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Nashville Opera stages its most daring production yet, David Lang’s avant-garde opera The Difficulty of Crossing a Field

Southern Gothic



It's half past 7 on a dreary autumn evening, and a small group of young African-Americans begins a solemn march toward the spot of doom. They're all carrying cotton branches, which rise ostentatiously above their heads like peacock plumes. But there's nothing decorative about these thorny twigs. Cotton is a plant of pain. It's a serious shrub. As the procession nears its destination, two men and three women fan out into a circle and begin a repetitive chant.

"Limbo ... clock ... bumblebee ... JACKASS!"

Suddenly, a lone black woman emerges in the center of the circle and begins to sway, as if seized by a spirit. But it's no Holy Ghost. The woman, Virginia Creeper, evokes Prince Zandor. "Ahhhhhh, Preenze ZAAAHN-dohr!" the others repeat in a zombie monotone. Zandor, aka Ti-Jean-Petro, is a prince of darkness, a Cajun phantom, a voodoo spirit. Right now, his magic is badly needed.

"We are building a nation, we are building an erasure," exclaims Creeper, her Southern drawl conjuring at that moment both Zandor and the resurrected spirit of the abolitionist leader John Brown. "An erasure of John C. Calhoun, may he rest in peace; an erasure of the Kansas-Nebraska Act." A young black man, Sam, finally makes his appearance. He's late. And he's forgotten his cotton branch. Creeper places a hand on his shoulder.

"No!" cries John Hoomes, his own lyrical Alabama accent now stopping the action. "You've got to grab him by the scruff of the neck and drag him to the spot."

Hoomes, Nashville Opera's longtime artistic director, is meticulously rehearsing the first Nashville production of The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, which runs Friday through Sunday at the Noah Liff Opera Center. This unusual work, which is neither fully an opera nor a play, has been justifiably described as a kind of cross between Gone With the Wind and The Twilight Zone.

The story's barebones plot goes something like this:

In 1854, an Alabama planter named Williamson walks across a field and vanishes, swept into the fifth dimension of a Southern gothic Bermuda Triangle. Afterward, his wife, daughter, neighbors and voodoo-practicing slaves all struggle to comprehend his disappearance. That, for what it's worth, is the whole tale. What happened? Everyone in the story has a different opinion. "This piece raises more questions than answers," says Hoomes, who will lead discussion sessions with the audience after each show.

One thing's for certain: This weekend's performances promise to be a milestone for Nashville Opera. It will be the company's first foray into staging experimental, black-box style theater inside its sleekly modern opera center, which opened in 2009. "If this production is a success, it will pave the way for us to stage more contemporary works at the opera center," Hoomes says.

The production has already proven to be Nashville Opera's most ambitious collaboration to date. In staging the piece, Hoomes and his creative team have had to overcome the difficulties of crossing various genres. An international cast of opera singers will perform in tandem with dramatic stage actors from such companies as Tennessee Repertory Theatre and Nashville Shakespeare Festival. Local singers will appear in the chorus of slaves. And a quartet of musicians from Nashville's Grammy-nominated Alias Chamber Ensemble will perform composer David Lang's shimmering, pulsating post-minimalist score. Dean Williamson will conduct.

"A work like The Difficulty of Crossing a Field is definitely part of an emerging trend," says Williamson. "Composers and librettists are writing fewer full-fledged operas these days and are instead creating these opera-theater hybrids. The trend certainly requires artists to be more versatile."

Tenor Robert Anthony Mack, who plays the role of the slave Boy Sam, readily agrees. "The days when an opera singer could just plant himself onstage and sing are over," he says. "Stage directors now expert you to both look and act the part."

Lang and his librettist, the experimental playwright Mac Wellman, didn't set out to create a new genre of musical theater. They were simply trying to capture the spirit of "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field," a one-page gothic horror story written in 1888 by the American journalist, satirist and short-story writer Ambrose Bierce. "There's a lot of ambiguity in Bierce's story," says Wellman, who, appropriately enough, discussed this gothic tale from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., as Hurricane Sandy howled outside his window. "An ambiguous story called for a work that didn't lie comfortably in either the opera or theater categories."

Born in Ohio in 1842, Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce is probably best known today for his satirical lexicon The Devil's Dictionary and for his short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," a surreal tale about the hanging of a Confederate sympathizer near the end of the American Civil War. No less a literary giant than Kurt Vonnegut declared "Owl Creek" to be the greatest American short story of all time. Rod Serling apparently agreed. In 1964, he aired director Robert Enrico's Cannes Film Festival award-winning adaptation of the story on The Twilight Zone. It was the first and only time a foreign art film was used as a substitute for one of the popular TV series' regular episodes.

Bierce's stories often dealt with horror and the Civil War. He was, of course, an expert on both subjects. A fervent abolitionist, he enlisted in the Union Army's 9th Indiana Infantry Regiment at the outbreak of the Civil War. He fought in the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, and he recounted his terrifying experiences in short stories and in his memoir, What I Saw of Shiloh. Two years later, he suffered a grievous head wound at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. He spent the balance of the conflict recuperating.

After the war, Bierce eventually moved to San Francisco, where he quickly became one of the West Coast's best-known and most controversial journalists. He was one of William Randolph Hearst's first columnists at the San Francisco Examiner. His columns attacking powerful interests, especially in the railroad industry, made lasting enemies. "Bierce had to pack a pistol with him wherever he went," says Wellman, who has written extensively on Bierce.

In his fiction, Bierce developed a minimalist style that was full of dark images, vague time references and ambiguous plot lines. Unlike his more famous contemporary, Mark Twain, he shunned novel writing. "Bierce was convinced that a novel was just a short story with padding," says Wellman. There was certainly no filling in "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field." First published in the San Francisco Examiner on Oct. 14, 1888, the entire story is just 752 words long.

It was perhaps only fitting that Bierce's own fate seemed to parallel his fiction. He was purportedly touring Mexico as an observer in Pancho Villa's army in 1913 when he disappeared. Rumors later circulated that he was shot by a firing squad, but the claim has never been substantiated. For all intents and purposes, Bierce seemingly vanished, like the planter in his story, into the torn fabric of space and time.

Bierce's reappearance in the worlds of opera and theater began about a dozen years ago, when two noted New Yorkers, Lang and Wellman, were serving as artists-in-residence at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. The theater's longtime artistic director, Carey Perloff, told the duo that if they could devise a project that had even a tenuous relation to the Bay Area, she'd find the means to fund it. Wellman, who'd been reading the works of the legendary San Francisco Examiner newsman since childhood, came back with "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field."

"It was totally Mac's idea that we create a work based on "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field," says Lang, who, like the playwright, was on the phone from New York during the hurricane. "The story was perfect for Mac, because he's a great experimental playwright who thrives on ambiguity. I had a lot more trouble finding my way into the story."

Wellman faced his own challenges. Somehow, he had to turn a one-page short story into a 40-page libretto. And he had to do it without vandalizing Bierce's prose with the addition of too much padding, something the author would have despised. Ultimately, he found the answer in a different Bierce short story, and in one of Akira Kurosawa's iconic films.

The story was Bierce's "The Moonlit Road," a gothic tale about a murdered woman told from three vastly different perspectives, including that of the victim. That story inspired Japanese author Ryunosuke Akutagawa to write his story "In the Grove," which in turn formed the basis of Kurosawa's 1950 masterpiece Rashomon. Wellman decided to reimagine "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field" using "the Rashomon effect."

The disappearance of the planter, Mr. Williamson, would be viewed from multiple perspectives. The Magistrate would regard the situation in purely legal terms, thinking only of how to dispose of the late owner's property. Virginia Creeper, Boy Sam and the other slaves would attempt to close the quantum singularity through which Williamson disappeared with a voodoo ritual. The reaction of Williamson's wife and daughter are more complicated. In both the short story and the libretto, these characters are known simply as Mrs. Williamson and the Williamson girl. They do not have first names, nor, by implication, identities that are separate from the planter. When Williamson disappears, the women lose themselves as well. "I had no reason to think I had at the time lost my mind," Mrs. Williamson sings at the beginning of the drama. "It was only that I have never seen nor heard of Mr. Williamson since. Nor of Mrs. Williamson."

"I definitely think this opera is about a search for personhood," says soprano Rebecca Sjöwall, who sings the role of the Williamson daughter. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera, who plays Mrs. Williamson, isn't so sure. "I'm still trying to wrap my head around this opera," says Rivera. "My character is the most complex in the story, and figuring her out has not been easy."

David Lang was already a well-known figure in New York's contemporary music scene when he composed The Difficulty of Crossing a Field. In 1987, he co-founded the new-music organization Bang on a Can with fellow composers Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon. The group became a phenomenon in New York City because of its famed Marathon Concerts, which would present 12 hours of eclectic and often percussive, rock-infused art music in blue-jeans-and-T-shirt settings. Without question, Bang on a Can helped spark New York's current thriving downtown post-minimalist music scene.

These days, Lang likes to joke that his early Bang on a Can music was "loud, percussive and obnoxious." He also says his style began to change in 1999, when he started writing The Difficulty of Crossing a Field. True, his music remained rhythmically complex. "David Lang doesn't like to write rhythms that people can easily remember," John Hoomes likes to say. But Lang's music also became more shimmering and luminous.

Lang later applied this new, glistening compositional style to a 2007 piece called The Little Match Girl Passion, a translucent oratorio for four singers based on the Hans Christian Andersen fable. That piece won the Pulitzer Prize. "Our jury sat in complete, awed silence when we listened to that work," remembers former Washington Post critic Tim Page, who served on that Pulitzer jury.

Nashville's Portara Vocal Quartet presented the oratorio at Zeitgeist Gallery's Indeterminacies Series last year. The Nashville audience had the same reaction as the Pulitzer jury. "A lot of people who hear Little Match Girl Passion are surprised, because they expect all of my music to sound barbaric," says Lang. "I tell them that if they knew The Difficulty of Crossing a Field they wouldn't say that."

The overall luminous quality of The Difficulty of Crossing a Field most likely grew out of the first notes Lang composed. At first, Lang had as much trouble wrapping his head around the work as the mezzo-soprano Rivera. But he understood implicitly that Rivera's character, Mrs. Williamson, was the key to the story. "I needed a way to deal with the issue of absence," says Lang. "I realized the best way to do that was to write the music for Mrs. Williamson's final scene first."

Near the end of the piece, Mrs. Williamson climbs to the roof of her house, which she refuse to leave until her husband returns. She has lost her senses, and in trying to understand the disappearance, keeps repeating the same three-note pattern over and over again. Lang's first notes for Mrs. Williamson are sung a cappella, an apt expression of her utter aloneness. His musical solution to the problem of absence was ingenious. He uses the individual instruments of the string quartet as characters. After Mrs. Williamson sings unaccompanied for a few moments, the first violin joins her in a duet, as if it's the departed husband.

Since its premiere in San Francisco in 2002, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field has been staged about a half-dozen times at various venues around the country. Productions have tended to be highly stylized multimedia shows that emphasize the work's avant-garde side. The first performance was more theatrical than operatic. A 2010 mounting at the University of Texas at Austin seemed like a strange inverse minstrel show, with all the characters, slaves and planters alike, in white face. The truth be told, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field is so open to interpretation that almost any kind of staging can work, provided it's done with style and panache.

Hoomes first saw the work around 2007 at Montclair State University in New Jersey. He was there for a performance of Elmer Gantry, which was premiered in Nashville and later performed at Montclair. "I knew of David Lang and Bang on a Can, but I had never heard of The Difficulty of Crossing a Field before my trip to New Jersey," Hoomes said. "I wasn't impressed with the staging, but I couldn't get the music out of my mind."

So Hoomes returned to Nashville with the idea of staging this surreal piece. The opening of the Noah Liff Opera Center provided him with an ideally intimate space in which to produce it. The question then became, how to interpret the work? A theatrical purist, Hoomes prefers straightforward narratives. In his opinion, if you can't find the human drama in La Bohème on a bare stage, no amount of Franco Zeffirelli-inspired splendor will save you.

That said, Wellman provided few clues in his libretto about stage direction. Hoomes, therefore, had to re-create this Southern gothic world from scratch. He was well-suited to the task. An Alabama boy who still speaks with a Southern accent (though one that's now theatrically refined), Hoomes grew up outside Mobile and is fully familiar with the antebellum world. Perhaps for that reason he's not afraid to confront this opera's more controversial issues head on. "We are not going to downplay the evil of slavery," he says.

At the same time, Hoomes has no interest in being preachy. He sees The Difficulty of Crossing a Field primarily as a horror and mystery piece. "John refers to this opera as 'the cerebral puzzle book,' " says Brian Russell, the actor who plays the dual role of the Magistrate and Mr. Williamson. "That's the key to our interpretation."

Sonya Sardon, who plays the slave leader Virginia Creeper, concedes that this opera is at heart a mystery. "There are things in this world that are simply unknowable," she says. But after rehearsing her voodoo ritual scene, she wonders about the work's deeper meanings.

"This opera deals with a lot of issues, like the treatment of women and the treatment of slaves," she says. "A lot of my African-American friends tell me they would never appear in a work like this, portrayed as slaves, but I say you can't hide history. Besides, what this opera is really about is the resilience of my ancestors."


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