‘They’ve agreed to build something bigger than themselves’

Sally Marlow experiences a ‘Mile-Long Opera’ and meets its Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, David Lang.

New York is proud of its public parks, which provide necessary respite in a place where the phrase ‘the city that never sleeps’ is not so much a cliché as a truism. The latest addition has been the High Line, a raised landscaped platform running along the meatpacking district on the west side of Manhattan, occupying the site of a now abandoned railway line. Think of those 1950s movies where train tracks would rattle along two or three storeys high amongst apartment buildings – that’s the High Line, except now it’s full of trees, plants and walkers, instead of trains and commuters. It’s certainly beautiful, a place for contemplation in the most intense urban environment imaginable. It’s also brought gentrification to an area that was once run-down, and there are mixed opinions on that. In the six years that composer David Lang has been working on his opera, he has seen a rapid rate of change in the area. He wanted to reflect that in a piece, he says, without commenting on whether the gentrification is good or bad, and provide ‘a vision of where we have been and where we are going’.  

And so, for six days in October 2018, the High Line was not just a park, but an operatic set, the backdrop to The Mile-Long Opera: a biography of 7 o’clock. This large-scale civic musical project was created by Lang, in collaboration with the architect of the High Line, Liz Diller, and the writers Anne Carson and Claudia Rankine. It was performed by a mix of 1000 singers, both professionals and from community choirs, drawn from across the five boroughs of New York, and the tickets were free. There was no orchestra – the High Line is open air, so the sounds of the city formed the backdrop of the opera, and Lang wrote the piece to work with those sounds, rather than compete with them.  

The concept is visionary: in most operas you take your seat, and the characters are paraded in front of the audience at set times, with set expectations of a collective response. Lang is on a mission to introduce new audiences to classical music, showing them that its relevance isn’t restricted to wandering romantically around Vienna 200 years ago. As he explained when I met him in his New York loft, he wanted to reverse the usual way of doing things, so it’s the characters who are stationary, and it’s the audience that parades past, individuals each deciding their own pace. In this way, every experience of the opera is different, and these individual experiences sit alongside his aims for this piece: to show the lives of New Yorkers in all their diversity through narratives of life at 7pm.

By doing this Lang tells me he wanted to create unity for performers and audiences alike, but also to be political: ‘People are becoming more and more divided by the things that they believe in, and so people have fewer opportunities to talk to people who have different opinions or have different backgrounds, or who have different experiences. Our city is very diverse – New York has a huge immigrant population, it has a huge minority population, it has a huge diversity of rich and poor, it really is the most mixed-up city in America… the way [the opera] is supposed to work, that everyone shares an experience, and sharing that experience makes you a community, and it makes you citizenry, and it makes you a nation.’  

Lang addresses this with his choice of performers: the singers are very diverse, including for example Chinese and Ukrainian choirs singing in their own languages. Bringing together 1000 performers would be challenging by anybody’s standards, but Lang saw it as integral to the piece: ‘Without that sense of coming together we can’t do music, so one of the things that’s really clear to me as a musician, is that music may be one of the last places left on earth where people have to forget their individual differences in order to come together to build something… No one says I don’t like the politics of the person next to me so I’m going to sing badly, everyone knows they’ve agreed in advance that they’ve agreed to build something which is bigger than themselves.’  

This sense of something bigger than themselves is what he wants the audience to experience. As I walked along the High Line at dusk, night falling, and the sounds of the city all around me, I was drawn to the stories I was hearing. Lang had given me a bit of a heads-up about what it would be like when he said, ‘You get an individual relationship and an individual experience with each one of those people (the singers). As you walk by they look you in the eye, they sing their tune, they sing their story, and you have a connection with them and you can’t avoid that connection… in this piece, those different people, who are all of us, are unavoidable.’ What I wasn’t prepared for is just how powerful that intimacy would be. The music and the voices are compelling, with enormous integrity, and being so close up only serves to increase the feeling that you are at one with the singers, and with the city, at the same time. It was sublime, and it was New York as I have never before experienced it, despite having lived in the city at various points in my life. It was also opera like no other I have ever heard. Towards the end as the High Line loses is greenery and just the railway track remains, it slopes down towards the grid of streets and avenues below. Ghostly singers loomed out of the dark, guiding us home, with the 26th piece of music we would hear that night, a fitting finale: 

Whatever can happen to anyone can happen to us, whatever can happen to a city can happen to this city. The sleeping, the forgetting, the wrecking, the towering, the kissing, the scoffing, the cellophaning, the whirling snow, the sane and the inside, the red cliffs, the parades, the lipstick, the poets in fresh cloaks, the white man’s anecdotes of the black man’s anecdotes, the icing and the frosting and the defrosting and the deicing, the city cats in city hats, the famished multitudes, the rushing plentitudes, the lonely limits, the silence after ambulances, the silence after living, whatever can happen to a city can happen to this city, whatever can happen to anyone can happen to us. Onward rolls the broad bright current.  

- Sally Marlow is Associate Editor for Culture

You can experience excerpts from the opera in 360° at https://milelongopera.com 

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