"Most singers in the world aren't going to want to do this piece," composer David Lang confesses about his curious new opera, The Loser, which receives its West Coast premiere at the Theatre at Ace Hotel on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 22-23, as part of L.A. Opera's Off Grand series of experimental works. "It's really hard. ... I have pieces that only a few people can do. I was particular about who could do this piece. Rod Gilfry is exactly the right person."
Portraying an unnamed narrator, baritone Gilfry — a native of West Covina — is the only singer who appears in this intensely psychological musical conundrum, which examines how a love of artistic expression can lead to jealousy, bitter rivalry, madness and even death. "Rod Gilfry is the opera," Lang, 62, says by phone from his New York City studio apartment. "He sings one whole hour without stopping. I think he feels he is the person who can take on a challenge like this."
Lang's opera is based on Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard's 1983 novel, The Loser, which speculates about how the narrator and a fellow pianist named Wertheimer meet in a master class taught by legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz in Salzburg, Austria, in 1953, only to have their dreams shattered when they realize that they will never approach the level of sublime artistry and talent as another student — the phenomenal Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. Instead of being inspired by Gould's talent, Wertheimer and the narrator are so despairing about their own abilities that they give up on their dreams of being successful concert pianists, setting off a chain of events over three decades that culminates in Wertheimer's suicide.
"They were both wrecked by Glenn Gould," Lang explains. Not only do the narrator and Wertheimer battle over their musical abilities but much of their lives are consumed with differing perspectives about their soul-gutting encounter with Gould. Wertheimer gives up on music, while the narrator recasts himself as a philosopher who devotes much of his time to writing an endless, unfinished essay titled "About Glenn Gould."
"They have a lifetime competition of their memories of Glenn Gould. All the memories collide with each other. It's very confusing in terms of linearity. It creates this very dense human experience where all the past experiences of these characters are colliding," Lang says. There's even a race to see "who has fallen lower," he adds.
The funny thing is that even though Bernhard's novel invokes historical figures like Gould and Horowitz, none of the events portrayed are real. Although Gould is one of the main characters, Horowitz is more of a phantom presence who is acknowledged only in passing references.
"He's sort of the light that attracted all of these moths," Lang says. "There are all these little weird things that are completely unreal about it. Are they unreal because the narrator can't be believed? This is not a bio-opera. I wouldn't quote any of the facts in this opera.
"The beautiful thing about this book is the [narrator] is so complicated, with the pain, the bitterness, the smug amusement. He's so full of contradictions," the composer says. "You stop listening for facts and for details. You start listening for how the narrator reveals himself. I read the entire book out loud. It feels like a crazy person — super smart and super troubled — yelling at you. I fell in love with this character so much. ... It's a pretty un-operatic book. Most of the action takes place in the character's head. There is very little action. I didn't want to add action to this piece; all the action is in the main character."
With a minimal stage set and only one vocalist, it was a challenge to translate Bernhard's novel into an opera. "It's very risky, and it asks a lot of an audience to concentrate on this single voice," Lang admits. In some ways, the staging is determined by the layout of the Theatre at Ace Hotel, although Lang doesn't want to give away just how the various levels of the lavishly ornate theater are employed to frame the action. He came to appreciate the beauty of the venue as he was "prowling around and exploring it" in April last year, when his wife, artist Suzanne Bocanegra, presented her performance piece/lecture Farmhouse/Whorehouse. Bocanegra also designed the costumes for The Loser.
"The Ace Theatre is so beautiful. The staging really reveals the character. ... I use the theater to help do that. The staging is to make it more highlighted, to focus on the person. That's why the orchestra is unseen. There's an offstage ensemble that you never see that plays most of the music."
The ensemble, dubbed Bang on a Can Opera, consists of four players — a violist, cellist, bassist and percussionist. Near the end of The Loser, pianist Conrad Tao, 24, evokes the high-flying musicianship of a Glenn Gould, but he too is hidden offstage. "Conrad Tao is a virtuoso," Lang declares. "We designed the set so we can't see the conductor but Rod Gilfry can. I think it's pretty ingenious." The conductor is Lesley Leighton, who will present another work by Lang, crowd out, for L.A. Philharmonic at Disney Hall on Saturday, June 1.
Days later, Leighton heads up north to collaborate with the provocative Canadian soprano/conductor/iconoclast Barbara Hannigan, who was anointed as music director for this year's Ojai Music Festival, which begins on Thursday, June 9.
"We're used to going to the theater and seeing it do really dramatic, staged things — with fancy costumes and elephants — to see what theater is capable of," Lang says. "But we're going in the opposite direction to scale this down. What kind of listeners do we become if these elements are scaled back? ... I tried to make a piece of music that's the dramatic equivalent to the book, something that makes this character come alive. I have not changed a single word for the libretto. Everything that happens in the libretto is the same as in the novel and in the same order."
Lang says he had to cut some parts of the novel for space, most notably passages in which the narrator riffs on parochial rivalries between the Swiss and Austrian cultures and also sections where Wertheimer mulls over being Jewish.
"I left all of that out," Lang says, because he didn't think Bernhard's Eurocentric digressions about Judaism would translate easily for American audiences.
"Bernhard had a love/hate relationship — mostly hate — with Austria," adds Lang. "There are pages and pages of insults about Austria and Switzerland" that the composer omitted.
"It was very hard to cut this book, so many things that happen that reveal the neuroses of the character. ... I've made a musical and spiritual bond between this character and this project. This is not necessarily my most popular piece. The music is the barest skeleton necessary in order to support the singer."
In addition to composing the music and writing the libretto, Lang also decided to direct The Loser, which received its world premiere at the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in September 2016. The presentation at the Theatre at Ace Hotel marks only the second time the opera has been performed publicly.
"The only way to preserve this fragile piece was for me to be the director," Lang says. "The directing is restrained, with the least amount of activity possible to take this book and make it come alive in the theater.
"I would never say that I'm a real director," he adds. "Sometimes, when you are writing the music, it gives you an optimal way to present it."
The stark, minimalist presentation of The Loser stands in distinct contrast to much of Lang's other work. At REDCAT in June 2016, L.A. Opera's Off Grand series and Beth Morrison Projects hosted the world premiere of Lang and artist Mark Dion's Anatomy Theater, an engrossingly macabre fable about fear, vivisection, superstition and the nature of evil, which was distinguished by rich visual imagery overlaid with surreal calligraphy. It featured adventurous mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell, who daringly performed nude for much of the work as an executed woman's corpse. In June 2014, Long Beach Opera presented an unusual staging of Lang and playwright Mac Wellman's The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, an eerily ambiguous Civil War–era fever dream, based on a story by Ambrose Bierce, in which the audience sat onstage and the singers prowled along shadowy ramps and ladders on the floor.
Along with Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, Lang is a co-founder of the NYC contemporary-music ensemble and production group Bang on a Can. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his 2007 piece The Little Match Girl Passion, and has collaborated on a variety of disparate projects with Kronos Quartet, Nico Muhly, The National's Bryce Dessner and My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden. L.A. Phil's upcoming presentation of the vocal work crowd out will require a multitude of singers scattered among the audience at Disney Hall.
"That's a piece for 1,000 people who are not necessarily musically trained," Lang explains. "I went to a soccer match in London. I saw Arsenal play in the early '90s. Everybody is singing these rude songs about sex and having a fantastic time, yelling and screaming. It was beautiful and a little scary. With classical music, you spend your life learning how to do it; we worship so much the models that we've inherited in the past. But [the soccer chanting] was this beautiful sound — a musical sound with an inviting doorway to let everybody in, which is not the classical model." Lang composed another recent participatory piece, harmony and understanding, which is divided into two halves. During the first section, the audience practices its parts, followed by a second half in which the crowd performs along with an orchestra.
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"There are few parts of our lives where people who don't know each other come together to do something," Lang marvels. "Rehearsal is when the community comes together, where the action of music is made. Rehearsal is the place where you have to learn to trust your neighbor."
Lang grew up in Westwood. "California in the '70s had this open experimentation with Harry Partch, John Cage, Steve Reich, Terry Riley and John Adams, people who had stepped out of the hyper New York world to do something experimental. I'm 17 years old at Stanford, and my first teacher was [influential composer] Lou Harrison," Lang recalls. "It was a much more relaxed and spiritually enlightened world that I associate with California. I think it made a big difference to be open and optimistic and experimental and curious. All these things I learned from the vibe of the California scene."
Even though he's lived in New York for about 38 years, Lang's background on the West Coast still informs much of his work. "As a composer, your job is to make problems for other people to solve," Lang says.
The Loser is performed at the Theatre at Ace Hotel, 929 S. Broadway, downtown L.A.: Fri.-Sat., Feb. 22-23, 8 p.m.; $25-$59. (213) 623-3233, laopera.org.