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.