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The Difficulty Of Crossing A Field

by David Lang

Libretto by Mac Wellman

A Revival of an LBO favorite that LA Times said is “a marvelous production…making history.”

 A slave owner in pre-Civil War Alabama walks across his field and vanishes in plain view of his family, neighbors, and slaves – forever altering the relationships among them. The more the witnesses recount the disappearance, the more elusive it becomes. Perspectives are upended as you take your seat on the theater stage and watch the action float across the seats of the auditorium. 

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The Difficulty of Crossing a Field was intended to cross between opera and theater worlds, mixing arias with spoken text, emotional melodies with intense drama. It is written for 5 principals, a chorus of 6 or more slaves, and string quartet on stage, both as the "orchestra" and as part of the set. The original production was March 22-24, 2002 at the Theater Artaud in San Francisco, starring Julia Migenes as the wife of the missing planter and 2004 Tony-award winning singer Anika Noni Rose as the leader of the slave chorus, with music performed onstage by the Kronos Quartet.

David Lang about his Opera

To all the people of Southern California!
I am very excited that my opera The Difficulty of Crossing a Field is finally making it down South.  After the premiere in San Francisco got such a great review in the LA Times I thought a Southern California performance was right around the corner.  The corner turned out to be almost 10 years long, but I am so happy that it is happening again – it is an important thing to me because I am from Southern California.   I grew up in Westwood, on Sunset Boulevard down the street from UCLA,  and after 30 years of living in New York I have an idyllic fantasy about how great it is to come home again.  So THANK YOU Long Beach Opera for making this possible.

The piece grew out of my work as Composer in Residence at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.  ACT’s visionary artistic director Carey Perloff had a hunch that her Composer in Residence and her Playwright in Residence might get along.  She was right, and that playwright was Mac Wellman.  She commissioned us to find a project to do together, something that would bridge the opera and music theater worlds, something that would in some way relate to San Francisco.

I chose to make an orchestra out of the Kronos Quartet, a San Francisco institution if ever the was one, but it was Mac’s idea to look for a story by the writer Ambrose Bierce.  Bierce was a cranky journalist and storywriter who had served in the Civil War and had come to San Francisco after.  His work often has a kind of spooky feel to it;  his stories often give you the feeling that if you could examine closely the most ordinary objects that surround us you would uncover a mystery that would throw your world completely out of balance.  It is somehow fitting that one of his most famous contributions to world culture isn’t really even by him – the classic Kurasawa movie Rashomon – in which several participants in a horrifying event each recount a different version of what happened - is based on a Japanese story that was itself a re-imagining of a story by Bierce.

That Rashomon idea is a kind of presence hovering over our opera as well.  Bierce’s original story “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” is less than a page long, and yet in that short space it manages to tell the same story twice, with contradictions and creepiness lurking underneath all the details that remain unexplained by story’s end.  The story is very simple – a slave owner in the pre-Civil War American South walks across his field and disappears, in plain view of his family, his employees and his slaves, forever altering the relationships among them.  Everyone around him has his or her own sharp view of what that disappearance means, of why it had to happen, and of what will happen now that there is a "hole" where a man used to be.  No one knows the truth.  Perhaps there is no truth.  But there are infinite possible consequences, and only by continuous examination of what few details are known can any sense of order be restored.  I say ‘sense of order’ because all the continuous examination doesn’t actually get you any closer to the truth.  Whatever that is.  But we are compelled to examine continuously nonetheless.

The idea of composing a piece that bridged musical worlds extended to the kind of voices I wrote for – the role of Mrs. Williamson, who is a kind of center of the opera, is intended to be from the more traditional opera world, and was sung in the premiere by the diva Julia Migenes.  But the other roles call for different kinds of voices – there is a kind of twisted spiritual that I imagined Mahalia Jackson singing, when I wrote it, and there is the more music theater role of Virginia Creeper, a leader of the field slaves, which was sung in the premiere by Anika Noni Rose, who went on to win a Tony Award for her performance in Caroline, or Change.  And there is an actor, who never sings at all.

All of these different roles and relationships are part of a deliberate attempt on our part to tell the story on a deeper and more fundamental level.  Is it an opera, is it a play, is it a musical?  It is hard to locate precisely what world the music is in.  Somehow this lack of precise location seems very true to the meaning of the story. I hope you like it.

 

David LANG - composer

David Lang (born 1957 in Los Angeles) is the recipient of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Music for the Little Match Girl Passion, commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the vocal ensemble Theatre of Voices, directed by Paul Hillier.

One of America’s most performed and honored composers, his recent works include Writing on Water for the London Sinfonietta, with libretto and visuals by English filmmaker Peter Greenaway; The Difficulty of Crossing a Field – a fully staged opera for the Kronos Quartet; Loud Love Songs, a  concerto for the percussionist Evelyn Glennie, and the oratorio Shelter, with co-composers Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, at the Next Wave Festival of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, staged by Ridge Theater and featuring the Norwegian vocal ensemble Trio Mediaeval. The commercial recording of the Little Match Girl Passion will be released this June on Harmonia Mundi, coupled with a cappella choral works sung by Ars Nova Copenhagen. Lang is co-founder and co-artistic director of New York's legendary music festival, Bang on a Can.

Mac Wellman - libretto

Mac Wellman is an award-winning playwright. In 2003, he received his third Obie for Lifetime Achievement. Previous published collections include Bad Infinity and Cellophane, and he is the coeditor of New Downtown Now: An Anthology of New Theater from Downtown New York (Minnesota, 2006). He is professor of playwriting at Brooklyn College. Known for his verbal invention and radical experimentation, Mac Wellman is one of America’s most original and essential dramatists. Since seizing the spotlight with 7 Blowjobs in the early nineties, Wellman has charted an ambitious artistic course. As a fixture on the downtown New York theater scene, and now with his work being staged around the world, he has challenged directors, designers, producers, actors, audiences, and readers for nearly three decades.

Ambrose Bierce - original story

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (June 24, 1842 – 1914?) was an American editorialist, journalist, short-story writer and satirist. Today, he is best known for his short story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and his satirical dictionary, "The Devil's Dictionary". The sardonic view of human nature that informed his work – along with his vehemence as a critic – earned him the nickname "Bitter Bierce". Despite his reputation as a searing critic, however, Bierce was known to encourage younger writers, including poet George Sterling and fiction writer W. C. Morrow. He is known for his distinctive style of writing, which his stories often share. This includes a cold open, use of dark imagery, vague references to time, limited description, war-themed pieces and use of impossible events. In 1913, at the age of seventy-one, Bierce retired from writing and went to Mexico, to seek "the good, kind darkness." He vanished mysteriously during the Civil War.

The Difficulty of Crossing a Field by Ambrose Bierce

One morning in July, 1854, a planter named Williamson, living six miles from Selma, 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 clew. 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.

Synopsis

A slave owner in the pre-civil war American South walks across his field and disappears, in plain view of his family, his neighbors and his slaves, forever altering the relationships among them. Everyone around him has his or her own sharp view of what that disappearance means, of why it had to happen, and of what will happen now that there is a ‘hole’ where a man used to be.