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David Lang’s new opera The Loser may yet win

loserPulitzer-winning composer David Lang has written several operas so far, none of them in the least bit conventional, and all of them showing how much the ultra-minimalist Bang on a Can aesthetic can be fascinatingly at odds with an art form that’s traditionally grand. His latest is The Loser, which was unveiled Wednesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House in a production whose apparatus alone guaranteed sold-out houses.
Only the mezzanine in the huge auditorium was available to ticketbuyers, severely limiting the seating capacity, while the single character in the opera, sung by charismatic Rod Gilfrey, faced the audience at eye level thanks to a mechanical pedestal of sorts, much resembling the sort of contraption that phone repair people employ to get those high-up-on-the-pole wires.
Near the end, on the opera house’s somewhat distant stage, a man sat at a piano in a dim spotlight playing what sounded like a tape loop of Chopin-isms. Of course, it’s too soon to assess the success of this endeavor. One needs more and different productions, especially with a piece whose aesthetic is always daring the art form to still exist using ever fewer notes. That’s the playing field here, and listeners expecting anything different were probably defeated in the first few minutes.
The piece is basically an hour of recitative and arioso, with singable, even conversational declamation (and Gilfrey managing them with subtlety and style) with an ever-shifting chamber ensemble accompaniment, often in an ultra-spare manner in which Lang’s characteristically halting rhythms keep the ground shifting underneath the vocal line. It’s hard to know ways in which the piece could work better, but it’s probably going to have to find them if this piece is to make the kind of impression that allows it to stand beside Lang’s other works (and, let’s face it, The Little Match Girl Passion sets the bar high).
The story is based on the 1983  Thomas Bernhard novel The Loser, and for those not familiar with it walking in, it seems like the work of a classical-music outsider. The narrator/protagonist, the one character in the opera,  gives his account of a trio of pianist friends who worked hard together as youths and were in the same Vladimir Horowitz masterclass together in Salzburg, but only one got a career, and that pianist was named Glenn Gould. Well, we all know Horowitz was not a masterclass type, and that if he and Gould ever made the mistake of being in the same room, one of them might not get out alive. There’s much talk about “virtuosos,” and we all know that Gould’s virtuosity was in his brain, his fingers being only the obedient servants of his conception.
So this is significantly fictionalized, and no more thoughtfully than the TV version of Mozart in the Jungle. As the opera starts, Gould is dead at age 51, not 50 as in real life, and another of the trio has killed himself subsequently. Only the pianist who was playfully nicknamed “The Loser” is still around to tell the tale.
In the spirit of the book, Lang’s own libretto has conversational repetition of information and interesting quirks – such as words like “I think” that dangle off the end of an otherwise elegant sentence – that Lang has highlighted with his word settings.
The narrative moves along at a theatrically responsible pace with the orchestration occasionally adding a new sound to the mix that feels arresting amid the otherwise spare scoring. At one point, Lang follows the lead of Wagner, calling attention to the most significant information by cutting the orchestra down even further, Lang leaving the vocal line unaccompanied. Then, as the suicide tale unfolds in greater detail – of the family he alienated plus his own self-degradation by purchasing an intentionally horrible, out-of-tune piano he purchased (boy are these characters sick) – the scoring becomes thicker, more heavily percussive and eventually evolving into the kind of funeral-dirge drum beats heard in the final movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 10.
The irony is that real heroes warrant Mahler’s full orchestral treatment in their operatic deaths. But Lang’s characters aren’t heroes, but people who failed to make the best out of what they had, and perhaps couldn’t because so much of themselves had been invested in becoming artists. In a sense, the opera is something of a companion piece to the memorable 1999 documentary The Winners, which followed several prize-winning musicians such as Philippe Hirschhorn and Berl Senofsky from major competition wins to burned out middle age. The performing artists who achieve career longevity seem to be the ones who know how to protect themselves from every side, knowing that artists need more comprehensive shields than most human beings.
But such thoughts occur not within the opera, but are prompted by its wake. How well does the actual piece hold up on its own? Well enough, at this point, thanks partly to Gilfrey’s sterling diction and presence that remains magnetic despite minimal physical movement. But unlike Lang’s recent The Public Domain at Lincoln Center – an outdoor piece for 1,000 choristers that made an immediate and compelling impression last month – this one needs a bit more incubation.


  1. I don’t commonly comment but I gotta state thank you for the post on this great one :D.

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