Launched in 2013 as a showcase for new operas, music-theater works, and hybrid creations less easily categorized, Prototype hit the ground running. The upstart festival, scheduled to coincide with an annual convergence in New York City of national and international performing-arts presenters, immediately lived up to its slogan – “Opera / Theater / Now” – with distinctive, memorable events that packed houses and won critical raves, and has grown stronger in each successive year. To mark the arrival of the fifth Prototype season, we invited the composer Missy Mazzoli, whose acclaimed opera Breaking the Waves is among Prototype’s main events this year, to interview the festival’s founders – Kristin Marting and Kim Whitener, directors of HERE Arts Center, and Beth Morrison, founder of Beth Morrison Projects – about Prototype’s goals, achievements, and aspirations. The conversation took place in the BAM Fisher Theater’s lower lobby, during a break in rehearsals for another Prototype attraction, David Lang’s anatomy theater.
MISSY MAZZOLI: Prototype’s subtitle is “Opera / Theater / Now.” I know what “theater” is; I know what “now” means. How do you define “opera”? What makes something an opera?
BETH MORRISON: From my perspective, it’s not up to us to define it; it’s up to the creators to define it, and then we produce it. And I think that the definition in the creators’ minds – meaning composers and librettists – has greatly expanded from what the traditional notion of opera has been, and that we as a festival are trying to show that.
KIM WHITENER: What you didn’t mention were the slashes in between, because the slashes are these interstitial spaces. And the word “theater” is really important, in that it’s not just about opera as we know it, it’s not about theater as we know it; it’s about this amalgam, this range of what opera, theater, music theater can be.
KRISTIN MARTING: We were interested in this interrogation of that idea, because we’ve had this great thing of people coming to a bunch of things in the festival and arguing with each other, “That’s not opera.” We’re really interested in that dialogue happening, about what people think it is. I think the only thing we do feel it has to have is a sung voice, the human voice and the instrument. Otherwise, we’re very open to defining it as opera if the creators are thinking of it that way.
The argument is fun and productive, and leads to so many interesting discussions. I feel like opera, or big pieces that tell stories through sung voice, is sort of having a moment right now.
Why do you think it’s resonating with audiences right now?
MARTING: I’m doing one of the pieces in Prototype this year with Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and I was just reading an interview with one of the kids. She was talking about singing in different places around the world, with Aging Magician and other pieces. She feels that there are people who speak different languages when she goes to those places, but somehow the music is the universal language. And I just thought it was such a beautiful sentiment out of the mouth of a 16-year-old, to think about music that way. I think that’s why that’s happening right now – that people from all different walks of life can find a way in, an emotional connection to the work, through the music.
MORRISON: Music and theater historically have always been an incredibly potent and powerful combination, and for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years, probably since the beginning of civilization, people have been singing. I think this moment may not be different from many other moments through time, except that where we’ve emerged in the 21st century for this art form in America is a place where it’s meant to be accessible. We’ve arrived at a point where opera was maybe back in the 1600s and 1700s, when it really was the popular art form and people did come out, and it did feel like it was of them, like us going to the movies today, or whatever. We lost that over time, particularly in the 20th century, when serialism and atonality and these kinds of compositional techniques really alienated the general public. People became fearful of what new opera was, and so they stopped going. It was either that with new music, or it was thinking of it as Verdi and Puccini, feeling very far away from who they are in a contemporary world and in contemporary society.
MARTING: What issues they’re facing now.
MORRISON: But then you fast-forward, and here we are in this moment, which I believe truly is a second American golden age of opera. Composers have returned to writing melody, and composers have returned to tonality, and there is an impression being formed in the public now: that I might be able to relate to this music, that I might be able to enjoy it. And then they might come and hear an electric guitar, which feels very contemporary.
MARTING: And also, the issues that composers are choosing to write about are accessible.
WHITENER: It comes out of this sort of larger soup, in the last 30 to 40 years, I think, in popular music, where there’s a sort of sense of real ownership of music and song and lyric, pop operas… I have the sense of this kind of soup of musical activity and intention that has kind of coalesced, and it’s brought the audience along with it.
MARTING: It’s a multimedia art form. And people are not waiting for people to say, “Why don’t you write an opera now? You’re ready.” People are writing operas at younger and younger ages, and like other hybrid artists working today, they’re using whatever art forms they want to, whatever disciplines, to make their work. They’re not saying, “I’m not trained in puppets, so I’m not going to think about puppets in the work.” They think about integrating all these media in the form as just the borrower culture that we are, the D.I.Y. culture that we are right now.
I always say that I came to opera through music videos, like these epic Guns N’ Roses videos. It sounds sort of like a flip answer or something cute, but it’s totally true.
MARTING: It’s music, it’s storytelling.
MORRISON: It’s storytelling through music.
WHITENER: I’m a bit older than these guys, but so much of the music that I was listening to was really operatic: Queen, you know…
And cinematic. So: there’s a thousand festivals happening in New York in January. Was this accessibility – and the opera factor specifically – something you felt was missing in all the festivals that were going on?
MARTING: Yeah, the work just wasn’t being shown in the existing festivals.
WHITENER: We really felt there was a niche. It’s also kind of a quiet time for the opera and music-theater world, anyway. And it’s interesting that after five years, we’re finding Under the Radar kind of doing a little bit more of the music-theater and opera-theater stuff.
MORRISON: At the time that we wanted to start the festival, I couldn’t get any of my projects in any of the festivals that existed. And there was a lot of other work that was being done, and we were really frustrated that there wasn’t a place to show it. And so at this critical time, when all of the venue directors from around the world are here, it became almost like survival: Why is every other art form able to get their work around the world with these venue directors that are in town, but for the people who are creating opera theater, there’s nothing? It was really like a vacuum.
WHITENER: And the general directors weren’t here at all, pretty much. We really feel that we’ve effected that change. They’re coming now because Opera America moved their New Works Forum to this period after the first year of Prototype, when it was really clear that there was something brewing and a success on our hands.
MARTING: It’s a surprise. We’re doing pop-up short operas.
WHITENER: Around the city.
MARTING: Three women composers.
MORRISON: ’Cause that’s how we roll. [laughs]
WHITENER: They’re composer-performers, and we invited Ashley Tata to curate. She came up with the idea of interpreting the music of the radical punk feminist movement.
MARTING: So there are three composer-performers, each responding to three historic performances. It’s Leah Coloff, and she’s working off some Patti Smith stuff from CBGB’s; Erin Rogers from thingNY, responding to Lydia Lunch at Max’s Kansas City; and Amirtha Kidambi, responding to Nina Simone’s performance at the Apollo. So they’re going to be filmed in front of each of those locations.
WHITENER: The Apollo’s still there, but the other two are gone.
MARTING: They’ll be filmed in each of those locations, and then they will do live performances at venues – we’re doing Arts Brookfield in Winter Garden, 60 Wall Street, and the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. And then they’ll be in three different lobbies of the festival. The film of them will be playing at HERE throughout the festival, and then there will be live Facebook of them performing in those places, also in the HERE lobby, when they perform those 10-minute excerpts in the other places.
You’ve consistently been praised for the diversity of your programming, and that you are able to involve a lot of female composers, a lot of female performers, a lot of composers and performers who are not white. How does this happen at Prototype when it seems to be such a struggle for so many other institutions?
ALL [laughing]: We don’t know!
MARTING: We have no idea.
MORRISON: We do not understand what is wrong with them.
WHITENER: And all the brouhaha about having Kaija Saariaho – and believe me, I love Kaija Saariaho – but come on: you are telling me that there aren’t other really great women composers who couldn’t be on the Met stage? It’s crazy.
MARTING: It’s important to have work from all different perspectives.
MORRISON: We’re three women producers, so we’re aware of it, and most opera companies are run by white men, and I honestly think for them it’s a perception shift. I don’t want to offend anyone, but it does take a special person to say, Oh, yeah, I need to think about somebody who’s not like me, I need to think about diverse voices, I need to think about women. We’re women, so we’re thinking about people like us, too.
MARTING: We also think about artists of different ethnicities, and it’s really important. If you want to talk about contemporary issues and contemporary work, it’s not white people that populate this planet. So include the other voices, or you’re not really talking about contemporary issues.
MORRISON: You just have to look a little harder.
WHITENER: So it is a little bit of a conscious effort to look beyond the celebrated names – most of whom are white men.
MARTING: It’s also because we want to break through people – that’s what we’re interested in in the festival. We’re not just going to the known names; we’re trying to bring attention, shine a light, on work that people should know.
WHITENER: So in our curatorial conversations, it’s not a game of numbers in the purest sense, but we look out across three or four years of programming down the pike – at least at this point we’re doing that – and we look at how it sort of falls and flows in terms of how many women composers we have, how many composers of color.
MORRISON: We’re not slotting. It’s not about that. It’s about finding the best work.
MARTING: And the way that the work fits together. We look at “this speaks on this, and this speaks on this,” and we’re thinking about how the whole festival can hang together and we have a range of voices and aesthetics represented.
MORRISON: Within any given festival we want to have diversity, but it’s really looking at the long game. We’ve had amazing press over the last couple of weeks about Prototype, being really lauded for our diversity in programming, but it’s now because people can see a history.
There seems to be a correlation between your casting this really wide stylistic net and including a lot of different types of expression under the umbrella of “opera,” or under the umbrella of “composer,” and the inclusion of minorities and people who are not mainstream. Would you agree?
WHITENER: It’s a reflection of the world, but we also think about it as this range of things that are on the opera end of the spectrum, as the world knows opera to be, and then things at the other end, multimedia concerts and really unusual things, and everything in between. It’s a festival of opera theater and music theater.
MORRISON: It’s not an opera festival. We don’t claim to be an opera festival. People often say that, but it’s actually not true. We have from the beginning said that we are an opera-theater/music-theater festival. And that’s an important distinction for us, because we’re wanting to give voice to the avant-garde music-theater world, which doesn’t really have a platform, either. There’s NYMF [New York Musical Theater Festival] for musical theater, and other musical theater opportunities. We’re not doing musicals; we’re booking avant-garde music theater, and we want a place for that work to be shown.
WHITENER: And then there’s certain projects that are really off the map, like Bluebeard in the first year, which really didn’t have any live voice – it was recorded vocals, but was a multimedia experience. But it was of an operatic expression; it really was at the far end of that spectrum as a music-theater experience.
MORRISON: It was like a live installation, in a way, that was driven by operatic music.
WHITENER: And even Mata Hari this year is a real hybrid of opera-music-theater, in the sense that it has elements of theater, but it’s very choreographed and underscored.
MORRISON: The lead character never sings; she speaks.
MARTING: The band is guitar, accordion, piano, and violin, so it’s a really weird ensemble.
WHITENER: And Matt Marks is a composer who really runs the gamut in his music.
MARTING: He’s using tango forms, and he’s using soft-shoe form; he’s using all these different forms that he’s mashing into this piece in a really interesting way. Really interesting singing styles – like Frankie Valli, one of the singers is like in that style, and then you’ve got bel canto right next to that.
WHITENER: And the musicians say it’s really hard to play his music.
I’d like you each to pick a specific moment from this upcoming festival to talk about in more detail, instead of trying to gloss over everything.
MORRISON: I can talk about anatomy theater. The performances across the board are absolutely incredible. To call out Peabody [Southwell]: what it takes to do that role is really extraordinary, from being hung to having to lay on a table naked, dead, in front of the audience for the entire show, was really, really super challenging for her. I just can’t imagine how she manages to do it every night, but she does, and I think it’s a real standout.
MARTING: And also, just to tag on, it’s really heartbreaking. The piece is such an interesting piece in its dark humor, but at the same time ultimately very heartbreaking.
She told me she had a pretty serious meditation practice she’s employing for that. That made sense to me; I still don’t know how she does it.
MORRISON: And just, like, how to breathe, you know? It’s crazy, what she has to do. And then, of course, her singing performance is extraordinary, too.
Any other moments?
MARTING: Yeah, I’ll do something from Silent Voices. We’re using a piece of Shara Nova’s called “Blind to the Illness,” and it’s a piece dealing with colorblindness and racism, but from the perspective of a white person. It’s a really phenomenal piece where these kids of all different backgrounds, black and white, are singing this song that’s about colorblindness; it has these different meanings to these different kids, and you just see it in their faces as they’re singing this piece. And the piece is about getting outside of the building, where now you can see in color, where when you’re inside the structure you can’t. It’s very moving to see them come together over it.
There’s a certain darkness to a lot of Prototype shows, which I personally love, because I feel like I fit right in. It’s a sort of beautiful darkness. This year alone we have M. Lamar’s beautifully grim piece about the apocalypse and racial violence, we have a piece about the Book of Revelations…
WHITENER: Which is humorous!
…an opera based on a Lars von Trier film…
MARTING: And anatomy [theater] is dark comedy.
MORRISON: There’s a lot of humor in anatomy [theater].
I was trying to think back over the last five years: What were the happiest Prototype shows? I was thinking of, like, Have a Good Day!
MARTING: But really, not even that – the experience of these women…
Having worked in a grocery store for many years, that really hit home.
WHITENER: I think we’re drawn to stories of human experience, and there’s a lot of suffering – I mean, there’s joy and humor, but…
MORRISON: But I also think it’s, like, look at opera!
That’s my question: how much of this is your aesthetic, and how much is just opera?
MORRISON: But Tosca, Bohème and Madama Butterfly are not happy pieces. And going back to what I said before, we’re following you guys. So you’re leading.
I always get asked the question, “Why do all women die in opera?” And I think it’s a sort of easy, superficial thing to say, because I think death in such a symbolic art form has many meanings. It can mean transcendence; it can mean achieving your ultimate goal – as I see it, “Breaking the Waves” is [Bess] achieving this goal of goodness. I don’t think it’s necessarily dark; it’s such an extreme art form, you just take things to the extreme.
WHITENER: When we were looking at this year’s programming, maybe nine or ten months ago, and were starting to think about marketing, we said, uh-oh, the headlines are going to be “Prototype and Misogyny,” because we could see there was this kind of theme. We didn’t set out to do it, but it just kind of came together – it’s interesting how sometimes the themes come up. And when we realized that, we said, let’s do a panel and have a few experts on, just to talk about the nature of the depiction of women in opera and in art, and violence against women in particular, and let’s have a conversation about it. We don’t want to be accused of going against our own principles, but we’re shining a light on works that are really taking a different approach.
MORRISON: I don’t think we believe that these pieces are misogynistic.
WHITENER: No, no, that’s what I’m saying: We want to shine a light on these pieces as not being that way.
MARTING: But that it is an issue in our society, violence against women and representations of women. That’s why it’s coming up in the work; that’s why people are making work about this.
Exactly: it happens in everyday life, and having a piece where violence happens to a woman is not necessarily misogynistic.
WHITENER: It’s a subtle differentiation that we want to help people to make, not to jump to conclusions.
Are there trends in this kind of work that you’ve seen evolve or change over the last five years in the festival, that are coming from the artists?
MARTING: I feel like there’s an interesting exploration of chorus that we’ve had in a few of the different iterations of Prototype, the way the choral voice is being examined. I wasn’t seeing as much of that before, and I feel like there’s a lot of it happening beyond what we’re doing. But that’s been kind of interesting. The monodrama I feel like is a newer thing…
MORRISON: Monodramas have existed for a long time, but it does feel like something that people are interested in that form right now.
WHITENER: Part of that, I think – which we see in theater, too – has to do with the cost of making work, and sometimes doing smaller work with a small ensemble and a single singer, but I think there’s a whole black-box theater phenomenon. Obviously with our ambitions, and the ambitions of the artists we’re interested in working with, the scale has grown; we’re still limited in money, but we are doing as much as we can through partnerships and other kinds of co-producing relationships to really be able to take on the larger works, and to be able to expand outside of the black box. But the black box is still important to us, because we love that intimate almost salon/chamber experience, and that was something we got a lot of kudos about during the first couple of years: that sense of really being right on top of the singers and ensemble.
MORRISON: I feel like the artists that we have showcased, the voices are really singular. I think of trends as being “lets get on the bandwagon and do it this way,” and I just don’t think we’re attracted to artists like that. The trend, maybe, is that rules aren’t really required anymore. So with [Du Yun’s] Angel’s Bone last year having 15th-century-style music next to techno, and next to bel canto singing, that’s fine. That’s what she’s writing. And with Mata Hari this year, with these different musical styles. There aren’t any rules, and if there’s any trend, to me that’s it.
MARTING: The uniqueness and passion of the vision of the artist is what we’re getting behind.
WHITENER: And again, as curators we’re seeking that out, so it’s self-selective; we’ve kind of created that.
MORRISON: I do think what you said about the choral voice, though, is actually really interesting, because you think about [Carmina Slovenica’s] Toxic Psalms and what they’re doing, and obviously Have a Good Day! So I feel like there is a choral-theater thing that we are interested in, and that we are seeing in little, tiny ways.
WHITENER: Coming out of Eastern European tradition. In fact, a project that we’re looking at for next year evokes that as well, from the Ukraine.
MORRISON: I want to ask you that question. Do you see any trends over the last five years?
Well, it’s funny, because it’s a system that feeds itself. So even for someone like me, seeing [David T. Little’s] Dog Days had a big impact on Breaking the Waves, in practical and also sort of more cosmic, subconscious ways – you know, just seeing the way the set was, where the ensemble was on the set, and seeing the way that the scenes shift between each other. And also just the subject matter – it was this gutsy thing like I’ve never seen before. That kind of set me free and made me feel more comfortable about taking on a piece like Breaking the Waves. I think we’ll see that it’s like everyone being influenced by each other. But you’re right, it’s not like we’re seeing: “Oh, now we’re all going to write pieces about Donald Trump.”
I do want to ask you about that: Everything post-election feels so raw, and my conversations with my artistic colleagues has changed. The conversation has shifted to one of responsibility and an attempt to see our art in a broader context to make it useful, to reach an audience outside of the people who usually come to a show, just as we’re seeing the world in a sort of broader context and trying to reach out to people who we haven’t before. Do we have a responsibility to respond to what’s going on in the world, or to educate people? Do you feel that as curators?
WHITENER: I don’t know if we’d all say the same thing. I don’t think we’ve really talked about it.
MORRISON: Honestly, for me, I’m sorry to sound like a broken record, but we respond to what the creators are going to give us, so when the artists start writing about this and their experiences, that’s when we’re going to start programming it. Because of course we’re interested in that; of course we’re interested in connecting into what’s happening in our society. That’s what our work does.
WHITENER: We think it does that, anyway. And for me to actually apply a curatorial filter that way would not be comfortable. It would have to come from the artists.
MARTING: It’s context. It’s like David [Lang] just said upstairs to the [anatomy theater] cast, because we did the meet-and-greet before this, how he sees the work in a new light after the election, and the idea of the evil that’s in the piece has a different meaning for him right now than it had when he wrote it, and that he thinks the audience will be applying to it as they see it. For Silent Voices, our piece dealing with racism toward people of color and immigrants, the subjects that we’re dealing with feel even more important to be talking about right now: It’s a piece about people being silenced and not heard. Hilton Als is our scriptwriter and Helga Davis is our host, and we’ve been going through, re-contextualizing the script for the show because of the election.
WHITENER: I would be really interested in hearing you answer that question, because my worry is that we are not really reaching the people who need to hear and see these messages. We have a little bit of the preaching to the converted.
I definitely feel that frustration, but it’s motivation to get out there and expand that. My activism is often separate from my work, but there’s parts where it overlaps, like this Luna Lab female composers lab is a way to start lurching in that direction in some way. But I’m still figuring it out, and there’s been no grand conclusion: “We have to all do this.” I think things will change, and I think they’ll change for the better in a lot of ways. But our discussion around Breaking the Waves has also changed post-election, inevitably. We’ve just sung through the piece last Monday, and these arias like “My Body Is a Map of My Love” and “No Woman Speaks Here” just take on this visceral, biting tone in the wake of the election – which is really fascinating and kind of beautiful.
MARTING: People hear it differently now.
Has there ever been anything that you’ve been afraid to program?
MORRISON: Only for cost. [laughs]
But never a subject matter that you’ve been afraid to talk about?
MORRISON: I think we’re the festival that doesn’t shy away from stuff like that. We’re the producers who are open to the thing that other people won’t do.
MARTING: We have a mission of low ticket prices; the box office is not going to make or break us. So we’re going to do the work that we feel passionately about.
WHITENER: And we haven’t talked about Secondary Dominance – Secondary Dominance is going to be kind of a world premiere, and Sarah Small does this stuff that’s tableau, often using naked people. We’re really kind of interested to see what’s going to come out of that one. We don’t know what it’s going to be. But we have no qualms. Again, if the artists are concerned about something, then we’ll be concerned about it.
MORRISON: We just try to give the platform, and then make sure that it’s messaged appropriately so that audiences aren’t blindsided: if there’s nudity, then they know that coming in, and if there’s excessive profanity that they know that going in. We try to at least give advance warning, so that somebody doesn’t show up to something that they aren’t going to want to see.
MARTING: We try with the trailers to give people a sense of what the creators are thinking in their creation of the work, and so give people a little eye into that as an orientation, as opposed to just a commercial trailer.
MORRISON: I don’t think we’re trying to hit the audience over the head with anything. We want people to have an opportunity to experience lots of different kinds of work, but if something’s not for them, we are messaging it in different ways for them to understand that that’s probably not the show for them.
How do you discover news artists who may not have written opera before, but who have a dramatic impulse in their instrumental writing? Maybe it’s not obvious that they’re going to be the next avant-garde theater maker, but they have a sort of seed of that – how do you find very young artists?
WHITENER: We all have developmental programs. At HERE we have a residency program, through which we bring in artists and commission and develop and produce projects, and BMP obviously does the same. We have an open application process, and Beth serves on our panel. We like to work with mid-career artists: people who’ve been out of school for a while, but who’ve not really broken through in any way. So we’re kind of listening and looking all the time at that level.
MARTING: We all go out to see work in New York City, and we all travel to festivals around the country and the world to see work that is interesting and that might fit our festival’s voice and vision. We’re really curious and we’re really open. We don’t ask for submissions, but we receive submissions and we look at everything that comes in. We really are very hungry and open to seeing what’s out there that we might not know about.
MORRISON: But Missy asked about identifying people who have never written vocal music. Both for BMP and for Prototype, we would need to see some demonstration that there is some talent for theatrical vocal writing. For BMP, we’re going to launch something next year, a discovery series, which is meant to go into schools. It’ll be submission-based, and we’ll be asking for five-minute excerpts. Our hope, then, is that if there are people who have only written instrumental music but want to write for the voice, this will be their entryway. And then we’ll be able to say, this person has talent; let’s showcase them on a concert. And then from there, we can decide, O.K., out of these 10 people that we’ve chosen, who shines through as the one who really understands theater and drama and voice, to then maybe take on to another step and cultivate them and develop them.
That’s great, because opera’s so daunting – even to write one scene requires a whole team of people, and so I think it’s hard for a lot of students and younger composers to break into that.
MORRISON: And they don’t get it at the conservatory, which is a huge problem. It’s crazy that they don’t get this training.
WHITENER: But we have chosen a couple of artists… I’m thinking of Mikael Karlsson, who’s done a lot of instrumental writing, and we’re working with him on an opera that will premiere next year. I wouldn’t say that he had written really any kind of definitive vocal music; he’s very known for ballet and his orchestral music. We’re interested so much in his music that we wanted to work with him, and we have elongated the process as he’s written.
MARTING: To give him enough developmental time.
WHITENER: There’ve been some workshops, and then he’s gone back to the drawing board and worked again.
MORRISON: It’s a monodrama, and he wrote it in a tessitura that is actually not sustainable for an hour, for either the audience or the performer. So then it was like, Oh, maybe this needs to be a mezzo.
MARTING: And that’s our 2018 world premiere in the festival.
WHITENER: That’s really a developmental process that we feel good about. But we felt that he was established enough in his music.
Last question: without giving anything away, is there anything that will really surprise audiences this year? Any moment, any particular show?
MARTING: All of it.
WHITENER: I think there’s probably an element in each piece that’s going to be surprising.
MORRISON: There’s been so much written about Breaking the Waves, I wonder how much surprise there will be. I think people will show up and will be pleasantly surprised that it lives up to its hype, but it’s not like they’re going to go, “Oh my god, who knew?”
WHITENER: Although on that front, some of the conversations I’ve had with people who have strong feelings one way or another about the movie… the surprise will be how different this is, and how amazingly embodying of the story in and of itself it is, separate from the movie. But every other piece, I think, has its element of surprise. anatomy [theater] has a big element of surprise. And people are going to be wondering what the hell’s happening with Funeral Doom Spiritual.
Interview transcribed, condensed, and edited by Steve Smith. Prototype runs through January 15 at HERE Arts Center, NYU Skirball Center, National Sawdust, and other locations; www.prototypefestival.org