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Howard Sherman: Discovering ‘longitudinal opera’ on the New York High Line

Mile-Long Opera. Photo: Liz Ligon Mile-Long Opera. Photo: Liz Ligon
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If, as the saying goes, writing about music is like dancing about architecture, what is one to make of an opera co-created by an architect?

New Yorkers had the opportunity to ponder that conundrum last month at the Mile-Long Opera, staged for one week on the High Line, the urban park that wanders up the left side of Manhattan. Created from an abandoned elevated train path, the High Line makes its way from the new Whitney Museum in the Meatpacking District to the Javits Convention Center on 34th Street.

The Mile-Long Opera was conceived by Elizabeth Diller, a principal in the architecture firm of Diller, Scofidio and Renfro, and the composer David Lang. Its fragmentary text, about the evolution of the urban space of New York, was performed by roughly 1,000 singers each repeating, seemingly independently, tiny repeated bits of the libretto while stationary. The audience, walking from south to north, passed by and among them. Thanks to portions of the walkway that used elevated grids, at times the vocals were quite literally coming from below one’s feet.

‘It was an intriguing example of architecture dictating and giving rise to performance’

The audience was urged to not stop, to constantly move, and while the initial temptation was to pause to take in what each singer was saying, after the first few disorienting minutes, it became evident that the same phrase might be uttered, albeit staggered, by the next performer and several more after that. The urge to attend to each, carefully and conventionally, had to be conquered for the opera to achieve its full effect.

Having experienced immersive theatre and durational theatre (a story played out over many hours, days or even, with gaps, months), the Mile-Long Opera was the first time I have experienced ‘longitudinal performance’. The performance didn’t happen around me, nor was I dashing through it (I worked up quite a sweat at Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More). This was performance experienced as a hushed stroll, a linear meander through a choral work that revealed its theme the further I walked.

The leisurely pace certainly allowed for time to ponder not only the text and score, but the production itself. Most performers wore individual LED lights, some tucked under the brim of baseball caps, so that each singer was self-illuminated. Some appeared to be wearing earpieces, presumably to hear directions from stage management staff.

The Mile-Long Opera offered an unusual immersion in sound, mixed with the ever-present and unmanageable noise of the city, doubling as an evening stroll. I could not hum a bit of it for you, nor recite any lyrics. Perhaps that’s why the programme included the poetic libretto, since surtitles would have been impossible and providing lyrics on a smartphone app would have taken attendees out of the experience – and could have caused patrons to wander into collisions with the cast.

The scale of the undertaking and the necessary control of the lengthy performance space, means the Mile-Long Opera can’t be easily repeated, since it was the very essence of site-specific performance. That said, it was also offered in virtual reality video, a format perhaps best suited to approximating its effects.

Because the majority of the performance wasn’t amplified, the piece forced the audience to pay attention. The effect was somewhat mesmerising for the roughly 70 minutes it took me to wind my way along the path, it was rather calming – an unusual effect for live performance.

Was it an opera? I would be more inclined to call the Mile-Long Opera a chamber work without a chamber, theatre in the park but a very long, very narrow park. It was urban theatre, so long as one wasn’t seeking a defined narrative. But rather than singing about economics (part of the 1918 New Republic quote often seen as the forerunner of the dancing about architecture quote), it was an intriguing example of architecture dictating and giving rise to performance, and yet another way that breaking out of the boundaries of a proscenium, or even of theatre walls, can inspire new forms of expression, making use of the same tools and talents applied inside defined, traditional spaces.

This week in US theatre

Kerry Washington, who last appeared on Broadway prior to her television fame on Scandal, returns on Sunday with the opening of Christopher Demos-Brown’s new play American Son, in which she co-stars with Steven Pasquale as separated parents worried over the fate of their missing son. Kenny Leon directs.

The Broadway-bound musical of Tim Burton’s film Beetlejuice opens on Sunday in its Washington DC tryout. Alex Timbers directs the show, with a book by Scott Brown and Anthony King and a score by Eddie Perfect.

Read our interview with Beetlejuice and King Kong composer Eddie Perfect here 

Larissa Fasthorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, opening Monday at Playwrights Horizons, juxtaposes the quintessentially American holiday of Thanksgiving, and the traditions and myths that have grown up around it with the reality of cultural genocide that stemmed from the European takeover of Native American lands. The comedy is directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel.

Keep an eye out for Ming Peiffer’s NYC debut play, Usual Girls, opening on Thursday in Roundabout Theatre’s 60-seat Underground studio, which has birthed a number of shows that have moved up and out of the basement space to larger venues and audiences. The play tracks a young woman’s relationship to sex and sexuality from elementary school through college. Tyne Rafaeli directs.

The long-aborning King Kong finally takes its place on Broadway on Thursday with the debut of the musical version of this oft-told cinematic tale. Puppet artists and technology animate the gigantic title character, with a book by Jack Thorne and songs by Eddie Perfect, directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie.

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