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Music on the High Line

The People’s Opera

The Mile-Long Opera, 14th Street

This week in Paris the Opéra National is celebrating its 350th anniversary. Trumpets will play the opening bars of Berlioz’s “Marche de Troyens,” there will be a parade of young ballerinas, gala parties, and of course music, including productions of an opera that had its flashy opening in 1836 (Meyerbeer’s “Les Huguenots”) and a recently completed one that will be having its premiere performance this week (Michael Jarrell’s “Bérénice”).

In New York we are being treated to our own very different but equally exciting opera moment: the deeply affecting “Mile-Long Opera” being performed this week on the High Line by some 1,000 singers from across the city. Their text was a collaboration too, assembled from interviews with New Yorkers about what 7pm means to them. As you walk through the park you pass the performers, a choral group as diverse the city itself. They are old and young; black, brown, white; every gender; professional and amateur. Some stand on little boxes, others sit. All their faces are lit, some by mobile devices, some by very cool baseball hats with LEDs under the visor.

A performer in the Mile-Long Opera

One of the most striking things about this opera is how quiet it is. No trumpets here; no instruments at all, in fact, just the voices of our neighbors, here to tell a simple story. As you walk you hear phrases: I put on my makeup; funny how money changes everything; funny how money changes nothing; everything reminds me of my mother; sometimes he comes home drunk. As you proceed through the park, some phrases repeat themselves in a new singer’s voice. I was powerfully struck by how many of the performers made direct eye contact with me as I passed, forcing me to slow down and listen.

That, for me, was the real power of this event, and it’s something we should all probably do more of. We don’t need trumpets; we have plenty of those. What we need is our neighbors, friends, colleagues, and utter strangers, sharing their stories, looking us in the eye, singing to us as we walk by on a beautiful October evening.

[update: you can now experience the Mile-Long Opera online in the “350 degree video” here. For more information about the creative team behind it, go here.]

The Mile-Long Opera, 22nd Street


The Fabulous Judy Kuhn, Singing on the High Line

This evening, in the gorgeous October dusk, I took a walk to the Gansevoort Street entrance of the High Line to meet Ann and walk her home. What a treat awaited us in the Chelsea Passage: the incomparable, incandescent Judy Kuhn was warming up for an evening performance. With a partner I can’t identify she was singing the Sondheim heartbreaker “Being Alive.”

Take my advice and cancel your evening plans. Run (don’t walk) to the High Line. Stand outside the barricades (there’s something afoot, a dinner for Cooper Union, it appears) and treat yourself to the rare opportunity of hearing this great singer. If you can’t — if you’re in Timbuktu and the last flight has departed — go and buy her fantastic CD of Jule Styne songs, “Just in Time.” Judy Kuhn does the best cover of “Time After Time” you’ll ever hear. It’s so romantic it’ll knock your socks off. You won’t know what hit you.

At first, on my way south, I was mildly annoyed to be re-routed in the Chelsea Passage. Hoi polloi tonight have to follow the route that the dairy trains took when the High Line was a working railroad; it goes underneath the main part of the Chelsea Passage, under the wonderful Spencer Finch “River That Flows Both Ways” art exhibit. This is how deliveries were made to the National Biscuit Company building, via the “Southern Spur.” Eggs, milk and butter went in; Fig Newtons, Mallomars and Animal Crackers came out.

But I digress. The detour was more than worth it. To have caught that bit of soaring magic as the sun was setting. Well, it was priceless.