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Performing my first opera — al fresco

Singing in the Mile-Long Opera in Manhattan's High Line park, I felt connected to my fellow New Yorkers like never before.

By Maryann De Leo

Under a cloudy October sky, I’m walking to New York’s High Line park, about to perform in the Mile-Long Opera. It’s a one-time event: five performances over one week, four years in the making.

I will be singing five words, over and over, hundreds of times: “Amber, will you marry me?”

This outdoor production in an urban park is unlike any traditional opera. Here, 1,000 performers from 40 choirs across the five boroughs of New York (including a sprinkling of professionals) sing directly to passing strangers. The singing takes on its own kind of intimacy.

Although we’re all part of neighborhood choirs, this is not choir singing. Even performers like me have individual sections to ourselves. And I’ve never sung opera in public before.

Passers-by listen to opera in New York’s High Line park during the Mile-Long Opera. Photo by Timothy Schenck

As a teenager, I was drawn to the allure of singing. But my mother came into the kitchen one day when I was on the phone calling a local voice instructor, and she laughed at the idea. “You don’t need lessons to sing,” she said. She was a natural singer with a loud, booming voice. She had been singing since she was a child. She even pursued a career in singing before she got married

I was too shy to sing like her. But I never stopped singing, although few knew it. I sang to myself, enjoying the sound of my own voice in private moments.

Then in 2015 I was diagnosed with cancer, and singing took a more prominent place in my life. I started a singing group at the local cancer center and our ensemble performed at a few hospital events. I loved singing to others. My confidence grew. So when the opportunity came to be part of the Mile-Long Opera, I was a bit nervous, but excited.

The sounds of ship horns on the Hudson river, screaming ambulances, police sirens, honking cars, rising helicopters, and even crickets add to the opera.

And now, here I am, standing in a plant-lined walkway under the High Line with 11 other members of the Abrons Art Center Choir and our choir leader, Michael Inge. We’ve spent the past 10 weeks rehearsing A Biography of Seven O’clock, with music by David Lang and lyrics by poets Anne Carson and Claudia Rankine. The opera combines interviews with real New Yorkers about what they are doing at that time each day with larger musings about life in the changing city. There are 26 cells (or songs), including “Hello Dusk,” “Coffee Cups,” and my group’s cell, number 16, called “Amber, Will You Marry Me?”

We’ve been given black aprons to hold our filled blue plastic water bottles, individual tuning forks, bright red nylon bags with Mile-Long Opera printed in bold letters, and IDs with TALENT written on them.

At 7:00, we’re in position. Singing alto, I’m standing between Lizzy, a young soprano, and Jason, a strong tenor. I’m a little disappointed; we’re one of the only groups not positioned on the High Line itself, and I’m worried no one will walk by, leaving us singing for the plants.

I’ve been admonished by a staffer for rustling those plants, and I’ve already banged the tuning fork on my bony wrist so many times I have a black and blue mark.

A singer performs during the Mile-Long Opera. Photo by Timothy Schenck

Soon, Michael tells us it’s time to start singing. Each singer positioned along the path sings the entire cell at different paces — all solo, but working as a team. We sing “Amber, will you marry me?” in our respective vocal parts, in repetition, then lines that move the story along: “I used sixty feet of Day-Glo lettering all along the eastern fence of the tracks, it was just a construction zone then;” and “Amber lived across the street, boy was she surprised.” It would take someone walking the High Line about six minutes to progress along our cell.

At first, no one walks by. Lizzy sings first, her sweet voice carrying into the trees and bushes below and the steel rail above us.

I’ve memorized my bit of melody, listened to the recording hundreds of times. I know it. Soon, a group approaches and I begin singing to them, to myself, to the trees, the plants, to a rat scurrying by, and to the anonymous Amber. After a while, muscle memory takes over my vocal cords, my mouth and lips. It feels like the song comes through me.

The song doesn’t have a happy ending. My bit is the plaintive cry of someone desperate for Amber’s love. Three lines later, it’s apparent that Amber is gone. “It’s all erased now, Amber too.” The sounds of ship horns on the Hudson river, screaming ambulances, police sirens, honking cars, rising helicopters, and even crickets add to the opera. 

One woman leans over the rail as I sing. She stays while I finish the song, then gives me a thumbs up; I get choked up, surprising myself. Later, a curious little boy comes close to the rail separating us. He leans, in pressing his face against the metal, his eyes wide, and whispers, “How can I come down there?” He looks so serious that I start to laugh.

Photo by Timothy Schenck

Some people wander by, texting. Others make eye contact, and I hold their gaze. Some people cry, I learn later. There’s a brief, beautiful communion with our passing audience. They don’t seem like strangers, not for the moment I lock eyes with them. It doesn’t often happen on the streets of Manhattan.

Three hours goes by faster than I anticipate. I’ve been able to stand on my feet and sing the entire time with no breaks. The cloud-blackened sky, which has threatened rain for the whole performance but miraculously held off, finally lets loose, sheets of rain pouring as I hurry into a waiting yellow cab. 

In the days and weeks after the opera ends, I’m more gracious toward my fellow New Yorkers. The city is vast, millions and millions of people and all in a big hurry. But maybe some people on the street had been part of my audience — like guests in my house. 

I feel connected to them as I never have before. And I’m eager for more opportunities to sing in public. Since then, I’ve been asked to sing as part of a guest choir in a gospel play called “Antigone in Ferguson.” Rehearsals just started. And I didn’t need singing lessons for any of it. My mother was right.

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Maryann De Leo is a writer and filmmaker in New York.


Top photo by Iwan Baan


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