers sing in full-on operatic voice; others speak in a near-whisper. At certain points, entire choruses sing in unison. And, all along the way, there are dramatic views of the city, both far-off cityscapes and up-close views of multi-million dollar apartments, several of which were populated by performers appearing to be washing the windows from the inside. In all, the performance lasts about two hours, or however long it takes you to walk end-to-end.

Unfortunately, the content of "The Mile Long Opera" left me scratching my head a bit. The text, assembled by poet Anne Carson and essayist Claudia Rankine from multiple interviews with everyday New Yorkers, offered reflections on "the changing meaning of 7:00 pm," as well as people's dining tables. More amusing than revelatory, at no point did I feel the text was building to a dramatic conclusion, or even a cohesive one. There were a few moments when I stopped to listen to a an individual singer or speaker, which felt like a personal, one-on-one experience - at least until an usher urged me to keep moving. But, most of it was hard to decipher. (At the end of the performance, audiences are given a program which includes the full text.)

As for David's music, it emphasized utility over intricacy, meant to be performed by singers of varying ability (much like "the public domain"). It employs a harmonic system that encourages audience members to move forward along the path: if you miss all of what one person says or sings, the next performer will probably be singing the same thing. For all intents and purposes, it is less opera than performance art - it reminded me of Christo's The Gates which filled Central Park in 2005 - and taken as such, is an indelible, uniquely New York experience.The Mile Long Opera15
Tickets for tonight's final performance have all been distributed, but there will be a standby line (located at Gansevoort & Washington Streets) starting at 6:30 p.m. More details here.

More pics on the photo page.