Mac Wellman, renegade playwright and master of meaningful pseudo-babble, is also on this recent afternoon the king of understatement.
"It's a very unusual opera," he says of American Conservatory Theater's "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field," for which he wrote the libretto. "It's small, and the text is rather important. It's not a conventional melodrama, and 99 percent of American theater is. For a while I didn't think it would happen because I didn't think there was a venue for it. Where do you perform something like this?"
That last issue will be answered this weekend when "Crossing" receives its world premiere at Theater Artaud. But the question remains: How does "something like this," a nonlinear opera for a cast of nine and string quartet, get made in the first place?
Over much time and with much intrepidation, evidently.
Wellman began the project way back in 1994, during a two-year residency at ACT. He had read a lot of the San Francisco Civil War writer Ambrose Bierce as a kid ("because nasty little boys like Bierce") and decided to adapt Bierce's short story about an antebellum plantation owner who vanishes one afternoon while traversing his property.
Within a year the project had a composer: David Lang, co-founder of New York's Bang on a Can Festival of experimental music, was at ACT completing a score for "The Tempest," and the two mavericks instantly hit it off. But it wasn't until 1998 that the Kronos Quartet got thrown into the mix, when "Crossing" received its first workshop preview. And at every step of the way just about every party involved doubted the work would see its world premiere.
"It was so speculative -- even until this year it didn't look like it would happen," Lang said from his Manhattan home. "We all had to be in the same place to work on it. And it's just a ridiculous project, really."
Ridiculous because only Lang had ever worked on an opera, and this was an opera produced by a theater company. And with Wellman contributing his typically poetic, nonchronological and deliberately perplexing writing, and the ever-theatrical Kronos performers to experiment with, all opera conventions vanished as decisively as the work's missing Southerner.
"The composers that write for us are frequently stretching into realms even they thought they'd never be part of," said David Harrington, one-quarter of the Kronos, which just wrapped up its 2002 season at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. "But I don't think even we realized we were actually doing an opera until we performed it."
Still, the collaborators quickly found a pillar to hold the creative process together. In the story, the plantation owner's wife Mrs. Williamson (played by well-known opera singer Julia Migenes) is the only witness to the disappearance, and she goes crazy and speechless from shock and grief. Early in his writing Wellman decided, in a stroke of perverse but inspired logic, that the dumbstruck Mrs. Williamson ought to be the only lucid and coherent voice in the piece.
When Lang began working on the score he composed her aria first, giving her a hauntingly simple melody echoed from afar by Harrington's playing. It has become the climax of the opera's seventh and final scene (Wellman has termed the scenes "tellings"), and Harrington and the other Kronos members, who are in costume, play a theatrical part in it.
"The music David has written is really heart-wrenching," the mild-mannered Wellman gushes. "His music fulfills what is suggested in my words."
But it is precisely because things are "suggested" in Wellman's words that Lang faced a delicate challenge.
"Mac likes to be ambiguous, and music doesn't like to be ambiguous," he explained. "He wants you to think everything is just what is in front of you and also everything unspoken at the same time. He doesn't want to take a side and say 'this is symbolic of something else.' He says, 'Here is this thing, it might or might not be something larger.'
"But music goes to that place inside you where you access emotion without words. It gives things an emotional life and there's no way around that."
And the months since Sept. 11 have brought to mind a saddening new host of analogies to read into Wellman's suggestions, a few of which ACT artistic director Carey Perloff raised at a recent rehearsal.
"She was talking about the disaster of Mr. Williamson, how unnatural it is for there not to be any remains, and I found that a profound thing to say," Harrington recalled.
Wellman himself sees the parallels.
"Seeing the run-through, yeah, Sept. 11 popped up in my mind -- everything is completely different now, as it was for Mrs. Williamson," Wellman said. "I would not say that I was prophetic because that would be ghoulish and demented, though a lot of people in New York are thinking in that way right now because New York is depressed and in shock.
"I think this will be a piece that raises a lot of questions," he continued. "Why do bad things happen to some people and not others? Why do people vanish?"
E-mail Rachel Howard at email@example.com.
The Difficulty of Crossing a Field runs 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Theater Artaud, 450 Florida St. (between 17th and Mariposa), San Francisco. Tickets are $25 and $30; call (415) 749-2ACT.