The audience sat in awed silence as the vocalists uttered their serene invocation, “Come, daughter.” It was early last season at Zeitgeist Gallery’s Indeterminacies Series, and Nashville’s new music fans were basking in the iridescent glow of composer David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion.
Based on the Hans Christian Andersen fable, The Little Match Girl Passion is a shimmering, luminous oratorio scored for just four vocalists – the Portara Vocal Quartet performed it in Nashville. The music is spare, glistening, lyrical and heartrending, and it never fails to make a lasting impression. It’s no wonder the piece won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and a 2010 Grammy Award.
For music fans who had long been steeped in the bold, boxy and brashly aggressive style of David Lang, The Little Match Girl Passion came as something of a shock. Lang was one of the co-founders of New York City’s Bang on a Can, an organization known for its propulsive and percussive art music. Surely, the heartfelt oratorio about the cold, hungry and frightened little girl couldn’t have come from the pen of an unrepentant can-banger.
“People who hear Little Match Girl Passion are surprised, because they expect all of my music to sound barbaric,” says Lang. “I tell them that if they knew The Difficulty of Crossing a Field they wouldn’t say that.”
Lang was on the phone from his home in New York City to discuss The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, which Nashville Opera is presenting this Friday through Sunday at the Noah Liff Opera Center. Based on an Ambrose Bierce horror story, Lang’s strangely compelling 75-minute opera is often described as a cross between Gone With the Wind and the Twilight Zone. Appropriately enough, Lang discussed this Southern Gothic music drama as the winds of Hurricane Sandy howled outside his window.
“I’ll keep talking as long as the phone lines don’t wash away,” Lang joked.
Lang co-wrote “Field” with the experimental playwright Mac Wellman in the late 1990s, while both were serving as artists-in-residence at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. The opera’s barebones plot goes something like this: In 1854, an Alabama planter named Mr. Williamson walked across an open field and suddenly vanished, swept, it would seem, into the swirling vortex of the fifth dimension (cue The Twilight Zone theme). Afterward, Williamson’s wife, daughter, neighbors and voodoo-practicing slaves struggle to comprehend the terrible event. Everyone has a different opinion about what happened.
“This opera raises more questions than answers,” says Nashville Opera artistic director John Hoomes, who will lead a discussion with the audience after each performance.
In creating his libretto, Wellman borrowed a technique from the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa known as “The Rashomon Effect.” That was basically the organizing principle of Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece Rashomon, a story with an ambiguous timeline that was told from various and often conflicting viewpoints.
In “Field,” the disappearance of the planter is likewise told from sundry perspectives – from people with divergent world views and often wildly different mental states. The Magistrate treats the disappearance primarily as a missing person’s case. The slaves view it through the lens of voodoo superstition. Mrs. Williamson loses her mind.
At first, Lang had a hard time wrapping his head around this intentionally ambiguous plot. “When I first saw the libretto, I had no idea what my entry point was going to be,” he says. His ultimate solution was to create a shimmering, pulsating and intimate score for string quartet that would express the utter aloneness of the main character, Mrs. Williamson. (Years later, he would compose a similarly intimate score for vocal quartet to express the utter aloneness of “Match Girl.”)
Lang’s music in “Field” is post-minimalist, meaning it uses repetition in the background rather than as a controlling process. The most salient features of the score are its rhythms and textures. Although the melodies sound repetitive, the rhythms and accents are almost always changing. This poses a practical problem for the performers. “David Lang doesn’t write rhythms that are easy to remember,” says Hoomes. Yet the music goes down smoothly. “I think [repetition] allows the listener to focus on the singers and their text,” says violinist Zeneba Bowers, who will perform the score as one of a quartet of musicians from Nashville’s Alias Chamber Ensemble.
The textures in “Field” are a complex and colorful tapestry of sound. “Lang really thinks in layers,” says Dean Williamson, who will conduct the opera. “His music is vertical, with melodies stacked one on top of another.” Lang’s layering technique is heard in the opera’s opening scene, when Virginia Creeper and her fellow slaves engage in a voodoo ritual to close the quantum singularity through which Mr. Williamson disappeared. The words of the chant repeat in an upward, vertical arch to form a shimmering tower of sound.
“Field” is a contemporary opera-theater hybrid, so the vocalists don’t sing in full operatic voice. “We sing with more of a pure sound and not a lot of vibrato,” says mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera, who will sing the role of Mrs. Williamson. That kind of singing produces the sort of luminous quality often heard in early music performances. In “Field,” it also adds to the haunting quality of the music.
Lang’s score is filled with sonic tone painting that treats the individual instruments as characters. Near the end of the opera, there’ a scene where Mrs. Williamson climbs to the roof of her house and refuses to come down until her husband returns. Her melody, a repeated three-note motif, is sung a cappella, an apt expression of her isolation. Eventually, she’s joined by the first violin, which functions as the missing husband.
“That’s the first music I wrote in this opera,” says Lang. “One of the main themes of the opera is absence, and this music for Mrs. Williamson and violin was a prime expression of it.”
One more observation about “Field.”The work is neither fully an opera nor a play, and in that respect it’s part of an emerging trend. “I conduct operas all over the country, and I’ve seen that composers and librettists are writing fewer full-fledged operas these days,” says Williamson. Lang says this stylistic ambiguity in “Field” was deliberate.“This work wasn’t supposed to fit neatly into any genre,” says Lang. “You have to remember that these melodies are in the service of incomprehensible things.”
For Evans Donnell’s companion piece click here.
Performances of The Difficulty of Crossing a Field will be Friday, Nov. 9 at 8 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 10 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 11 at 2 p.m. at the Noah Liff Opera Center in Sylvan Heights (3622 Redmon St.). Tickets ($35 for Reserved and $50 for Premiere) are available by calling Nashville Opera at (615) 832-5242, the TPAC Box Office at (615) 782-4040 or online at www.nashvilleopera.org. The opera is spoken and sung in English with no projected translations. Composer David Lang will attend opening night’s performance and post-show discussion. The format for each show includes the 80-minute Lang opera presented in its entirety, a short intermission, followed by an Opera Insights discussion moderated by John Hoomes.