In the Ambrose Bierce short story “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field,” an Alabama farmer known only as Williamson sets out to walk across his empty pasture and seemingly disappears in full view of his wife, neighbors and the plantation's slaves. Set in 1854, the cryptic 752-word story is more of a riddle than an explanation, and its eerie ambiguity was deepened further when the author himself vanished and presumably died under mysterious circumstances in late 1913.
Composer David Lang and librettist Mac Wellman fully revel in the enigmatic implications of Bierce's tale in their English-language opera of the same title, which was commissioned by artistic director Carey Perloff of the American Conservatory Theater and premiered by the company in San Francisco in 2002. Incorporating elements of musical theater with a mesmerizing weave of dialogue and vocal singing, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field is stranger than a typical opera, with Wellman expanding Bierce's split narration into a Rashomon-style retelling from the perspectives of seven characters (a twist that inevitably leads back to Bierce, whose stories indirectly influenced Akira Kurosawa's classic film).]
Fittingly, Lang and Wellman's work doesn't provide any easy answers. “Plot details contradict each other from scene to scene,” Lang writes in an e-mail interview from England. “There is even an instruction at one point: 'Something strange happens.' What this means is that every production has been wildly different.”
Long Beach Opera's new production of the 80-minute piece, which runs from June 22 to June 29 at the Terrace Theater for just three performances, indeed promises to be very different. In an interesting move, LBO artistic director Andreas Mitisek will have the audience sitting onstage, with soprano Suzan Hanson (as the farmer's distraught wife) and a Greek chorus portraying the slaves moving among the seats of the theater. Taking over from the original production's Kronos Quartet, the “orchestra” will be the Lyris Quartet – situated on a platform above the seats.
Far from being an exacting purist, the L.A.-born Lang, a co-founder of the New York contemporary classical-music collective Bang on a Can, welcomes such variations. “One of the great things about writing an opera is that it can be much more than a bunch of strict orders a composer gives to the unknown performers and directors of the future,” he writes. “It can also be a proposition, a problem to solve. The Difficulty of Crossing a Field is one of those operas. The piece is about a mystery that remains more or less unsolved, so it seemed like a good idea to make an opera that was also mysterious.”
Despite being set in the Deep South a few years before the Civil War, the opera never drifts into hokey Americana. “There is no Stephen Foster in it at all!” Lang declares. Instead, the composer occasionally twines yearning strands of gospel spirituality within delicate arias, buttressed and sometimes overlapped by the chorus' more forceful Broadway declarations, and spliced together by the string quartet's tastefully sparse yet urgent and ominous undercurrents.
Wellman and Lang delved deeper into the point of view of the plantation's slaves. “Mac's and my take on Bierce's story is that even though we never really learn what happened to the disappeared man, his disappearance is somehow connected to his owning slaves,” Lang says. “Bierce implies in his story that the slaves may know something about the disappearance, and Mac pushes that implication very far … In Bierce's story and in our opera, all the relationships between everyone are laid bare just because of the absence of this one man. He links his whole society together, and he is not even there. That's a neat trick.”
When asked if real-world events have altered his own perspective about the opera, Lang replies, “I wrote this piece before, during and after September 11th, and I was surprised by how my feelings change about the meaning of a man who disappears in thin air.”
The Difficulty of Crossing a Field is performed at the Terrace Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; Sun., June 22, 7 p.m.; Sat., June 28, 8 p.m.; and Sun., June 29, 2 p.m. (562) 432-5934, www.longbeachopera.org.
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