SAN FRANCISCO — One summer morning in 1854, Mr. Williamson was sitting with his wife and child on the verandah of their plantation in Selma, Ala. Remembering that he had forgotten to tell his overseer something about horses he had just bought from a neighbor, the planter got up, threw down his cigar and plucked a flower as he walked over a gravel path toward a field. Crossing the pasture, he disappeared. Poof! Just like that, into thin air.
That is about all there is to "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field," a short story by Ambrose Bierce. The neighbor's son saw Mr. Williamson vanish, but the neighbor--preoccupied with one of his coach horses that had stumbled--didn't. Mrs. Williamson, we're told in an aside, went mad as a result of the disappearance. Sam, a black boy, was spooked. A magistrate determined that Mr. Williamson must be dead and distributed his estate.
This curious, insubstantial tale, written more than a century ago, would have an astonishing resonance. In 1913, Bierce, a cranky San Francisco newspaper columnist and author of "The Devil's Dictionary," took a trip to Mexico and was never heard from again. And now, "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field" has become a curious but substantial and shrewd opera.
What is curious is not only the subject matter but also the circumstances of the opera's creation, an unusual collaboration that overcomes difficulties of crossing various domains. The producer is a regional theater company, San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, which developed the project with composer David Lang (a founder of Bang on a Can in New York); the New York experimental playwright Mac Wellman; the Bay Area's Kronos Quartet; and international opera star Julia Migenes. Remarkably, these unlikely collaborators, all major figures in their separate fields, worked for two years on the 75-minute opera, even though it was only given five performances over the weekend in a 250-seat alternative space, the Theater Artaud in the Mission district.
Broadening Bierce's deadpan description of disappearance, Wellman turned to another Bierce story, "The Moonlit Road," the inspiration for the classic Japanese film "Rashomon." He subtitled his libretto "A New Opera in Seven Tellings." The event is always the same, but its effect on different characters is not.
In inventive, wonderful language, with touches of Gertrude Stein, Wellman begins to show us that perhaps the most real thing about Mr. Williamson was his disappearance. It is not what exists or doesn't exist that matters, but what we make of it.
Was Mr. Williamson's last leisurely amble in the field a great wonder, creation in reverse? Was it the work of the devil? Was it a legal question to be resolved? Or is trying to find meaning in the event meaningless? "What is the point ... ," a character called the Williamson Girl sings again and again in an exorbitant aria. The opera--which was staged on a simple set in an unfussy and effective manner by ACT artistic director Carey Perloff (who initiated the project)--is arrestingly fluid theater. At first, the period setting seemed alarming, with representations of slaves that hearken back to racist drama. But ultimately that only enhanced the fact that nothing in this opera is what it seems.
Lang's score for the Kronos moves slowly and atmospherically, setting the stage for drama as well as reflecting it, with individual instruments acting like additional characters in the drama. Near the end of the work is a duet for Mrs. Williamson (Migenes) and a solo violin (David Harrington). She sits on the roof and refuses to come down until her husband returns. Her mind won't work as it should as she goes over and over the disappearance, singing the same simple three-note pattern, or a slight variation of it, a cappella. Eventually the violin joins her, as if it is the missing man. It plays in unison with her, accompanies her, echoes her, and finally goes on alone, leaving her behind. There will be no resolution.
This is but one of many exceptional moments in the work. Scenes with the magistrate, the neighbor and the overseer are compelling spoken drama. A small ensemble of slaves echoes different situations with the perspicacity of a Greek chorus. The principal singers, Anika Noni Rose (Virginia Creeper), Jacob Ming-Trent (Boy Sam) and Lianne Marie Dobbs (the Williamson Girl) come from musical theater, not opera, and they were captivating. Migenes may not have proved credible in opera or operetta in her most recent appearances with Los Angeles Opera, but clearly in L.A. she has been singing the wrong things. Here she proved a spellbinding presence and singer.
"The Difficulty of Crossing a Field" is a major contribution to American musical theater. It is extraordinary to think that this opera, which gets to the heart of the consequences of someone suddenly vanishing from the face of the Earth, was conceived long before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Mr. Williamson did not disappear without a trace; he changed those who couldn't get over the episode. Likewise, this astonishing work, seen by only 1,250 people, must not be allowed to vanish into thin air. I know I can't get it out of my head.