“When we meet the very best, we have to give up,” baritone Rod Gilfry intoned in The Loser, composer David Lang’s one-act opera that debuted last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Or at least that’s what Gilfry, playing an unnamed pianist with his hair slicked back, a full tuxedo on his frame, brooded on throughout his hour operatic monologue. Standing alone in the darkness on a 20-foot platform, Gilfry faced the audience, confined to the mezzanine seats, at eye level, his isolation emphasized by his detached proximity.
The performance, based on a novel of the same name by Austrian author Thomas Bernhard, ended its run on Sunday, launching BAM’s 2016 Next Wave Festival alongside Bridge Over Mud in the neighboring Fishman Space. As a chronic season ticket holder, I happened to see both back-to-back. Norwegian collective Verdensteatret’s Bridge Over Mud had a much more DIY aesthetic with a handmade train set supporting a one-hour performance that alternated between cacophonous and silent. It had its moments of transfixing movement with kinetic figures that looked like Bauhaus robots processing on the tracks, although ultimately they lacked an emotional connection with the audience. The whole Next Wave season is accented by a theme of elevation, with Monumental this week featuring the Holy Body Tattoo dance troupe interacting with pedestals to the music of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and text by Jenny Holzer, Minuit in October, which is directed and performed by acrobat Yoann Bourgeois and explores the idea of weightlessness, and Rememberer that same month with the band Open House suspended on a Styrofoam structure.
In The Loser, or “looooser” as Gilfry crooned, the suspension of the singer above the theater, with accompanying ensemble of Bang on a Can out of sight, reflected the solitude of the artist. Even when the pianist has given up his craft, following a devastating meeting with real (and controversial) piano virtuoso Glenn Gould, that loneliness is the last thing he can’t shake.
“In its own confrontational and strangely beautiful way, however, it is also about perfectionism, hard work, optimism or lack of, how we justify our lives to ourselves, and how we learn to appreciate beauty and become alienated from it at the same time,” Lang said of the piece.
But the most present ghost is his fellow pianist, Wertheimer, who is also derailed by witnessing Gould’s mastery, knowing they can either continue their careers and always be second best, or give their art up entirely. Gilfry’s whole performance is powerful, demonstrating his strength as both a singer and an actor, with the shifts on his face from ecstatic nostalgia for their sleepless days of study in Horowitz’s masterclass, to his derisive joy in seeing his rare Steinway destroyed by a nine-year-old girl and his somber consideration of Wertheimer’s suicide. The most riveting of the eight scenes in the monologue centered on the “Suicide Mountain” of Salzburg. The dark platform suddenly resembling an elevator riding to its peak, where some jump off, and others, like Gilfry’s pianist, only can stare tentatively into the abyss.
About halfway through the intimate performance, pianist Conrad Tao appeared on the distant stage, the light notes of his playing only sporadically heard through the staccato of the string ensemble music. Like a severed limb whose phantom pains endure, the haunting melody seemed to emerge from the unspoken yearning in the words. Is the piano his own lost aspirations, our Gould’s shadow still falling over his life, even when both the virtuoso and Wertheimer are dead? It’s a rather dark question as The Loser ends with Gilfry turning to watch, the music remaining unreachable from his solitary place.
The Loser was September 7 to 11 at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House (30 Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn).