It may seem a sign of overconfidence for someone to tell you he’s rewriting a major work by Beethoven, but for David Lang, who reconceived Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” for his Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy Award-winning 2008 opera, “The Little Match Girl Passion,” it’s just business as usual.
Lang, 54, a Los Angeles native who has lived in New York for the past 30 years (he’s a founder of the contemporary music organization Bang On A Can there), is currently rewriting the entire libretto of Beethoven’s 1805 opera, “Fidelio,” a mishmash story of domestic drama, mistaken identity and the problems of political prisoners. And though he won’t be using one note of Beethoven’s score, it’s not because he doesn’t like it.
“It has such beautiful music and some of Beethoven’s most noble and pure thoughts,” Lang said, speaking by phone from New York, “but the story and libretto are terrible. Just when you want the chorus to sing, ‘Down with tyranny and long live freedom,’ we get ‘Happy is the man who has a loving wife.’ ”
For Lang, issues of action and social justice and what people do in dire or unusual circumstances drive much of his work. On June 4, the composer will be in Long Beach for a conversation with Long Beach Opera artistic director Andreas Mitisek about his 2002 opera, “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field,” which will be presented by the opera company on June 15 and 18.
For that unusual and atmospheric blend of opera and music theater, Lang, along with experimental playwright Mac Wellman, expanded a one-page story by the satirist and fabulist Ambrose Bierce. A Civil War correspondent, Bierce is probably best known for his short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”
Lang’s version of the author’s curious “Difficulty of Crossing a Field” is even stranger and more unsettling. Commissioned for the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco by artistic director Carey Perloff, another Jewish artist with Southern California roots, “Difficulty” explores the meaning of an incident in which a plantation owner crosses a field one morning in 1854 and mysteriously disappears.
“Even on one page, Bierce tells the story twice,” Lang said. “So we developed a ‘Rashomon’ aspect of seeing the story’s central event — the disappearance of a man — from several different points of view.”
But this is not just any man. He’s a white man from a slave-owning plantation family, whose presence is felt by his absence. “Almost everyone in the play is black,” Lang said. “Most of the characters are field slaves, who are present in every scene. And they know the truth. It feels as if, even though it may be supernatural, what really happens to this man is in some way his payment for slavery. That the system itself is so illegitimate and poisoned, that even the white power structure can’t survive.”
Lang said he liked exploring the subject of slavery because “it unsettles people very deeply in ways you can’t put your finger on.”
Lang’s “Little Match Girl Passion” is also deeply disturbing. He adapted Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of a girl starving to death on a street while people pass her by.
Lang said he loves Beckett’s line about always trying to “reduce things to its maximum.” For example, in transforming Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” in “Match Girl,” Lang used minimal musical means, reconceiving the composer’s crowd and character responses, to moving and maximum effect.
“I’ve tried to have music that is direct and unornamented that says I’m going to identify the simplest way to describe this wound, and I’m going to stick my finger in it. That’s what makes ‘Match Girl’ work. It’s not histrionic or melodramatic. It says, ‘Here is this situation, and I’m just going to tell you the facts.’ And I’m going to tell it to you so simply that you’re not going to be able to avoid how terrible this situation is.”
Lang added: “I was trying to write something on a Christian topic, because that’s where choral music comes from in Western civilization. It’s always been amazing to me that Christianity is based on believing that there was a person whose suffering was so noble that it changed the world. But what’s always so peculiar to me is that Christians — and the rest of us — we’re all perfectly happy to have suffering happen all over the place and not do anything about it. So it’s a bit like, here I am, this Jew from New York, saying, ‘Well, if you’re going to pay attention to this person’s suffering, why are you not paying attention to that person’s suffering?’ ”
Lang said music is an opportunity to look around and try to make a difference. “But you feel kind of impotent to change anything, because it’s just a piece of music,” he said. “So it has to spur you on to something that’s even a deeper, more impassioned way of living your life, if you’re going to change society.”
Lang’s mother, who is from Germany, lost everything in the Holocaust, including many relatives. And his father, a Lithuanian immigrant, grew up in poverty. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say these are Jewish values that I’m espousing, but because I am Jewish and because of the experience of Jews in the 20th century, the peculiar history that brought my parents together had a huge effect on how I view the world and what I want my music to accomplish.”
Lang also stops short of saying that being Jewish means you have an obligation to do something as an artist. “But,” he said, “the issue of what being Jewish costs people, for my parents’ generation, was something I grew up with. For me, being religious has to do with making up for the loss as much as I can — making up for the tragedy that came to the generation before us, just because they were Jews.
“For me, the religion and the suffering have been wedded together, which is probably not healthy for me or the religion. But I think it’s the truth.”