'the difficulty of crossing a field' at Nashville Opera

November 9-11, The Nashville Opera presents David Lang's chamber opera the difficulty of crossing a field.

With this work, Lang and multi-Obie award-winning playwright Mac Wellman have created a radical cross between opera and theater mixing arias with spoken text, emotional melodies with intense drama, and featuring a string quartet as both the 'orchestra' and as part of the staging.

Based on a one-page short story by American satirist and abolitionist author, Ambrose Bierce, the opera is set on a plantation in the antebellum American south where a slave owner, while walking across his field one night, suddenly disappears in plain view of his family, his neighbors and his slaves — forever altering the relationships among them. Everyone around him has a particular view of what the disappearance means and why it had to happen. The second half of the story takes the facts surrounding the disappearance and places them in the context of an inquest, as a magistrate attempts to determine whether the slave-owner, Mr. Williamson, can be legally declared dead in order to give his possessions away.

For Wellman, this dual-telling of events was an opportunity to present the story from different angles and from continuously changing viewpoints; whereby, according to Lang, "we learn less about what actually happened, and paradoxically because we've learned less there's more room to project our own interpretation and emotional life."

For Lang, the work is experimental: the text doesn't exactly say what it is aiming for; i.e. This is the point, let's all agree on what we know. But, Lang suggests, "you do get a sense as the opera goes on that the man's disappearance comes as a form of punishment, and everyone has a different idea eventually of what this man has done wrong." However, in Lang's and Wellman's telling, the central character of the opera is not Mr. Williamson himself, but his wife, Mrs. Williamson; in this dramatic and powerful mezzo role, the loss of her husband opens up an absence that she can neither understand nor overcome.

Setting a story with such subtle complexity, this opera illuminates the narrative through its own inimitable language and gives the multi-layered subtext space for interpretation while distilling the drama into catchy, rhythmic melodies and masterfully shaped spoken word.

'the difficulty of crossing a field' is written for 5 principals and a chorus of 6 or more, with string quartet on stage. The original production was commissioned by the American Conservatory Theater for the Kronos Quartet and was premiered on March 22, 2002 at the Theater Artaud in San Francisco, directed by Carey Perloff and starring Julia Migenes as the wife of the missing planter and 2004 Tony-award winning singer Anika Noni Rose as the leader of the slave chorus, with music performed onstage by the Kronos Quartet.