Q & A: Conductor Lesley Leighton On The Experience of Working On David Lang’s ‘the loser’

By David Salazar

Arguably one of the most hotly anticipated productions on the west coast in the coming days is the LA Opera Off Grand production of David Lang’s ‘the loser,’ a one man show about two aspiring concert pianists who witness Glenn Gould during a masterclass that alters their hopes and dreams. The piece, which will be making its west coast premiere, is showcased in the context of a one-man show, performed in this case by Rod Gilfry.

OperaWire recently had an opportunity to speak with conductor Lesley Leighton about her experience taking on the work and what it has to offer for new audiences ahead of its performances on Feb. 22 and 23, 2019.

OperaWire: What drew you to “the loser?” What about the music will audiences find exciting and unique from other opera experiences?

Lesley Leighton: The draw for me is threefold: Working with David Lang and Rod Gilfry, and returning to LA Opera as a conductor! I started at LAO singing in the chorus in 1991, and subsequently sang roles! I adore David’s music, we co-produced LA Master Chorale’s album of his music a few years ago, which really gave me an inside look at the kinds of things he wants to hear sonically. There are many things that I think audiences will love about “the loser.”

Rod brings a lot of complexity to his character (the narrator), who is a former pianist, telling us the story of his relationship with two other pianists: a guy who also gave up playing piano named Wertheimer, and the virtuoso Glen Gould. The story is originally from a novel written in 1983 by Thomas Bernhard, and is a fictional tale except for the fact that Glen Gould was indeed a virtuoso pianist famous for playing the Goldberg Variations. David Lang wrote the libretto based upon this book by Bernhard. It is hard not to get sucked into the narrator’s telling of the relationship between the three of them which is only from his point of view, so we have to receive it as one side of a triangle.

The chamber ensemble of players also brings a lot to the piece as a whole, sometimes propelling it forward, and sometimes sitting back more, quietly commenting as if one of the other of them might be Wertheimer or Gould.

OW: The work has an interesting structure. Not only is a one-man show, but it is contextualized with actual historical figures.

LL: The narrator in the opera has traveled to Wertheimer’s town, and the entire opera takes place from the Inn of the town, and from Wertheimer’s hunting lodge; however, it really takes place in the head of the narrator as he recalls moments from the inciting event, when the three young pianists (narrator, Wertheimer, Gould) are in Salzburg working with Horowitz (this is not historical), and then moments throughout the years of their friendships. Mostly, it is about the narrator’s own life and his feelings toward himself and his choices. He is trying to understand and justify the obtainment of perfection: in the story one man obtains it, and the other two fail, but there are consequences to all of them for trying. The story is solely from one man’s point of view, sometimes he lets us inside and we glimpse his truth, and sometimes not – as listeners, we have to decide which moment is which.

OW: How does this inform your approach to conducting this opera? What are the unique challenges of conducting a work like this one?

LL: The challenges of conducting this work are less to do with the structure of the story, although that has certainly informed the music, and more to do with the needs of David’s music itself. The tempo needs to stay quite consistent, almost as if it is driving the narrator to tell his story, and indeed, once he starts, he almost never stops, which for a singer is its own challenge! The other large challenge – and this is really for all of us – is the amount of focus required for works of this type. If anyone takes his or her eye off the ball for a moment or gets distracted at all for a second, it can potentially lead to a crash and burn as the writing is quite intricate between the parts.

For me, I have to make sure I give the cues where needed, and that my conducting is super concise and clear, so that the ensemble stays together, allowing for the music to be heard cleanly in the manor intended by the composer. David’s works in general require tremendous concentration and precise rhythm, and playing or singing pitches in the center at all times or we miss some great moments – it sounds perhaps easier than it actually is – humans are not naturally this consistent, so we have to work extra hard to attain a good reading of the work!

OW: What are the major themes expressed in the opera and how does the music develop them?

LL: From an emotional standpoint, Rod’s character, I think, wants us to believe that he is at peace with the way his life turned out, although there are moments when he betrays himself to us, yet we cannot really be sure that he realizes that his facade of calmness has slipped. David expresses the changes musically through the modes he chooses, in addition to the rhythms, and thickness or thinness of the texture at any given time.

In the beginning of the opera, when the narrator would like us to believe that he is just going to tell us a little story about a famous pianist who was his friend, the texture in the orchestra is quite simple and straight forward everyone playing on the beat, although the double bass adds a slightly foreboding sense playing the lowered sixth of the Phrygian mode; however, once we start to sense that perhaps something is not quite right with the narrator’s story, there is a rhythm change in the double bass so that he plays short notes on off-beats or weak beats striking with the bow. This gives us a sense of being out-of-balance somehow, and is during a section of the story that the narrator betrays slightly that maybe he is not so at peace with the fact that Gould had such a great career, and to the narrator’s mind, perhaps at the expense of his and Wertheimer’s careers. He returns fairly quickly to just telling us the facts as he remembers them, perhaps coated by his point of view, and the instruments return to the simplicity of the beginning. Later in the first scene, when the texture changes quite a bit in the ensemble, it is when the narrator starts talking about how he and Wertheimer not only ended their careers, but in rather dramatic fashions. Here the ensemble rhythm becomes quite driving underneath Rod’s narrative, while the cello plays only on downbeats a slightly dissonant cantus firmus to Rod’s melody, which brings us much more off-balance than before, lending a sense of something not being quite right with the guy telling the story!

In addition to the facade of peace, we sense a deep-seated anger sometimes from the narrator, and also confusion from him. Angry perhaps that he made some of the choices he made, disgust sometimes at his friends or himself, and as we progress toward the end of the opera, we sense a slowly dissipating grasp on reality from the narrator. Musically in the final scene, we become aware of a piano that has been playing in the distance in a major key for awhile, representing Glen Gould or perhaps just the narrator’s view of Glen Gould, while the narrator’s melody has become more of a monotone chant, while the ensemble plays minor chords that are often dissonant to the narrator’s notes; under all of this, a bass drum plays occasionally, rather like an erratic heartbeat of someone who is dying – and that beat is the last we hear from the ensemble, the work finishing with the A major of the piano.

The end of the opera says to me that Glen Gould’s recordings and career as a virtuoso pianist will outlast the narrator’s views of himself, Gould, and Wertheimer, as well as the men themselves; that music outlives any of us who create it!

OW: What has been the experience of working with David Lang? What makes his a unique collaborator, especially given the numerous roles he takes on with this opera?

LL: I just love working with David. Because of his brilliance, his music, themes, and ideas are crazy smart, which means the people who interpret them have to think really hard to do the scores justice! At the read-through, I told him I’d been searching for awhile for a quote somewhere in the music of the Goldberg Variations – and he smiled and said that he thought about it, but ultimately decided not to do it! This was actually welcomed news to me because I hadn’t found such a quote, so – vindication that I hadn’t just missed it! But this is an example of how one needs to think when analyzing his scores. This particular score is extremely modal, often Phrygian, although Dorian, and Aeolian also appear – it helps me to understand what is driving the story overall if I really look closely at the form, modes, and themes.

As a collaborator, I find David to be extremely generous. When we co-produced together in 2016, he would often specify what it was he needed to hear as the composer at any given moment in the music, and after that it was up to everyone else working on it! Working on the loser, I find him again to be extremely open to ideas and questions from me, Rod, and the ensemble. As a conductor, I have a good idea what it is I would like to hear from a score going into rehearsals, although this can change during the rehearsal period; when working with a composer such as David, the process changes. I can defer to his ideas regarding what he is looking to hear at any given moment, yet, he still gives me the latitude to bring out certain aspects that I might hear because I bring fresh ears to it. He is the same with Rod regarding the interpretation – they both have ideas to bring to the rehearsal period, and then there is discussion, and sometimes we just try some things to see how we feel about it!

OW: What makes Rod Gilfry the perfect artist for a one-man opera? What unique qualities does he possess as an artistry that makes him a strong presence capable of carrying an entire work on his own?

LL: One of the things I love best about Rod is his willingness to just leap on the grenade of difficulty! This project is a tour-de-force for the baritone, and not for the faint of heart as the work is filled with potential minefields rhythmically and harmonically, waiting to be stepped on. Not only is it hard as nails to memorize, but also he sings continuously with very few moments of rest, for an hour, which is a lot to ask of any singer.

Rod is very charismatic on stage, commands the attention of the audience, has a very clear, beautiful voice, and of course has impeccable diction – he will laugh aloud when he reads that last bit! He’s also a super nice guy, and a wonderful colleague to work with – what more can you ask for?

OW: Is there a particular moment in this show that you find most powerful?

LL: There are many, actually. I think the two biggest for me are the Scene 2, when the narrator talks about suicide. He talks about it rather matter-of-factly, which makes it even sadder to me. The other place is Scene 6 when the narrator declares, “I’m the survivor! Now I’m alone!” This is the moment when he admits that there were only two people who gave his life meaning, and both of them are gone – it is really the last scene in the opera in which the narrator has clarity. As we progress from this scene, his thoughts become more jumbled and disjointed, eventually a bit angry and confused in the final scene, although it ends with him listening to Glenn, which in some ways is him giving into what the truth really is – art outlasts all of us, and perfection only exists in our minds.

OW: What other projects do you have coming up?

LL: Next month we record the loser in New York, which I’m thrilled about! Following that I’m conducting a concert of Copland’s In the Beginning, and a world premiere Requiem by composer Jasper Randall with Los Robles Master Chorale; prepping Alexander Nevsky (Prokofiev) for New West Symphony; and then I am working yet again this year with the fabulous David Lang to present his work Crowd Out at the Los Angeles Philharmonic in June. And somewhere in there I get to go skiing with friends in Alta! 🙂 This is definitely the year of David Lang for me – and I couldn’t be happier!


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