opera review

High Notes on the High Line: The Mile-Long Opera

Performers in The Mile-Long Opera. Photo: Timothy Schenck

Perhaps, like me, you’ve sometimes felt as though the snippets of talk you overhear in the street might be lines from a vast urban play. People declaim when they’re on the phone so that complaints about nefarious co-workers, tales of children’s misdemeanors, plans for a weekend escapade, or even just a saga of online shopping acquires an epic cast. Early in the morning, commuters chirp into their earpieces, stretching the thread that still binds them to the breakfast table or to bed. Later, conversation becomes brusquer, summarizing that day’s bit of plot. That fantasy of a citywide drama with a cast of strangers crystallizes in The Mile-Long Opera, a performance made of chatter and chants that takes place along the length of the High Line.

The audience ambles northward from Gansevoort Street in the failing light, past stationary performers dressed in black or white. Some wear caps with brims that cast an LED glow over their faces. The singers and actors catch your eye as you walk, because each one has a story to tell, in urgent speech or leisurely incantation. You have to stop and lean in to hear what they’re saying, but if you just keep going, you realize that another chorus member picks up the same note and the same words, though perhaps at a different emotional pitch. You are being passed along a conveyor belt of narratives.

“I’ve always loved this hour of the day,” someone sings, and as you move on another performer repeats the line as if the thought had only just occurred to her. Pause for a moment, and she will say it again, though the observation is meant for the listener coming up behind you. A few blocks further along, you hear the words again, at a distance, perhaps, or trailing off, and each time it reminds you to savor the moment. The piece is subtitled A Biography of Seven O’Clock, and even on this unseasonably warm October night, New York is on its best behavior, mixing glamour with ordinary urban life. An ambulance howls by, ripping through the soft fabric of music, and after it passes you realize what a miracle it is that the city is quiet enough here for you to hear an a cappella opera outdoors.

The Mile-Long Opera, conceived by composer David Lang and the architects of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is an immense but intimate production. Hundreds of volunteers — 1,000, if the press release is to be believed — participate, not in massed choruses but in separate murmurs. Some perform in Spanish, others in Chinese, many in accents of disparate origins. There are as many ways of singing as there are body types: you hear velvety coos, old-lady croaks, teenaged croons, basso rumbles, hooting operatic sopranos, gospel hollers, and your basic regular-person warble.

The poets Anne Carson and Claudia Rankine quilted together the memories of many into a libretto full of vivid vignettes, some about the High Line neighborhood itself. “I used to hammer my own meat hooks when I first opened the shop,” we’re told early on. Later: “Nowadays it’s all lighted like a movie set, but I used to love going up on the tracks at dusk. Watch the night come in.” Lang has set these musings to the most minimal of scores: a note here, another there, all kept miraculously in tune over 20 blocks. The experience loses a bit of its wonder as you go on; maybe half a mile of opera would’ve sufficed, thought that would have doubled the crowd-control issues.

But once your body is tuned to the pace and the vibe, it comes across patches of magic. In the passageway beneath a building that straddles the park, voices blend in churchlike splendor. Later, they rise up like steam through the grates beneath your feet: “Amber will you marry me?” someone down there asks, and you may be tempted to say yes.

Eventually you emerge from the tight canyon flanked by luxury condos, swing past the birthing Hudson Yards, with all those glass dragons rearing above and the trains idling in the sidings below. White-clad singers stand spaced out every 30 feet along the curving catwalk, intoning the words: “Whatever happens to a city can happen to this city, whatever happens to anyone can happen to us.” And then you reach 34th Street and the city closes in, clangorous, hurried, and profane. Only now, you return to your life as you do after a moving ceremony, all that focused pianissimo still ringing in your ears.

High Notes on the High Line: The Mile-Long Opera