At first, the noise of the trucks and buses rumbling by, the sirens in the distance, the party on the terrace next door, and even the crickets in the trees seemed like a distraction. Then I realized that the urban symphony was the whole point of the Mile-Long Opera, the performance that, sadly, lasted for only a few days on New York’s High Line (from Oct. 3 to 8). Subtitled “A Biography of 7 O’Clock,” the vocal piece sought to crystallize the sounds, images, and stories of New York in the voices of a thousand singers who stood along the full length of the elevated park. As you progressed along this “walking opera,” you experienced at least some of those legendary 8 million stories that otherwise remain embedded in the metropolis.
For Liz Diller—a designer of the High Line and one of the four partners of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who staged the Opera together with composer David Lang and lyricists Anne Carson and Claudia Rankine (Carson’s lyrics were sung, while Rankine’s were spoken)—the piece was the largest phenomenon she has ever designed. It extended the work that she and her partner and husband Ric Scofidio, AIA, have been doing for more than three decades in installation and performance work that acts as architecture working beyond the medium of building. Many of their pieces, including site-specific installations at San Francisco’s Moscone Convention Center (Facsimile, from 2004, now dismantled) and New York’s JFK Airport (Travelogues, from 2001), bring stories about people’s daily lives, often with a voyeuristic bent, to what otherwise are places you just pass through. The Mile-Long Opera was to these installations what urban planning is to buildings: bigger, but also more difficult to grasp.
You experienced the event by walking from the High Line’s southern entrance next to the Whitney Museum of American Art all the way to its final leg, where you descended into a still-forlorn stretch of West 34th Street. As you walked, singers grouped by the choirs of which they were a part (so that you find yourself moving from a group of predominantly African-American singers; to a group of earnest, mainly Caucasian yuppies; to a choir of Asian performers) sang or told stories about their apartments, their furniture, or their neighborhoods. Occasionally, groupings would make grander pronouncements (“Isn’t it strange how justice changes everything/Isn’t it strange how justice changes nothing”). A few singers stood under the elevated walkway, so that their songs rose up along with the other sounds of the city.
Between the fact that each person sang individually and the strength of the ambient noise, you often had to move quite close to hear what they were saying. At first, that seemed awkward, until you realized that the singers had obviously been trained to look at you, react to you, and sing only to you or small groups when they were not staring ahead past the steady stream of auditors who streamed by and did not stop to listen and look. You soon also noticed that each story or song was repeated by a row of a half-dozen or so singers, and you were meant to construct it as a total verse by keeping up the pace, moving slowly enough to get the story, but not so slowly as to be lost in endless repetition. You could, in good New York fashion, be an eavesdropper or just keep moving. If you needed a break—I caught up with critic and philosopher Sanford Kwinter staring, suitably pensively, into the night on a bench to the side—you could always catch up again, as the stories kept repeating.
The Opera did have a rhythm, moving from what seemed like smaller-scale accounts of where the dining room table came from or how it was used (just by one lonely character), to tales of gentrification and a loss of familiarity, all the way up to the grander choruses. These you heard mostly after the High Line turned into the new Hudson Yards development and past the still-under-construction Shed, the multi-use performance and exhibition space Diller Scofidio + Renfro have designed in collaboration with the Rockwell Group for that new forest of skyscrapers. There, the Opera became lyrical and larger in scale, before petering out into a soft murmuring of regret in the very last stretch of almost-empty boardwalk elevated over the Penn Station tracks.
What made the Mile-Long Opera work was the combination of snippets of stories you would hear that were either familiar or odd, like the conversation of two old friends at the next table in a café, or that sang alive the life you might imagine as you looked from your apartment or hotel across the street into somebody else’s living room. These impressions all came together, along with the animals rustling around in the trees, the naked guy looking down from the Standard hotel, and the sirens drowning out the last part of a singer’s sentence, to make you not only hear but get a sense of a particular version of New York.
What did not work so well was that the overall story was overly familiar: The old ways of life are disappearing, we are all lonely, the city is becoming all the same. I was waiting for the tale of an immigrant making a life for herself, a freelancer working late at night, or a cleaner mad about injustice. Instead, all we had were resigned nighthawks singing of and in Manhattan’s voids as the condos the High Line helped make possible sat, almost all empty, as the silent embodiments of the emptying out of the city that the Mile-Long Opera was describing.
Only at the end, when you stepped out of the confines of the pricey condos and office buildings and stood over the train tracks that converge, in single-point perspective, at the Hudson Yards development, the new Oz rising on Manhattan’s western edge—while the choir pointed out that “Everything that can happen in the city/Will happen”—did you get a sense of the grandeur, the possibilities, and the beauty that is still woven through the texture of New York that makes it such an exhilarating place to visit and inhabit.
Beyond its splendors and the shortcomings, the Opera, stretched out over space (over a mile) and time (about two hours), showed that its true achievement was to prove the case Diller and Scofidio have been making throughout their career—that architecture can be as much an opening up, exposing, analyzing, and evoking in all its beauty of the actual lives lived in its confines as it can be the proposing of new structures for those lives—can be scaled up and sustained. It made me think that we need a Mile-Long Opera every night, in every city, and at every scale, to remind us that architecture is not just an act of building boxes, but at its best also of letting us see, hear, and feel real life. Architecture should sing the city alive, and the Opera did that.
In this 360° video from the Mile-Long Opera, you can watch the end portion of the opera. Starting at about the 4:30 mark, if you turn to the right, you can see "the new Oz rising on Manhattan's western edge" that Aaron Betsky describes. To watch the rest of the performance, in pieces from beginning to end, check out the Mile-Long Opera's website.
Note: This story has been updated since its initial publication to correct the number of partners at Diller Scofidio + Renfro (there are four, with Ben Gilmartin being the fourth) and add credit for the Rockwell Group who is collaborating with DS+R on the Shed.