Long Beach Opera: David Lang’s “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field”

By David Gregson, June, 17, 2011

One of my closest friends, now an American citizen, is a Parsi Indian from Mumbai. I am always intrigued by his reactions to my innumerable operatic excursions. Because he has yet to succumb to the arcane charms of Western opera, he never accompanies me on these adventures — but he seldom fails to make insightful comments on them.

When I told him about Long Beach Opera’s "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field," the Ambrose Bierce inspired musical theater collaboration of composer David Lang and playwright/librettist, Mac Wellman, my friend deftly dismissed the whole concept as somewhat old hat: "This idea of a man disappearing and thereby inspiring a narrative concerning the vanishing is an old one. We have it even in India, notably in an interesting film by Mrinal Sen called ‘Ek Din Achanak’ (‘One Day Suddenly’). A respected retired professor and father of a middle class household tells his family he is going across the road for cigarettes and then never returns. This causes a whole lot of soul searching on the part of his family."

The extremely brief Bierce story implies somewhat more than soul-searching, however. The central character (or non-character, as the case may be) is Mr. Williamson, played superbly in this LBO show with a sharp edge of unpleasant scariness by Mark Bringelson. A slave owner in Selma, Alabama, circa 1854, Williamson causes widespread existential confusion and inexplicable anxiety by strolling across a field and suddenly vanishing from view and apparently from this earth. He becomes a non-person.

The African-American slaves Williamson "owns" are, of course, non-persons in a different sense. They are not allowed to participate in the inquest over the matter — or as Bierce puts it, "The servants were, of course, not competent to testify." They are invisible, like Ralph Ellison’s "Invisible Man" (one of the great American novels). On the other hand, the white boy, James Wren, seems to have testified only to have his comments stricken from the record. It is he who claimed to have actually seen the vanishing. Thirteen-year olds may be non-persons too.

So, in this mysterious story and the suggestive quasi-operatic drama made from it, we are allowed to speculate: The Rapture, so much in the news of late if not in 1854, is an impossible explanation — unless Yahweh truly does approve of slave holders as he clearly seems to in the Old Testament. That old sinner Williamson go to Heaven? I don’t think so. Perhaps he walked into one of those dimensional voids described by Dr. Hem of Leipzig (and explained in the LBO program).

Anything is possible: he could have been murdered for any number of possible reasons and his body disposed of. Does it have something to do with his horse trading with Mr. Wren? Perhaps some weird Selma African voodoo witchcraft wiped him out. Or he could have just gone "poof" from spontaneous combustion. Or he could have simply gone away forever someplace and taken on a new identity.

Whatever the case, everybody has a different perspective on the matter. And for Mrs. Williamson (wonderfully incarnated by the versatile and ever-fabulous soprano/actress Suzan Hanson), it is an existential crisis of the first magnitude — at least the way Lang and Wellman would have it. She goes mad and sits on top of the roof of the house contemplating the mysteries of being and nothingness. Or at the very least, of no longer being Mrs. Williamson.

Bierce reports this in what to my way of thinking is a brief newspaper article. Bierce was a newspaper man, after all. It’s difficult to see this extremely short story as having the depth and complexity of Akira Kurosawa’s "Rashomon" in which the story of a rape and murder is told by an accidental witness; the alleged rapist/murderer himself; the woman who was raped; and the ghost of her murdered husband. Nevertheless, we learn from Lang and company that Bierce wrote a story on which Kurosawa based his famous film, and "Difficulty" adopts some of the same trial format. This Kurosawa/Bierce connection, previously unknown to me (a great fan of the film) is most interesting, although I wonder if there isn’t less to all of this than meets the eye.

Quickly we are thrown into the philosophical realm of being and non-being. That’s the great existential conundrum. People and things exist and then they don’t. Death, non-being, is an absurdity. Jean-Paul Sartre has a thing or two to say about all this, and Ambrose Bierce too, but not very much. Yet Lang and Wellman run off on the subject in a rather pretentious way that raises more questions than it answers — which, in fact, seems to be the entire point. The text is at times exasperating and even tedious at a mere one hour and 15 minutes. The music, however, is highly appealing and effective (played with authority by the Lyris String Quartet), but the text loops around on itself, often evoking Gertrude Stein’s elliptical verse. But not in such a good way: Stein’s "Four Saints in Three Acts" and "The Mother of Us All" seem to me to be genuine masterpieces — with more than a little help from composer Virgil Thomson.

My Indian friend also told me vis-a-vis the plot, "I think gimmicks are the last resort of the clever artist, never the great one."

For a moment I thought he had in mind my emailed capsule description of the production: "A striking aspect of all this was that the entire audience was seated (uncomfortably) on stage facing out into the rather vast auditorium of the Terrace Theater. When the curtain went up, the auditorium was revealed to us as a gaping black chasm with fog everywhere obscuring our vision. A small orchestra literally seemed to float in space somewhere in the distance. Actors emerged from all sorts of unexpected places among the rows of seats and then vanished into a void. Much use was made of the two-section pit elevator. The visuals were stunning and even incorporated the distant doors of the balcony. A metal "hanamichi" runway slashed down the center of the orchestra stalls and was used effectively in the perplexing disappearance."

I forgot to say that looking out at a non-existent audience was a perfect metaphor for the entire work. Sometimes gimmicks transcend mere gimmickry! Take for a random example Haydn’s "Farewell Symphony" which I heard and saw at the San Diego Mainly Mozart Festival only a few days ago. A great piece despite the musicians who vanish gradually from the stage until only two instruments are playing — and you can’t see them because the lights have been turned off.

I thought this difficult field was one of the finest and most inspired achievements of LBO’s artistic and general director/stage director/production designer/total genius Andreas Mitisek. Lighting designer Dan Weingarten’s work was also utterly dazzling. The ensemble of black performers could not have been improved upon. Dabney Ross Jones (Virginia Creeper), Amber Mercomes (Old Woman), Nicholas Shelton (solo), and Lesili Beard, Joel Brown, Jessica Elisabeth, Matthew Lofton and Marcus Paige. The conductor, not Andreas for a change, was Benjamin Makino, also serving capably as chorus master.

My companion/colleague Brenda and I were in love with Eric B. Anthony who played Boy Sam. A charmer with a lovely voice. Valerie Vinzant was superb as the Williamson Girl (even when literally uttering crap), and Robin T. Buck made a very strong impression as Amour Wren and Andrew. Do see Brenda’s review which is far more informative and detailed than mine — and even recounts the ghastly tribulations during our trip to Long Beach from San Diego.

In short, although the text struck me as a tissue of imagined profundities, the total experience was tremendous and no doubt will prove totally memorable.

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