The Mystery of Hybrid Drama ‘Field’ Comes to Nashville Opera

In September 2006 John Hoomes was on a trip while preparing for Nashville Opera’s 2007 world premiere of Elmer Gantry. The artistic director was asked to come to see a performance space at Montclair State University in New Jersey (the opera was performed there in 2008).

“And they told me, ‘Oh, there’s an opera on right now by David Lang and Mac Wellman called The Difficulty of Crossing a Field’,” Hoomes recalls. “That’s how it started.”

The piece opens Friday at the Noah Liff Opera Center with subsequent performances on Saturday and Sunday.

Ridge Theater produced that 2006 presentation. Another theater company, American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, had mounted Field’s March 2002 world premiere; the University of Texas Department of Theatre and Dance did the piece in 2010.

That so many theater companies would produce a new opera isn’t surprising given the hybrid nature of the work – there’s certainly some operatic singing in the one-act, but there’s plenty of spoken dialogue too. Much of Field feels like a stage play, and in addition to mezzo soprano Jennifer Rivera, soprano Rebecca Sjöwall and tenor Robert Anthony Mack the cast includes Nashville actors Brian Russell and Eric Pasto-Crosby. A quartet of ALIAS Chamber Ensemble musicians will play Lang’s score under the baton of Dean Williamson.

Nashville Opera isn’t the first opera company to tackle the work – Long Beach (Calif.) Opera Company did it last year – but a decade on Field is still off most of the opera world’s radar screens. For a daring director like Hoomes, who enjoys placing even traditional pieces in new lights, the opportunity to try something very different for his company and its patrons is quite exciting. He’s presenting it in Noah Liff’s upstairs studio space on a raised platform with the 250-member audience positioned around three of the platform’s four sides (ALIAS and Williamson will be on the fourth side).

“I know there will be some folks who won’t accept this, who will just want their Puccinis and Mozarts,” Hoomes says. “But it’s healthy as we grow this opera company to step outside the comfort zone from time to time with new experiences. We’ll still do the (traditional operas) but it’s good to experiment a little, and it’s also good to be able to use our space at the Noah Liff for something like this. That’s one of things that space was intended for.”

The Difficulty of Crossing a Field comes from a one-page Ambrose Bierce story (now in the public domain and reprinted below this story) first published in the San Francisco Examiner on Oct. 14, 1888 and later included in the collection “Can Such Things Be?” (1893).

It centers on the inexplicable disappearance of an Alabama plantation owner in 1854. The owner, known as Williamson, crosses an open field and vanishes in front of his family, neighbors and slaves.

Lang (who is scheduled to attend opening night) has the Pulitzer Prize for his composition The Little Match Girl Passion; Wellman is a recipient of the Obie for Lifetime Achievement. The heralded duo created a hybrid that expands Bierce’s 500-word mystery into an engagingly ambiguous tale where, like Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon, each person that witnessed the event has a different take on what happened and what it means. Voodoo and the historical specter of slavery’s coming end figure in the 75-minute presentation (for more on the history of the period watch the video embedded below this article that was prepared especially for this production). It has an eye and ear for the destructive side of American life and mythology reminiscent of such works as Sam Shepard’s play Buried Child.

What challenges does this kind of work present for an opera singer? “The thing I noticed about it right away is that it clearly feels more like a theatrical piece than an opera,” Rivera, who was in Nashville Opera’s Elmer Gantry premiere and plays Williamson’s wife, says. “Because of the style of music, which is very minimalistic, it doesn’t present the same type of vocal challenges as other opera roles might…but it works so well dramatically and as a piece of theater.

“Every time an opera singer does an opera it’s part music and part theater, so that’s not such a big challenge, except that part of what we’re used to doing is showing off our voices to their fullest potential in terms of the large range and flexibility of an operatic voice. This piece for the most part doesn’t require that because the music is minimalistic in style. So you just have to jump in and say, ‘This feels more like a piece of theater than a typical opera.’ And that’s great because we perform so many different styles from different periods. This is just about using one part of our skills more than another.”

For the actors being off-book earlier than they often have to be is one difference between this job and many others. “Traditionally we’re not asked to be off-book when we come into rehearsals though we’ve had a few times in the past where were asked to do so,” says Pasto-Crosby, who plays Andrew the overseer and Williamson’s neighbor Amour Wren. “In general the goal is to be familiar with the script so that you come in with your questions ready. …It’s more of a condensed process but it was a bit of a change of pace for Brian and myself.”

Of course, in these post “park and bark” days, the process of developing a character is basically the same for opera singers as it is for theater actors. One sign of that is the way Mack prepared to play the slave Boy Sam.

“Before I even came here,” Mack says, “I got my own storyline, who I thought Boy Sam was, because I like to develop my character based upon what’s in the story and by asking, ‘Who was my character before the opera started?’ so that I can avoid being just a one-dimensional figure.”

With top-quality opera singers, actors and an eight-member Nashville Opera Ensemble that includes such Nashville notables as Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva and Bakari J. King, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field certainly offers plenty of wide-range performers. The meaning of what they present will be entirely up to the audience, however, which is often not the case with conventional operas and plays.

“It’s one of those pieces where’s it’s your judgment, it’s your imagination, it’s your taste, it’s the values you place on what you’ve just seen and heard,” says Russell, who plays Williamson and a magistrate who investigates the disappearance. “The audience will fill in the picture for themselves…and we’ll find out in talkback exactly what picture they saw.”

“It’s a puzzle box,” Hoomes says, “and each of us has to decide what we think is going on. The audience has to work it out for themselves because as we go along there are more questions than answers.

“I think in this intimate space, with a minimalist setting and the performers and audience so close to one another, that this will be a really special experience. It will certainly be quite unlike anything (Nashville Opera) has presented here before.”

For John Pitcher’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.

 

“The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” By Ambrose Bierce

One morning in July, 1854, a planter named Williamson, living six miles fromSelma,Alabama, was sitting with his wife and a child on the veranda of his dwelling. Immediately in front of the house was a lawn, perhaps fifty yards in extent between the house and public road, or, as it was called, the “pike.” Beyond this road lay a close-cropped pasture of some ten acres, level and without a tree, rock, or any natural or artificial object on its surface. At the time there was not even a domestic animal in the field. In another field, beyond the pasture, a dozen slaves were at work under an overseer.

Throwing away the stump of a cigar, the planter rose, saying: “I forgot to tell Andrew about those horses.” Andrew was the overseer.

Williamson strolled leisurely down the gravel walk, plucking a flower as he went, passed across the road and into the pasture, pausing a moment as he closed the gate leading into it, to greet a passing neighbor, Armour Wren, who lived on an adjoining plantation. Mr. Wren was in an open carriage with his son James, a lad of thirteen. When he had driven some two hundred yards from the point of meeting, Mr. Wren said to his son: “I forgot to tell Mr. Williamson about those horses.”

Mr. Wren had sold to Mr. Williamson some horses, which were to have been sent for that day, but for some reason not now remembered it would be inconvenient to deliver them until the morrow. The coachman was directed to drive back, and as the vehicle turned Williamson was seen by all three, walking leisurely across the pasture. At that moment one of the coach horses stumbled and came near falling. It had no more than fairly recovered itself when James Wren cried: “Why, father, what has become of Mr. Williamson?”

It is not the purpose of this narrative to answer that question.

Mr. Wren’s strange account of the matter, given under oath in the course of legal proceedings relating to the Williamson estate, here follows:

“My son’s exclamation caused me to look toward the spot where I had seen the deceased [sic] an instant before, but he was not there, nor was he anywhere visible. I cannot say that at the moment I was greatly startled, or realized the gravity of the occurrence, though I thought it singular. My son, however, was greatly astonished and kept repeating his question in different forms until we arrived at the gate. My black boy Sam was similarly affected, even in a greater degree, but I reckon more by my son’s manner than by anything he had himself observed. [This sentence in the testimony was stricken out.] As we got out of the carriage at the gate of the field, and while Sam was hanging [sic] the team to the fence, Mrs. Williamson, with her child in her arms and followed by several servants, came running down the walk in great excitement, crying: ‘He is gone, he is gone!  O God! what an awful thing!’ and many other such exclamations, which I do not distinctly recollect. I got from them the impression that they related to something more – than the mere disappearance of her husband, even if that had occurred before her eyes.  Her manner was wild, but not more so, I think, than was natural under the circumstances.  I have no reason to think she had at that time lost her mind. I have never since seen nor heard of Mr. Williamson.”

This testimony, as might have been expected, was corroborated in almost every particular by the only other eye-witness (if that is a proper term) – the lad James. Mrs. Williamson had lost her reason and the servants were, of course, not competent to testify. The boy James Wren had declared at first that he saw the disappearance, but there is nothing of this in his testimony given in court. None of the field hands working in the field to which Williamson was going had seen him at all, and the most rigorous search of the entire plantation and adjoining country failed to supply a clue. The most monstrous and grotesque fictions, originating with the blacks, were current in that part of the State for many years, and probably are to this day; but what has been here related is all that is certainly known of the matter. The courts decided that Williamson was dead, and his estate was distributed according to law.

*Rehearsal photos by Reed Hummell courtesy Nashville Opera.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman’s “The People vs Larry Flynt” among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).