David Lang at the Prototype Festival

A Chamber Opera Based on Ryunosuke Akutagawa Short Stories

By: - Jan 18, 2023

David Lang is not surprisingly a highly educated, impish composer. We can’t take him at face value.  Discussing his new opera,  presented as part of the Prototype Festival, he said he had first been intrigued by Ryunosuke Akutagawa when he read his short stories at age 16.  Lang spends his free time reading. His selection of Thomas Bernhard's The Loser was a delicious choice. No one will forget being at the BAM opera house with an empty orchestra, freeing up space for a high rise with Ron Gilfry on the top level, an ensemble at bit lower and Conrad Tao as Glenn Gould miles away at the back of the stage.  

Lang has long admired Akutagawa, who inspired Kurosawa’s Rashomon. In Akutagawa's stories, you sense an offering. Lang presents his note to a friend in this spirit. He refers to his Pulitzer Prize winning Little Match Girl as a model for this new work. Small sections build to a whole. The subject of the stories he weaves is suicide. 

The Japanese, of course, have a very different attitude toward ending one’s own life than we do. It is not always as dramatic as Yukio Mishhima’s seppuku preserved as a drama on film. Yet today, and Lang sneaks this idea in, we are all faced with the decision, now  legal in six states in the US. 

When does the pain of living prevent a dignified life?  Is it time to choose ending your life?  Choices will be made by many people in reaction to the suffering they have seen as their own parents erode into dementia and extreme disability.   

If you think this sounds gloomy, it is not in Lang’s hands.  "A man" performed by Theo Bleckmann, for whom this piece was written, steps out from death and reads his note detailing the reasons he killed himself. The set is an elegant but simple Japanese style. The music, performed by a string ensemble is straightforward and easy on the ear.  Lang wants us to be able to hear straight up.

Bleckmann is a mesmerizing performer.  His stage audience of one is under deployed.  If he is going to be so stationary, he might be a human sized puppet. Yoshi Oida, Paris-based opera director and longtime member of Peter Brook’s international theater company, directs.

Everyone who attended the performance was left with the pleasure of Bleckmann’s riveting voice and the enchanting music played by the string ensemble. They were also left with questions, nagging and surprising, in a post performance discussion. Lang has taken a bold step into the future with his customary modesty.  

Prototype is offering opera in many different forms.  The theme of choice crops up again and again this year.  On top of expert productions, these operas are very much of the moment.

Theo Bleckmann, Tenor
Japan Society
Lila Acheson Wallace AUditorium
New York, NY