The Mile Long Opera
When you live and work in New York City you constantly come in contact with people from all walks of life and all corners of the world- among them are transplants and immigrants who have come to embrace the city. During the day the city seems to swell with even more people who commute in to work.
Most seasoned New Yorkers have learned to don an invisible armor as they navigate the City’s crowded streets and sidewalks, and squeeze into subway cars, pressed up against strangers, all packed in like sardines. The irony is that while New Yorkers are literally surrounded by people almost all the time, they are very good at shielding themselves by retreating into the entertainment on their phones or disengaging from the random people around them.
That being said, I most certainly would not characterize New Yorkers as cold and detached. Case in point is how I ended up being able to see The Mile Long Opera.
I first learned about it one night as I was walking around west Chelsea and noticed a very conspicuous group of about 50 people all dressed in black from head to toe walking up the avenue. What was going on? I thought. There must have been some event going on. I soon got my answer. I happened to be going somewhere that was nearby the High Line on 23rd street. As I neared the High Line, I noticed a sign saying that it had closed early for something called The Mile Long Opera, which was running from October 3-8.
I was curious and wondered how to get tickets to the event and how much they’d cost.
I couldn’t believe it when I looked online and discovered that the event was free to the public, but alas it was already fully booked! Only standby tickets remained. Not one to be deterred easily, I mentioned the event to my SO and we decided that we’d take a chance and see if we could score some standby tickets.
When we arrived at the Gansevoort entrance to the High Line, the line of people waiting to get on the High Line to experience The Mile Long Opera was wrapped around the Whitney Museum toward the Westside Highway. We managed to make our way through the crowd to find the standby line. Not long after waiting there, we were told by one of the organizers that all of the standby tickets had been given out.
Then we overheard someone who had stepped out of the standby line say that they’d just been given tickets by some good Samaritan! So there was hope- I thought to myself. Upon hearing that nudged my SO and asked him to try to see if he could find some tickets for us. I knew that he’d have a better chance of scoring tickets than me because he is: 1) not shy at all and 2) very resourceful. Turns out I was right! He found someone who happened to have an extra pair of tickets and Voilà we were in!
As we entered the High Line I heard a combination of singing and spoken word verse. It was as if each of the performers had a story to tell. I’d walk by trying to catch what was being sung or spoken. Sometimes I’d stop to listen more closely. The lyrics and prose that I heard throughout the night were relatable, entertaining and thought provoking.
The most thought provoking thing I heard all night was at the very beginning of the experience. It stopped me right in my tracks as I considered what I’d heard. “You can’t tell if I’m legal or not.” It made me actually stop and look at the woman who had sang it. She was sitting unassumingly nearby. It made me think about all the divisiveness we have had in this country over illegal immigrants. And I wondered what how an immigration hardliner would have reacted if they were in my place and had heard what I’d heard.
As I continued to walk further along the High Line I heard the lyrics, “No we don’t talk but people get to know each other just by walking past each other all the time.” This happens all the time I thought, especially to those who see the same familiar faces of the strangers they commute with to work every day. Little did I know that these lyrics were foreshadowing what the entire experience of the Mile Long Opera would be like.
An especially poignant moment for me was hearing the lyric, “Parts of us erase” repeated over and over by different singers. It really struck me, probably because of the #MeToo and “BelieveSurvivors movement in the wake of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that Judge Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her.
There were also plenty of lighter, relatable moments throughout the Mile Long Opera, as with the lyrics “Funny how no L train changes everything. Funny how no L train changes nothing.” That, was a very New York moment. Subway riders, especially Williamsburg residents can relate to this because the L train, which connects Williamsburg Brooklyn to Manhattan, is going to be shut down for 15 months. There were several variations of the “funny how… changes everything… funny how… changes nothing” refrain, each eliciting a unique reaction. Imagine “no L train” being substituted with: “love,” “a dog,” “being on TV,” “justice,” “a glass of really good red wine,” “walking” and “evidence.”
Curiously, many of the narratives and spoken word pieces were about people’s dining room tables. The stories about dining room tables- ranged from physical descriptions of the tables, to what people would do at the table, who’d sit and eat at the table, who the table belonged to, and the personal sentiments that people have about their dining room tables. I suppose this something that everyone can all relate to because we all have to eat and we have all probably eaten at someone else’s dining table.
I found The Mile Long Opera to be one of the most powerful spoken word events I’ve experienced in some time. Perhaps the words felt like they had more impact because everything else was stripped away. There were no fancy costumes, grand music or sets. It was just the audience/observer and individual singer/performer sharing their words. The interaction focused on voices and faces of the performers that were lit up in the dark by the glowing visors of the baseball caps they wore.
It was fascinating notice how the very same words or lyrics, took on different meaning depending on the delivery the message, or on who delivered it. The voice, and a complete range of bodily expression can captivate or move a listener/observer in a variety of ways.
The Mile Long Opera was an expression of the collective experience of shared humanity.
I believe that it is through direct personal interaction and connection that we can bridge the gap between us and “others,” making the “others” more relatable. There would be so much more understanding in the world if we tried to look for and focus on all of our common denominators, and shared humanity.
I’d say that the experience of The Mile Long Opera could be summed up by the lyric I heard at the beginning of the performance, “No we don’t talk but people get to know each other just by walking past each other all the time.”