This Unconventional Opera Gives Audiences a Front-Row Seat to a Musician’s Meltdown

An L.A. native gives voice to creative anxiety with The Loser

When composer David Lang picked up The Loser, Thomas Bernhard’s 1983 novel told in one long paragraph by an unnamed doomy pianist, Lang was so taken by its bitter, manipulative narrator that he felt the need to read the whole thing out loud. When he did, the character’s voice nearly took him over. “It’s so convoluted and virtuosically complicated,” Lang says. “I went into the bathroom and shouted lines at myself in the mirror.” It was clear to Lang once he calmed down that the narrator—who drifts in and out of time and place and is consistently unreliable—is not so much a storyteller as he is a performer. “That’s when I decided that it might be an opera,” Lang says.

The ensuing piece, an L.A. Opera debut at Theatre at Ace Hotel (February 22 and 23), shares its title with Bernhard’s novel and is essentially a single monologue. Its protagonist—portrayed here by the actor Rod Gilfry, a baritone—recalls a youthful encounter with fellow pianist Glenn Gould when both were students. The titular loser falls so hard for Gould’s talent and charisma that he is filled with anguish at his own inferiority. Lang himself had been similarly captivated by Gould, who was, of course, a real person—an iconoclast who could be described as part Brian Eno, part Thelonious Monk, and part quantum physicist who made his name with a radically stark interpretation of Bach. “The revolutionary power of Gould,” Lang says, “was revealing that pushing these musical pieces wouldn’t hurt them, so he might as well push them as far as he wanted.”

Lang, who knows something about pushing from his work with Bang on a Can (the rock-meets-avant-classical group he co-founded), grew up in Westwood in the ’60s and ’70s. “No one in my family was interested in music,” he says, so he rebelled against pragmatic parents by working in record stores and obsessing over the fact that Stravinsky lived nearby. “I found out what the world was like by reading record jackets, listening to as much music as I could, and being as nerdy as possible.” Lang went on—after a few digressions—to move to New York and become one of the nation’s leading composers (locally he’s worked with the Master Chorale, the Philharmonic, and the music collective wild Up as well as the L.A. Opera). He won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2008.

The Loser sounds like a strange one, but Lang says the key was capturing the speaker’s humanity and the underlying fear all musicians feel. “Every character,” he says, “has to be in some ways autobiographical.”

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