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“The Mysteries of Selma, Alabama”: Re-telling and Revelation in David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field


Based on a story by Ambroise Bierce, David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field concerns a plantation owner in the antebellum south who—in full view of witnesses—disappears into thin air while crossing a field. In Difficulty, words, music and drama fold into one another, mimicking the way each character’s view of the central mystery collapses into the absence that drives its narrative. By replacing a central figure with a central lack, and a conventional plot with a circular, almost motionless narrative, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field emphasizes the modern subject as lack laid bare. Yet this is but one of the opera’s revelations. For it reminds us, per Hegel on the Egyptians, that “the mysteries of Selma, Alabama” are mysteries for both the Alabamians and, by proxy, their audience. All who witness the series of seven numbered “tellings” are implicated in a further cycle of “re-tellings” that spiral outward from each production. My essay likewise “re-tells” the opera by reflecting on seven entwined aspects of the work: its unique blend of musical and textual minimalism, and the role history, staging and audience perception play in a successful production. If Mr. Williamson’s absence points to the lack that animates the social, racial and economic disparities of the pre-Civil War south, the opera’s marriage of hallucinatory images, cyclic repetition and stagecraft bear witness to a lack that—in the present—drives the creation of new musical theater, in a culture confused about opera’s relevance in the twenty-first century.

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