David Lang’s new opera the loser opened the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Wednesday night. There’s no doubt that Lang is one of the finest composers of our time, but to pull off great opera, one must have a great director; and this production was missing that vital element to merge the story with the music to not make the performance dull. The opera simply lacked theatricality – that is, drama, comedy, and/or tragedy – and forced this listener to have a long thought as to why the public attends opera and what the purpose opera serves in our society.

Rod Gilfry in <i>the loser</i> © Richard Termine
Rod Gilfry in the loser
© Richard Termine

Lang is credited for the “stage direction” of the production, and one has to wonder if he was too busy finalizing the music to give any direction. If a professional stage director had been hired, would there have been actual movement? The story was not told visually, which seemed a missed opportunity since the text, based on a novel by Thomas Bernhard, is percolating with such powerful human expressions as jealousy, insecurity and deferred accountability.

Totaling eight scenes separated by subtle shifts in music and lighting, the opera is essentially staged with a narrator, baritone Rod Gilfry, perched atop a tower-like scaffolding built on the main floor of the orchestra section, while the audience is restricted to the mezzanine of the theater. The language used to promote the event to the public read, “He appears to float in the nothingness”, which is a complete lie because in no way does the baritone appear to be floating in any way throughout the course of the opera. Any attempt of a “void” was totally ineffective, and the concept did not transfer to the “stage”; however, it’s not to say it could not have been possible with expert knowledge of production design. The overall result was a ghost of an opera with less action and staging than an oratorio, or a solo recital for that matter, with an unimaginative set that did not live up to its full potential.

As the opera unfolds, the narrator broods over the suspicion that Glenn Gould ruined his chance at becoming a virtuoso and obsesses over the suicide of a fellow pianist and friend Wertheimer. You spend the first quarter of the opera waiting for the prologue to end, but you eventually come to realize that the entire thing is a monotonous dry-recitative with no clear direction. At the three-quarter mark, a pianist, Conrad Tao, materializes on a platform on the distant stage, and you think, “OK, now this will get interesting.” But instead, it’s unclear whether the pianist is an actor or part of the pit orchestra because the nearly-inaudible notes he plays don't quite match up with the orchestra. The last five minutes emulate the voyeurism of an audience viewing a performance, as the narrator listens to Gould’s Goldberg Variations. Uniquely, this final moment allowed an instant to enjoy Lang’s unsophisticated and wholly charming solo piano music.

Conrad Tao © Richard Termine
Conrad Tao
© Richard Termine

The notes themselves and the artistic integrity of the performers were the only reasons for not making a premature exit. Though dry and monotonous, the punctuated and simple rhythms of the chamber group, in unison most of the time with the voice, progressed in tandem with the narrator’s state of mind, and it created a hypnotic, if not soporific, domain to at least numb the mind. Gilfry, whose diction is so clear you could cut glass with his final consonants, performed with great respect and understanding for the music alongside the dynamic young conductor Karina Canellakis and the brilliant members of Bang on a Can Opera. Pianist/actor Tao’s playing certainly inspired curiosity, to say the least, and it all made the production more bearable to watch.

A person familiar with the world of opera and new music can easily walk away from this production and continue exploring new opera experiences, but a new face – and the Next Wave Festival attracts pretty young ones – may have gotten the impression that opera is a boring and listless art-form, which is just not true. Attendance at tragedies in Ancient Greece was mandatory as a means of making the public more sympathetic; attendance at symphony orchestra concerts forces the public to stop talking and start listening; and attendance at this opera (which opened with the announcement that Lang had won an award for the opera that hadn’t even been premiered yet!) only serves the public’s desire to hand out awards to well-established talent and fulfills our capitalist addiction to buying new things.