“Funny how hope changes everything. Funny how hope changes nothing,” a singer chants standing on the High Line overlooking 18th street, as a light in her black baseball cap eerily illuminates her face.
A few feet away, competing with the noise of a construction site, another singer chants: “Funny how construction next store changes everything. Funny how construction next store changes nothing,” while putting his hands in front of his face in a comical expression of annoyance.
Other individual performers nearby, all members of one of four different choral groups, sing how money or sex or tears or “a glass of really good red wine” change everything and nothing. Members of a couple of other choral groups sang the same variations on 30th Street.
These scenes struck me as both quintessential and atypical of “The Mile-Long Opera: a biography of 7 o’clock,” which features 1,000 performers singing lyrics (written by Anne Carson, with music by David Lang) or reciting monologues (by Claudia Rankine) along the entire 30 block length of the High Line. It is an astonishing, spectacular, moving, and deeply odd work of theater.
Every night from October 3rd to October 8th, members of some 40 choral groups and ensembles from all five boroughs each repeat their assigned phrase or verse over and over again over the course of about three hours. That sounds as if it could be taxing for lyrics like “My friends have moved away, rent’s gone crazy, no grocery store around here anymore,” which they were singing at the High Line above 20th Street, or “That was the saddest cup of coffee of my life,” which they were singing at the High Line above 22nd Street.
But for audience members who take an average of 90 minutes to walk past these thousand stationery performers in the park, the effect is like overhearing snippets of conversation in the city in quick succession, a thrilling kaleidoscope of New York.
But, like a kaleidoscope, there is some distortion at play. As we’re told in the program handed to us at the end, “the diverse stories…are inspired by first-hand interviews with New Yorkers from all walks of life.” The interviews were specifically about “the changing meaning of 7:00 pm, the time the performance begins each evening, and a time that represents a transition from day to night, when people shift from one activity to the next.” It’s self-evident, given the breadth and ambition of what the organizers are calling a collective experience, that we’re encouraged to view “The Mile-Long Opera” as an overview of the mosaic that is New York City.
But this is not former Mayor David Dinkins’ old “gorgeous mosaic.” It’s more like a grim mosaic. The tone of “The Mile-Long Opera” feels at best wistful, more often self-serious and downright foreboding. This impression is enhanced by all the impassive faces eerily lit in the darkness — as if we’ve stumbled into “The Walking Dead.” I couldn’t help picturing, when the performers chillingly repeated just the phrase “Parts of us erase” in three separate locations (above 17th Street, 21st Street, and the penultimate ominous-looking stretch along 30th Street) that eventually they would eat us.
Among the 26 songs and monologues, “funny how money” (as the segment/song is entitled) is one of the few that has a humorous vibe to it. (There are also mischievous cameos by “window washers” in high rises along the route.) I know the piece is called an “opera,” but surely there was room for a little more of the typical New Yorker’s inner….operetta – an acknowledgement of the unique sense of humor that we develop to make it through the musical comedy of living in this city.
Although it’s not as clear until you read the libretto (which is printed in the program), the overtly poetic monologues have another drawback. Too many are simply too long for an audience that’s being very gently ushered along the path by High Line staff in fluorescent orange jackets.
Any such quibbles tend to fall away by the final stretch of this remarkable, incomparable, Only in New York experience. That’s when the performers are spaced further and further apart, and the lighting in the darkness is even more eerie…projected from the ground beneath them onto their whole body… and we’re suddenly hit with yet another breathtaking view, walking North along a railing overlooking the Hudson River. It’s hard then not to agree when the individual members of the Mile Long Opera Company one by one melodically intone:
“Whatever can happen to anyone can happen to us, whatever can happen to a city can happen to this city…..”