The Difficulty of

Crossing a Field



The Difficulty of Crossing a Field is a contemporary, highly theatrical opera by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang, featuring a well-crafted libretto by Max Wellman.  Its full title is The Difficulty of Crossing a Field:  A new opera in seven tellings.  The libretto of the opera is based on a one-page short story written by Ambrose Bierce. 

Here is the plot:  On a summer morning in 1854, Mr. Williamson was sitting with his wife and young daughter on the verandah of their plantation in Selma, Alabama.  Remembering that he had forgotten to tell his overseer something about horses he had just bought from a neighbor, Mr. Williamson stood, tossed away the butt of his cigar, and plucked a flower as he walked over a gravel path which led into a field.  A clear and open field.  Open and visible.  In the midst of crossing the field, he disappeared.  Just like that.  Vanishing into thin air.  And those events form the crux of Bierce’s short story “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.”

According to the story, the neighbor’s young son saw Mr. Williamson vanish, but the neighbor—preoccupied with one of his coach horses that had stumbled—did not.  His wife, Mrs. Williamson, we’re told in a rather offhand way, went mad as a result of witnessing the event.  Sam, the house servant, was spooked and confused by the event.  A magistrate, after a short discovery trial, determined that Mr. Williamson must surely be dead and distributed his estate accordingly.  But now, for all involved, there is a “hole” in their lives where a man used to be.

Bierce was an American editorialist, journalist, short-story writer, and satirist.  Today he is best known for his short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and his satirical lexicon, The Devil’s Dictionary. Bierce’s short stories are written in a distinctive style which often includes abrupt openings, dark imagery, vague references to time, limited and fragmented descriptions, and the incorporation of seemingly impossible events into otherwise realistic, rational settings.  

In 1913, at the age of 71, Bierce retired from writing and moved to Mexico to seek “the good, kind darkness.”  He vanished “mysteriously and without a trace” sometime during the Mexican Civil War.  And, strangely enough, that brings us back to David Lang’s opera…which contains a central character that “vanishes mysteriously and without a trace.”

My first exposure to the opera was in New Jersey in 2007.  I had made a trip to Montclair to attend planning meetings on our upcoming world premiere of Robert Aldridge’s Elmer Gantry.   While there, I was invited to see the opera The Difficulty of Crossing a Field in performance.  To be honest, I had never heard of the opera, but I was very familiar with composer David Lang’s other work.  Lang is one of the original founders of the contemporary music group Bang on a Can and one of the top composers of our time. 

So we arrived at the theater that night, the lights went down, and I saw a performance of this opera.  I remember a good bit about it, especially David Lang’s haunting and beautiful music, but what I was really struck by was how the opera stayed with me for days, even weeks afterwards.  I thought about it a great deal.  What was it I had just witnessed?  What was it really about?  What really happened in the opera? There were often more questions than answers, but the experience stayed with me, and continued to mystify, reveal, and intrigue.  And, for me, that is the mark of something special and the mark of a great theatrical experience.  Here is an opera that is not afraid to invoke a sense of secrecy and wonder and then dare its audience to participate in discovering the mysteries within. 

With this new production of David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, we are beginning a new series of sorts.  With the construction of the fantastic Noah Liff Opera Center, one of our early goals was to create an intimate performance space to explore lesser known but significant, small-scale operas that our audience would rarely, if ever, get a chance to experience otherwise.  The Difficulty of Crossing a Field felt like the right choice with which to begin this endeavor.  And so we shall.

This coming November, I hope you’ll enter the Noah Liff Opera Center, take a seat, watch as the lights go down, and then experience something special.  Something different.  Something that will stay with you long after the music ends.  You may leave with a few more questions than answers, but I can promise you won’t forget it.



Opera Insights: one hour before

curtain at every performance.


Nashville Opera always projects

translations above the stage.

Ambrose Bierce