The poetry of a New York hour

A thousand singers on a mile-long stage

Mile-Long Opera along the High Line in New York City, October 2018. Photo by Iwan Baan.

Mile-Long Opera

Mile-Long Opera

October 3–8, 2018
The High Line, New York, NY

“No we don’t talk, but people get to know each other just by walking past each other all the time.”

That’s one way of describing how New Yorkers interact with each other. Yet last fall on the city’s High Line, a public park built on an old freight train line above the Lower West Side, that view was repeatedly contradicted. Visitors to the park heard that very “we don’t talk” line and scores of others spoken and sung by total strangers — one thousand of them, to be exact — who revealed memories and feelings that most people keep private.

For six evenings in October 2018, the Mile-Long Opera was performed for free on the High Line, starting at 7:00 p.m. That time is significant: the opera was billed as “a biography of 7:00 p.m.” because the libretto and accompanying texts were based on interviews with hundreds of New Yorkers about the meaning of the hour when day gives way to night. The opera elevated this everyday event, both literally and figuratively, thanks to Pulitzer Prize–winning composer David Lang and two renowned poets, Anne Carson and Claudia Rankine, who turned those interviewees’ stories into the libretto and spoken text, respectively. 

Fortunately for those of us who missed the live performances of the Mile-Long Opera, you can see extensive, 365° video excerpts from it on the project’s website, and the entire libretto and spoken texts are available online.

Obviously, no video could capture the grandeur of this large-scale production, and there are elements of the opera that can only be experienced live. In a New York Times article, “A Mile-Long Opera Is Coming to the High Line,” for instance, Lang said he wanted all the performers to be singing and speaking at once, so “You might hear them all together, in a haze, as you walk by. Or you might lean in and hear each story.” Another Times article, “In the ‘Mile-Long Opera,’ All the High Line’s a Stage,” explained that to keep the audience moving, Lang “came up with a harmonic system that, when executed correctly, acts like a series of lures urging people forward to hear more.” But watching the videos while having the texts at hand has its own advantages: it allows for a close reading of Carson’s and Rankine’s distinctive takes on the New Yorkers’ perspectives. 

Neither poet had previously participated in a work of this scale. The closest Rankine had come was writing poems for the audio element of The Provenance of Beauty: a South Bronx Travelogue, a bus tour of the New York neighborhood where she grew up. Carson had written a very different kind of opera, Decreation, which time-travels through the lives of Sappho, Marguerite Perete, and Simone Weil. But Lang has a track record for composing outsized, outdoor musical performances, including Public Domain, a choral work expressing people’s commonality, also for 1,000 singers and comprised of phrases generated by using a search engine to complete the sentence “One thing we all have is our …” For the High Line project, he enlisted Carson and Rankine to create a collage of texts on a specific time and place.

Unexpectedly, the urban Mile-Long Opera in some ways resembles the otherworldly Divine Comedy. What other work of poetry is centered, like the opera, on the passage from one group of people to another to hear what they have to say? Dante’s epic also makes reference to specific times of day during his and Virgil’s journey, and to music in the form of liturgical chants and hymns. But while the Divine Comedy progresses linearly through the diverse dwelling places in the afterlife, Mile-Long Opera introduces five key themes that the singers circle back to as the audience moves forward along the High Line: 

Day becoming night

Readers of Carson’s work will suspect that she herself wrote the first song, “hello dusk,” with its erudite lyrics about topics like the three phases of twilight, scotopic vision (using “the oldest part of the eye”), and the etymology of  the word dusk, which “dissolves you into contemplation, reminding you that ‘contemplation’ means ‘to enter a temple or sacred place.’” This theme is picked up in two later songs: “the sun going down,” when the singers express feeling an “unfamiliar” energy they “associate with trouble,” and “me and Rita,” when they recall a memory of going up on the tracks where the High Line is now to “Watch the night come in. Watch the edges dissolve. That was a darkness you could lean against. That was a darkness you could fold yourself in and hide.” Notice how the latter song echoes Carson’s use of “dissolve” in the earlier one and the metaphor of leaning against aspects of the night for support, which recurs in the opera.

Dinner tables as “sites of personal theater”

That’s what Rankine called the tables that many interviewees told her about, according to the Times. She became so interested in domestic dining that most of her spoken texts are about that ritual. So opera-goers walking the High Line before going out to dinner were reminded of experiences that can only be created at home:

Every time I return home I cook a huge bone marrow stew and apple pie and invite my friends to come by throughout the day and evening and I serve them and we talk and laugh well into the small hours and I think how grateful I am as I pick the candle wax that has molded into the crevices of the wood along with my niece’s red and blue crayon marks.

Between us the table is too high to eat around so it serves as a sideboard … .When friends come over they hold plates on their laps and serve themselves from what should be the table. Nothing is between us. The table is forgotten. It’s thrown the heart out of balance.

Between us I love my dining room table. It’s nothing special but when my friends come by everything happens around it. I get home from work and I open the door and that table is like a promise of life. It’s like it remembers the laughter. You think I’m joking, I’m not joking. You should come over. 

“Between us,” which Rankine often uses at the beginning of her table texts, has a double meaning: it’s short for the intimate “between you and me” and also indicates the position of dinner tables that gather people around. And the second vignette above underscores what’s lost when a table, a kind of force field, is missing and friends have to eat with plates on their laps: “Nothing is between us.”

“It’s a beautiful thing, a properly made meat hook”

The High Line rises above what used to be the meat-packing district, so the performers sing the words of a resident who “used to hammer my own meat hooks … and the metal canopy too, shielding our meat from the sun.” That’s just one of the changes that have taken place in the neighborhood that are lamented as night falls. There’s also “that new cafe”: “I don’t actually, I can’t actually bring myself to go in there, I hold the memory of the old one you know,” in the words of a resident who went to the cafe on its last day and found the owner crying. And don’t even get neighborhood residents started on all the garbage that accumulates from “Everyone getting their food delivered.” One of the more dramatic moments in the videos occurs when a singer looks at the camera aghast and complains, “We have rats now, never had rats before.”

The New Yorkers’ kvetches are summed up in a pithy ditty that concludes with the sardonic use of a familiar subway announcement: 

My friends have moved away, rent’s gone crazy, no grocery store around here anymore, no place to get your shoes fixed. Stand clear of the closing doors.

“Parts of us erase”

These four words serve as the complete lyrics for a song that is repeated three times throughout the opera, one of them right after “My friends have moved away.” This haunting, plaintive cry arises from affectionate memory, which causes the neighbors and buildings that people encounter every day to become a part of their psyches. It’s a phenomenon that Michael McClure describes in his poem “Emily Dickinson’s House,” writing that we need “a parcel / of hard property” to “feel / the unknown facets / of ourselves.” The singers also commemorate a more graphic erasure in the neighborhood: “60 feet of day-glo lettering along the eastern fence of the tracks that spelled out ‘AMBER WILL YOU MARRY ME?’” Amber lived across the street from the suitor who wrote this proposal, and he recalls his love from years ago in the lyrics: “Boy was she surprised! It’s all erased now. Amber too.” 

Changes everything, changes nothing

The lyrics of another song that gets heavy rotation on the High Line begin “Funny how money / changes everything / Funny how money / changes nothing.” It’s typical of Carson’s antic streak to supply the singers with twenty words that are substituted for “money.” Some are tangible like money — “a work permit,” “a glass of really good red wine,” “a dog” — while others would have indefinite effects — “that nice breeze off the river,” “mumbling,” and, relevant to the opera, “night coming on.” As the audience progresses along the High Line and through the opera’s narrative, they are reminded that seemingly momentous changes are really only fleeting. What does not change is the basic, competitive conditions of survival in the city. These lyrics could just as well have come from a New Yorker of one hundred years ago and, most likely, from one living in the next century: 

Pawns. Rooks. Sharks. Rush hour. The thing about this city, there’s a level of anger, no not anger, something, little stabs in the dark, not just survival, not just they all want what they want but they want you not to have it

The Mile-Long Opera’s finale views today’s city life from a larger perspective and sings of endurance: “Whatever can happen to anyone can happen to us, whatever can happen to a city can happen to this city.” Then we hear a list reminiscent of those that are so common in the work of New York’s greatest poet, Walt Whitman, who, incidentally, was also an avid opera fan: “The sleeping, the forgetting, the wrecking, the towering … the lonely limits, the silence after ambulances, the silence after living … .”

This last song ends with a line that sounds like it could be from Leaves of Grass. But in fact it is from a novella recently attributed to Whitman, The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle,first published in 1852 and subtitled A Story of New York in the Present Time.The Mile-Long Opera’s concluding line connects Whitman’s New York, our city, and the city of the future: “Onward rolls the broad bright current.”