Opera review: David Lang’s ‘The Difficulty of Crossing a Field’ given Southern California premiere by Long Beach Opera

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Long Beach Opera on Wednesday night presented the Southern California premiere of David Lang’s opera “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” at Terrace Theater.

This basic, if unimaginative, declarative sentence, is factual. And misleading, just like the imaginative work under question.


“The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” is not about that difficulty but the difficulty of existence. The work is not exactly an opera (although, under current operatic law, anything can be an opera if it wants to call itself one) but a hybrid opera/play, unlike any other I know. And the Terrace Theater is not that Terrace Theater. The address hasn’t changed, but the audience sits, for this marvelous production, on the stage looking out into the auditorium. The performers ride up and down on the pit elevator and take over the seating area.

“Difficulty” was commissioned by the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco nine years ago. The idea was by Mac Wellman, the experimental playwright, who turned to a one-page story by Ambrose Bierce. In it, Mr. Williamson, a plantation owner in Selma, Ala., walks across a field in 1854 and vanishes into thin air, leaving his wife and daughter, his brother, his slaves and witnesses (of nothing rather than of something) mystified by an erasure.

San Franciscans were not amused by the piece or production in a small 250-seat theater (local reviews were scathing). The orchestra was the Kronos Quartet; the music is repetitive, hypnotic. The striking text has the quality of a latter-day Gertrude Stein (“the hole’s a who,” “the why’s a why not”), mesmerizing whether spoken as incantation or sung as aria.

Cary Perloff’s production was a traditional costume drama, which meant it was shocking. Slaves were slaves and an overseer, an overseer. We had to deal with history of what is and what is not. The slaves find a mystical explanation. A white judge hopes to settle a property dispute with reason, the most artificial justification under the circumstances. Mrs. Williamson loses her mind. The Williamson girl has an inkling of the parallel universes that physicists are now beginning to conjure up.

Perhaps in keeping with the nature of an erasure, the work –- which I thought momentous at the San Francisco premiere and thought so again Wednesday in Long Beach -- has had a history of popping up, barely noticed, and evaporating. Its other professional production, by the Ridge Theater, was at Montclair State University in New Jersey five years ago, but very few New Yorkers knew of it or crossed the river for it. A couple of schools have tried the opera out. For the Long Beach Opera production -- staged and designed by the company’s artistic and general director, Andreas Mitisek –- the theater is kept foggy. The excellent Lyris String Quartet sits off in the distance, as if in another realm. A platform, lighted from underneath, extends into the theater for some of the action.

Mitisek has been influenced by Robert Wilson. Mrs. Williamson, sung with powerful intensity by Suzan Hanson, rises and descends the pit elevator. She stands on stilts; her long skirt, which flows at an angle, is taller than she is.


The slaves most easily accept that the world is not what it seems. Dabney Ross Jones and Amber Mercomes sing alluringly, Lang’s music sometimes approaching cool, minimalist gospel. Eric B. Anthony, a riveting actor, is Sam, a young slave who is alert to irony and tragedy.

Another stage actor, Mark Bringelson, makes Mr. Williamson appropriately enigmatic. His friend, sung by Robin T. Buck, sees and doesn’t see the disappearance. As the Williamson girl, Valerie Vinzant, a young soprano who has been getting noticed at Los Angeles Opera, sings mostly lying down, dazed and confused yet in a lovely reverie. She and her mother both believe that there must have been something more than a disappearance. Could it be because Mr. Williamson did not talk to the horses about the history of horses, the daughter asks. Her gorgeous voice gives it plausibility.

Throughout, Lang’s music heightens inscrutability. One phrase never answers another. Instead, something new but similar follows. He gives the string plenty of repetition, inviting a listener not to think or feel but to float through sound.

Benjamin Makino, a young conductor, had the most difficult job. He needed to make all these disparate parts feel part of the same unreal world. He succeeded.

Los Angeles is, right now, knee-deep in adventurous theater, with several festivals running concurrently. But that is no reason not to cross a field (and even the horrid 405) -- Long Beach is busy making history with a show that, like poor (or maybe blessed) Mr. Williamson, will soon disappear.



Portal to a Realm of Eerie Ambiguity

A chat with composer David Lang

Music review: Jacaranda blooms in winter

-- Mark Swed

‘The Difficulty of Crossing A Field,’ Long Beach Opera. Terrace Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. $25 - $110. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes. (562) 432-5934 or