October 16, 2018

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In ‘The Mile-Long Opera,’ All the High Line’s a Stage

In ‘The Mile-Long Opera,’ All the High Line’s a Stage
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“You always step into this life cycle of the city, whether it’s declining or being reborn, and you don’t even understand how you’re a part of it,” the famed architect Liz Diller said earlier this week on the High Line, a modern triumph of her firm, Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

“We didn’t realize just how phenomenally important this would be,” she added, gesturing at the High Line. It will be the site of “The Mile-Long Opera: a biography of 7 o’clock,” a large-scale performance work, created by Ms. Diller and the composer David Lang, with text by Anne Carson and Claudia Rankine, which runs Oct. 3-8 with a cast of 1,000 singers spread across the length of the elevated park.

During the past decade, the High Line has been a tourist magnet and balcony seat for the theater of a rapidly changing New York City. On either side of it, old meatpacking plants and neglected warehouses have been transformed into boutique hotels, high-end shops and multimillion-dollar condos. At the farthest end, construction has begun on Hudson Yards, a development that houses two more Diller Scofidio + Renfro projects, including the Shed performance space.

As with all development and gentrification, you could call change like this both good and bad. Ms. Diller said that is where architects should come in to think about their work and what it has wrought.

That reflection, she said, is in part what has led to “The Mile-Long Opera.” Ms. Diller, after all, has always straddled the worlds of art, architecture and performance, and she envisioned the High Line as “a fantastic urban stage.” (Performances are sold out, but starting next week anyone can experience a 360-degree video version of the piece online.)

“The tracks were transformed into a park,” she said. “And now the park is being transformed into a stage. And that’s as big of a jump for me.”

To pull that off, she enlisted an A-list group of collaborators. Mr. Lang is a master of large-scale public works, like “the public domain” (also for 1,000 voices) at Lincoln Center in 2016 and “symphony for a broken orchestra,” for hundreds of broken school instruments, in Philadelphia last year. The libretto by Ms. Carson and Ms. Rankine explores the lives of New Yorkers using two focal points: the time of 7 p.m., and the stories behind their dining tables.

The High Line has been a quasi theater before; in 2009, the punk photographer Patty Heffley, who had lived in an inexpensive loft on West 20th Street since the 1970s, turned her fire escape into a cabaret stage in response to losing her privacy to the elevated park, which looked directly into her apartment. Ms. Diller and Mr. Lang considered a variety of ideas for their own project, ultimately arriving at an installation-like opera in which audience members could move at their own pace along the length of the High Line.

Ms. Rankine said that she assembled her contribution of the libretto — her words are spoken, while Ms. Carson’s are sung — by interviewing people about their tables. “The thing that intrigued me about this project,” she said, was “How do you talk to anybody and everybody about a single thing? And how do you create a question that will include strangers so that they don’t feel as though I am imposing on their privacy?”

People opened up to her, giving details about furniture pieces that were antiques or Ikea, family heirlooms or just a surface for accumulating unpaid bills and books. The effect, Ms. Rankine said, was like overhearing the intimate conversations of strangers on the street; “The Mile-Long Opera,” she added, was making art of something “we normally do in this city.”

The text is reflective and often emotional, even nostalgic and wistful. People sing about the meatpacking district of 30 years ago, or about how gentrification has led to more garbage — and thus more rats — on their blocks. In one passage, someone tells the story of spraying “AMBER WILL YOU MARRY ME?” on a fence in a construction zone, adding ruefully: “It’s all erased now. Amber too.”

“We could have made it very overt and said gentrification is bad,” Ms. Diller said. “But it’s a post-occupancy reflection on change. It starts from a critical place, and then it ends in this poetic, beautiful way to get that same resonance, without being brutal about it.”

That approach is familiar territory for Mr. Lang, whose music is often obliquely political, raising haunting questions without providing answers. With “The Mile-Long Opera,” he had the added challenge of writing something that would also motivate audience members to keep moving. He came up with a harmonic system that, when executed correctly, acts like a series of lures urging people forward to hear more.

The effect relies on a variety of factors, not least the challenge of organizing 1,000 singers from professional and community choirs from all five boroughs. Performers are also up against the unpredictable noises of New York, including from the West Side Highway and a helipad near the north end of the High Line.

“You can’t compete with the city,” Mr. Lang said. “You have to be with the city.” So, the singers will be almost entirely unamplified. And they have been spaced out with extreme specificity based on the sounds they’re up against, and the power of each person’s voice. (Some singers, Mr. Lang added, are quite loud; after all, “some hams” are to be expected among New Yorkers.)

Rehearsals have occurred sporadically, away from the High Line in the nooks of everyday life’s demands among the community singers and even the busy schedules of Mr. Lang, Ms. Diller and the rest of the opera’s creative team. Carmen Roman, the director of Our Chorus NYC and one of the participants, said that preparing the music has been less challenging than “learning how to perform in a performance art piece” in which the singers have to stay in place for about three hours each night.

With all the moving pieces and schedules to align, Ms. Diller said, it’s no surprise that rehearsals have unfolded over the course of the past year. “It’s really complicated,” she added. “It’s like building a building.”

In construction, architects can see their buildings go up slowly, but until the final touch is in place, it’s impossible to take in the finished project. “The Mile-Long Opera” operates in much the same way: Only recently have the singers been able to rehearse on the High Line, and even then it was only in small segments. For logistical reasons, the work won’t be seen or heard in its entirety until the first performance.

“We’ll have to see next week,” Ms. Diller said, “how well we’ve succeeded.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page C5 of the New York edition with the headline: For One Opera, All the High Line’s a Stage. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe



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