world premiere: prisoner of the state

March 6, 2018

This season, the New York Philharmonic concludes their three-week-long Music of Conscience initiative, as well as their subscription season, with the world premiere of David Lang’s opera prisoner of the state on June 6–8, 2019, conducted by their new Music Director Jaap van Zweden. Co-commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, Rotterdam’s de Doelen Concert Hall, London’s Barbican Centre, Barcelona’s l’Auditori, Bochum Symphony Orchestra, and Bruges’s Concertgebouw, prisoner of the state is the story of a woman who disguises herself as a prison guard to rescue her husband from unjust political imprisonment.

With a libretto by the composer that refers self-consciously to Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, prisoner of the state features the Philharmonic debuts of soprano Julie Mathevet as The Assistant, tenor Alan Oke as The Leader, and baritone Jarrett Ott as The Prisoner, as well as bass-baritone Eric Owens as The Jailor. It will be directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer — who has directed works for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Opera, Los Angeles Opera, and Boston Lyric Opera, among others — in her Philharmonic debut.

Along with many accolades, Lang is recognized for his vocal music, including his Pulitzer Prize-winning the little match girl passion, and for writing narrative music for dance, films, and theatrical productions, as well as his operas. He earned Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice, and Academy Award nominations for his music in Paolo Sorrentino’s film Youth; he has recently scored Paul Dano’s directorial debut, Wildlife, which is released in theaters later this year.

Lang’s operas include the loser, which features a failed piano student on a platform-stage, seemingling floating in mid-air as he recounts a life lived in the shadows of his famous friend Glenn Gould; the whisper opera, during which the musicians never perform above a hush; anatomy theater, which follows the astonishing progression of an English murderess: from confession to execution and, ultimately, public dissection before a paying audience of fascinated onlookers; the difficulty of crossing a field, a fully-staged production based on Ambrose Bierce’s short story about a plantation owner who goes missing while crossing his own farm, and modern painters for Santa Fe Opera, directed by Francesca Zambello.

The Seattle Symphony and the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra both premiere new orchestral works by Lang in this current season. symphony without a hero premiered at the Seattle Symphony on February 8, inspired by Anna Akhmatova and her “Poem without a Hero,” which Lang came to through a childhood obsession with Shostakovich and Russian music. On March 14-15, the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra presents the premiere of harmony and understanding for orchestra and audience (co-commissioned by the New World Symphony), in which the conductor teaches the audience its role at the beginning, before the orchestra comes out, and they perform the rest of the piece together. No one is a spectator; the audience is not the audience, rather a chorus of community members contributing to making something beautiful. Lang is continually experimenting with turning audiences into performers. This fall as part of a project to raise funds to repair the broken instruments owned by The School District of Philadelphia, he wrote symphony for broken instruments, specifically for the sounds that the instruments make in their broken state, performed by a host of professional and amateur musicians around the Philadelphia-area.