A conversation with David Lang about his new opera note to a friend, premiering January 12-15 (Prototype Festival in NYC), and February 4-5 (Japan).
TRIGGER WARNING: The topics of death and suicide are heavily discussed in this interview, and are a central focus of Lang’s work.
note to a friend is a new one-hour opera scored by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang and directed by Japanese director Yoshi Oida. Its premiere run in both New York City and Japan to kick off 2023 will be headed by solo baritone Theo Bleckmann and a string quartet comprised of the young winners of the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan competition in Japan. Lang creatively sets an essay and the suicide note of infamous Japanese novelist Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) by creating a character who commits suicide himself, then comes back from the grave to tell his story.
As a composer fellow of the 2022 Bang on a Can Summer Institute, I had the privilege to meet David this past summer. During our composer seminar block, he presented note to a friend to us, still in-progress, with Bleckmann’s voice gliding over midi string quartet. “Ha, I know a lot more about the piece now,” David chuckles at the start of our call. I was happy for this chance to chat with him again about the opera, now that it’s completed.
Yaz Lancaster: I’m wondering if you can tell me a little about the collaborative process between you, Yoshi, Theo, and everyone else involved. I’m curious since everyone is so spread out – like you and Theo are here, but then there’s Yoshi who’s in Europe, and the musicians in Japan. What was that process like?
David Lang: The first part of the collaboration began with Yoko Shioya, who's the director of the Japan Society. It was her idea to match make Yoshi and me, and it took us a few years to figure out what to do. Part of the obstacle is that Yoshi lives in France. Part of the obstacle is he doesn't really speak English. So [I decided I should] give him the most open-ended invitation. So as you know – because your work is also theatrical and works with text – when you're the composer you're deciding what the proportions are, what all the things are inside. You could say this piece is mostly music, and there's some text, but the text isn't that important. Or you can go, the text is super important and the music is just holding the text up. And that sort of determines how you work with your collaborators. So [in] this one, I’d take care of the music. But I didn't put in any instructions about what the theater should be. And in fact, in the score, it says there are several different ways that these things could be dramatized that I can imagine. So I gave a very open ended idea to [Yoshi] and he actually has moved this piece towards something which is very far away from what I had originally anticipated.
As for Theo Bleckmann, David has worked with Theo for over 30 years. They’ve collaborated on several previous projects including Lang’s where the bee sucks (2012) for tenor and piano, and a transformation of Lou Reed’s Heroin (2007) for tenor and cello. “I just hear his voice, you know, when I write,” David says of his genre-bending, vocalist-composer friend.
Yaz: And what about the string quartet? Have you gotten the chance to work with them yet? I guess over zoom?
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