LA Opera presented the West Coast premiere of David Lang’s 2016 work the the loser in its Off Grand series last weekend. A spartanly staged one-man show, the production fit comfortably in the intimate space of the Theatre at the Ace Hotel. Indeed the theater’s cozy atmosphere promoted a personal relationship between audience—located entirely in the balcony—and the one and only singer, baritone Rod Gilfry, perched high above the stage in a booth. Head on, the audience faced Gilfry, himself ensconced in a shroud of darkness moderated by a shifting spotlight.
The work, more a soliloquy in song than an opera, was performed by the musicians who premiered it at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s New Wave Festival, including Gilfry and the Bang on a Can All Stars, of which Lang is a founding member.
Gilfry plays three parts: all pianists, all neurotic. A richly detailed narrative reveals the disillusionment and self-inflicted failure of two pianists in competition with Glenn Gould, “the most important pianist in the world.”
Gould dubs the narrating character, otherwise nameless, “the Philosopher,” because the word was “in his mouth at all times,” and their friend Wertheimer, “the loser,” who is “always busy losing.” Eventually, “the Philospher” gives up his piano, proclaiming he is “…no artist, absolutely no artist.” Later, Wertheimer commits suicide, partly to spite the sister who abandoned him to marry a chemical plant owner.
Obsessively, the narrator repeats superfluous clarifications with the relentless regularity of a litany, reciting “I thought,” or “he said” following most statements.
In addition to composing the music, Lang constructed the libretto out of excerpts from Jack Dawson’s English translation of Thomas Bernhard’s 1983 novel of the same name. The story is only superficially linked to Gould, Horowitz, and the subject of music, and deals primarily with existential questions of purpose, meaning, and moral worth.
The three figures met, we are told, in a (purely fictitious) masterclass with Horowitz in Austria. There it is clear that “Glenn is the best.”
Gilfry intoned such revelations with a haunting baritone resonance that at once thrilled, calmed, and convinced. Even mundane remarks seemed significant in Gilfry’s brilliant, penetrating tone. And Gilfry’s skillful acting, by turns joyful, reverent, and tearful, made the narrative come alive with sparkling clarity.
Rather than drawing attention to itself, Lang’s music served the role accompaniment to the vocal part. Delicate pizzicatos in the small string section, playing disjunct intervals dominated by minor seconds and tritones, spiced the otherwise lecture-like initial minutes of the narrative.
Like a slow-moving kaleidoscope, marimba and other instruments joined the strings, gradually marking the flow of time with progressive textural enrichments. Emotional moments found support in lyrical bowed melodies and long-lines in the winds. The “loser” motive, a distinctive three note figure in Sprechstimme, was echoed in the piano on the stage.
Pianist Conrad Tao, performing Lang’s minimalist-inspired figurative passage-work, seemed to conduct himself with his left hand, as Glenn Gould was famously known to do. But Lang’s piano writing bore only minimal resemblance to anything Gould ever played. The loser motive, an ascending perfect fifth resolved downwards by step, avoids any suggestion of major or minor. Rather, rippling arpeggios of quintal harmonies resounded unabated until the concluding moments, when some resolution finally presented as a major triad.
Attendees expecting a story about pianists might have been disappointed by the loser: “The story is not at all about Gould, Horowitz, or Classical Music,” wrote Lang. But the work achieves its aim of revealing the conflict and fear suffered by artists, hopelessly destined to live in comparison to one another. In that way, the loser occupies a unique position in contemporary operatic repertoire, to edify as much as to entertain.
Like many operas, David Lang’s anatomy theater (with a libretto by Lang and Mark Dion) – presented by the LA Opera and Beth Morrison Projects – ends with a woman dead on stage. Unlike many operas, said woman is dead when the curtain goes up, and her status has little impact on her ability to sing. Set ambiguously around the start of the 18th Century in England, the premise of the work is that the audience is the audience for a medical dissection. At the time, the only bodies available for dissection were those of executed convicts, and anatomists believed that the organs of a law-breaker were marked by their crimes, turning public dissections into moral spectacles where law-abiding citizens could see purported marks of evil in a criminal’s corpse. (Needless to say, there was also an element of inflicting further punishment on the convict even after death.)
And so we have our criminal: Sarah Osborne (played masterfully by Peabody Southwell) who, in an aria on the gallows before her execution in the lobby before the show proper begins, confesses to murdering her children and abusive husband, defiantly expresses her expectation that God will forgive her and receive her soul into Heaven — or, failing that, “if [her] Lord and Savior will be so cruel to [her] as men and women have been, [she] had rather burn in the flames of Hell.” The executioner is Joshua Crouch (Marc Kudisch), who also happens to be the impresario for the dissection that is to follow. “Don’t you feel safer?” he bellows at the gathered crowd, gesturing at the limp corpse of the hanged Osborne. The crowd — treated to complementary sausages and beer to better recreate the atmosphere of a public execution — laughed nervously, the first of many deliberate disconnects between the attitudes of the 21st–Century Americans we actually were and the 18th–Century Englishmen (and men were the only people allowed at “public” dissections) the characters treated us as. In the theater itself, Crouch is joined by Baron Peel (Robert Osborne) and his assistant Ambrose Strang (Timur). Strang does the work of cutting up the body and extracting its organs, while Peel pontificates about the nature of evil, the balances of the Four Humors, and other such sundries.
Not surprisingly, this is a gristly affair. Most of us would likely find a human dissection unpleasant to watch under the best of circumstances, but here the air is soured still further by the undercurrent of female objectification taken to its most literal extreme; Sarah Osborne’s body is a literal object for men to toy with, cut to pieces, and condemn. And yet, much to Peel’s chagrin, Strang finds each organ removed immaculate, describing Osborne’s stomach, spleen, heart, and uterus in hagiographic terms and utterly thwarting Peel’s quest to find the mark of Satan’s handiwork. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, it is only Strang who seems to hear Osborne when she shudders back to a ghostly simulacrum of life towards the opera’s final third.) After Peel concedes failure and departs, Crouch offers to continue the dissection informally “around the back” — for a fee, of course.
Gristly as these proceedings are, the score is a far cry from a relentless stream of horrors. There are certainly moments of strident dissonance, but there are others of transcendent radiance — much of the dissection itself falls somewhere uneasily in between, torn between the marvelous inner workings of the human body and the raging misogyny and hypocrisy that surround this particular exploration of them. The bulk of the music flits lightly between twitchy recitative and more languorous arioso passages, with hints of minimalism and art pop lurking just out of sight, but there are a few moments towards the beginning that seem to veer closer to pastiche: One, Baron Peel’s first introduction, borrowing the caustic updating of early English operetta found in Brecht/Weill’s Threepenny Opera and the other, a long and bizarre ensemble number announcing the pending description of the anatomist’s tools, poking gentle fun at certain excesses of Philip Glass.
Directed by Bob McGrath and Music Director Christopher Rountree (the Artistic Director of wild Up, which served as the pit orchestra for the show), the four singers brought their roles to powerful life. Southwell’s Osborne was by turns defiant, distraught, and desperate, displaying the full range of the human heart and showing with countless subtleties the overpowering forces that might make someone conclude that murder was their best and only means of escape from an unconscionable situation. Crouch, as played by Kudisch, is a lecherous scoundrel, driven by nothing more than the desire to line his own pockets. Timur brought an air of dazed reverence to the role of Strang, a young man, clearly out of his depth, but standing firmly by what he knows to be true in pronouncing each organ unblemished even in the face of Peel’s considerable displeasure. And Robert Osborne, in turn, was a thunderously self-righteous Peel, genuinely convinced of the justness of his cause and unbending in the face of any possible contradictory evidence. In his final aria, he sends the audience away with a dire warning to be on the lookout for omnipresent evil. “Where is evil?” he snarls, “There it is! There it is! There it is!”, jabbing his finger every which way. He points everywhere except himself.
A couple of days ago percussion quartet extrodinaire Sō Percussion premiered a new concerto, man made, by David Lang. It’s awesome, and was paired with Mahler 5, all conducted by Dudamel. If you missed it, NPR has you covered. You can hear the whole concert here:
Even better than sitting at home listening, you can hear the ensemble tonight on the LA Phil’s Green Umbrella series, in a performance of Lang’s The So-Called Laws of Nature and Michael Gordon’s Timber. The show is at Disney Hall at 8, and tickets are available at http://www.laphil.com//tickets/green-umbrella-percussion-marvels/2014-10-07.
Yesterday my mom called to ask if I’d heard of a guy named David Lang (hint: I have), because she had read in the paper that a) his dad lives in Thousand Oaks (where I grew up/she lives) and b) a bunch of ensembles at CLU are doing a bunch of his pieces today, at 2, for free.
There’s not much available about it online, but I’m getting in my car right now to go check it out.