“We call this an opera festival… but we use that term pretty loosely.” That’s how Julian Wachner began his remarks at St Paul’s Chapel before the world premiere of Royce Vavrek and David T. Little’s Am I Born, in a new revision for adult singers—just one of seven different PROTOTYPE Festival offerings on the evening of Tuesday, January 8. The festival, which this year ran January 5-13, is an annual showcase of new operatic works, the term operatic being used in its most all-inclusive sense. Despite the generally high production values and major names involved, the festival maintains a spirit of freewheeling experimentation: Let’s try a bunch of new stuff out and see what sticks! If there are a few bumps along the way, what matter? It’s all worth it for broadening the possibilities of the operatic world.
Wachner offered his disclaimer of terminological looseness before a program of two secular oratorios. Am I Born tells, in suggestive, non-literal terms, of a landscape painting coming to life and wandering the streets of Brooklyn in search of the place it depicts, long since destroyed by New York’s ceaseless growth. It’s an imposing work, full of stark grandeur, and in the chapel, the ominous bass drum rolls that Little would use to great effect in his opera Dog Days (another collaboration with Vavrek) were enhanced by the rumble of subway trains passing underneath.
These subterranean intrusions were more disruptive in Sarah LaBrie and Ellen Reid’s Dreams of the New World, the more delicate textures of which were sometimes difficult to hear cleanly over the noise. LaBrie’s libretto is stitched together from interviews conducted about three cities in three eras united, from the authors’ perspectives, by their proximity to the realization of the American Dream. It’s an abstract concept, and the piece doesn’t fully pull off a convincing unification — so much context needs explaining that the piece runs out of time to linger long in any of its three settings.
The work’s political stance is likewise given short shrift: After a depiction of the destruction of black wealth in the racist backlash to reconstruction, there’s a passage in which white chorus members describe having “a grandma/a grandfather/an uncle/a father” who worked for a racist regime. “It’s not me,” they hasten to disclaim, “It’s not me.” The next section begins with a recurring refrain about the allure of the frontier: “It’s the American psyche.” The juxtaposition was sharply provocative – gesturing at an indictment of white supremacy not as a matter of personal prejudice, but as a structural system of collective domination – but the score whisked past it, hastening on to the space-obsessed billionaire playboys of present-day L.A.
Pancho Villa from a Safe Distance was a more hybrid affair, with a few elements of rudimentary staging pulling it away from oratorio, but not quite fully into a traditional drama. The bilingual libretto, by Mexico City artist collective Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol, presents moments in the life of Pancho Villa, a notorious figure from the Mexican Revolution, in a deliberately discursive, nonlinear style. Graham Reynolds’s rock-inflected score had its catchy moments, but his choice to write the two singers in almost perpetual lockstep quickly grew stale to the ear—though Paul Sanchez’s sweet, ringing tenor made the experience considerably more pleasurable. There were few signposts to offer guidance if you didn’t already know the shape of Villa’s life and the war he fought in, making it difficult to tell where (and in which direction) the various time jumps were. This was Pancho Villa from such a safe distance that he could hardly be discerned at all.
A multi-faceted man likewise took center stage in Mila, Great Sorcerer, an opera in development with a libretto by Jean-Claude van Itallie and Lois Walden and a score by Andrea Clearfield. The work tells the story of Milarepa, a popular Tibetan Buddhist figure on the cusp between history and myth. In a note to the audience clearly written with charges of cultural appropriation in mind, the authors acknowledge that none of them are Tibetan (while noting Clearfield’s long-term engagement with Tibetan musicians), but reassure us that a previous personal attendant to the Dalai Lama “has expressed his support for the Mila project since its inception.” Be that as it may, it still felt profoundly weird to see a white man – the role of Mila was played with gusto by Aaron Blake – practically deified in the guise of a Tibetan siddha at the work’s conclusion.
The weirdness was magnified by an earlier sequence. In lieu of a set, the production had projected backdrops with original art by Tibetan artist Tsherin Sherpa. During a scene of slaughter, the backdrop showed a mass of limbs drawn from traditional Tibetan iconography writhing under a hail of bombs plastered with American business logos and related iconography. It was a searing critique of American cultural imperialism, but the other elements of the production didn’t seem to register it at all—even though it’s a critique that could readily extend to a casting that implied actual Tibetans are superfluous and can adequately be replaced by Westerners.
It’s a pity the creative team made these choices, because Mila has an attractive score. Lush and rich without becoming cloying or dense, Clearfield’s music makes excellent use of the resources at hand, including several custom percussion instruments. After the final tableau, the theatre was plunged into darkness while a number of tam tams continued to thrash and moan, a sonic exultation with lasting power. The libretto was less successful, its obsessive focus on the title character rendering everyone else in the story shallow and one-dimensional, even as it skipped over how Mila changed from a teenage mass murderer to a beatific wise man—the very change the librettists claim they wanted to offer as an example to the rest of us.
Which brings us to The Little Death: Vol. 1, another event revolving around a celebrated male figure. A 2010 work of lo-fi deconstructed pop music theatre by Matt Marks, the one-act, two-character show was presented as a tribute to the composer, who died suddenly last May at the age of 38. Marks wrote Little Death to perform with his then-girlfriend Mellissa Hughes, and the work, ostensibly about dating within the world of Evangelical Christianity, contains references and inside jokes from their real-life relationship. Hughes — after grave initial reservations — reprised her role, with Ted Hearne stepping in to take on Marks’s part.
Hearne disappeared into his role, fully embodying the rakish, slightly manipulative Boy. Hughes’s Girl was more complex, seemingly containing not only the role itself but also Hughes’s entire history with the piece and its deceased author. When she sang “He touched me. He touched me. He touched me.” over and over again – talking specifically about Jesus but by implication also the Boy, and, by extension, Marks – she radiated a bittersweet mix of emotions too complex for even the subtlest words.
The difference was heightened by the choice to project scenes from the original production on a backdrop above the stage. Sometimes these played out simultaneously behind Hearne and Hughes, and sometimes the live actors sat to watch the film on the sidelines. On film, the younger Hughes radiated the same easy embodiment as the present-day Hearne, emphasizing the chasm between the Hughes of 2010 and the Hughes of 2019.
Early in the show, the Boy sings “If you wanna have fun, fall in love with me. With me. With me. With me!” Between the reverential screening of past footage, the lengthy memorial speeches at the outset, and the music video of Marks singing the same song after the show ended, that began to feel like the evening’s thesis. It wasn’t enough to remember Matt Marks; you had to love him, too. Perhaps it was the influence of a piece about Christianity, but by the end, the evening felt less like a theatrical performance than an evangelical service with Marks in the place of Jesus. That’s an impossible role for any mortal to fill, and it sweeps under the rug less saintly aspects of his personality. By all means, remember Matt Marks and the significant contributions he made to the new music community—but remember him in the fullness of his humanity, not as some sanitized son of G-d.
None of the music in Little Death could be mistaken for unadulterated pop, and the same is true for the songs in Joseph Keckler’s Train with No Midnight, one of two autobiographical cabaret works in the festival—the other being Leah Coloff’s ThisTree, also presented at HERE. The two felt a bit like companion pieces, each interspersing songs that winked at recognizable genres with interludes of spoken patter that looped backwards and forwards freely across the author-narrators’ lives. Coloff spoke of harsh things with a memoirist’s distance; Keckler, who entered in a shiny faux-leather jacket so tight it squeaked, tacked in the opposite direction, heightening the mundane with the surreal intensity of Weird Twitter.
Coloff’s reserve made it difficult to invest fully in her story, with one striking exception: At one point, she described being assaulted by her then husband, and her cool delivery offered the refreshing possibility that life can continue after assault, that a traumatic event need not forever shatter and warp the future, that a person can be more than a terrible thing that they endured. It’s the first time I recall seeing that perspective at PROTOTYPE, and it felt transformatively refreshing. Keckler’s subject matter remained ostensibly light, but he built it up to something cosmic. As he revealed the story behind the titular train ride, aided by virtuosic lighting design from Ayumu Poe Saegusa that made HERE’s cramped basement space feel twice its size, Keckler demanded we grapple with living in an untidy world that resists the satisfaction of a theatrical narrative.
The Infinite Hotel — a collaboration between Michael Joseph McQuilken, The Few Moments, Firehorse, Amanda Palmer, and Jason Webley — wrestled with a similar messiness, but much less successfully. Confusingly billed as a world premiere despite being substantially similar to a version under a different title that I saw in 2011 (which was subsequently presented, again with world premiere billing, in 2016), the show weaves a complicated net of interconnected stories connected by the rise and fall of Jib Turner, a rocked-out (and subsequently strung-out) songstress unwittingly collaborating with spirits of the comatose and the dead.
The temporal relation of the various characters’ timelines is confoundingly tangled. And elaborate multi-media production gimmicks (including live filming and a chance for some of the audience members to be extras in the crowd scenes) felt like an attempt to compensate for a stale story and a trite message of unity above all else—with not so much as the hint of a thought that divisiveness itself might not be the problem when the division is between, say, literal neo-Nazis and people who think genocide is abhorrent.
It is perhaps this sort of pabulum that Philip Venables had in mind when he snarked against “the tyranny of representational theatre” in his program note to 4.48 Psychosis, an adaptation of Sarah Kane’s suicide note of a final play. The play itself has neither stage directions nor character indications, but Venables’s claim to have found a work “unbound” by representation is, of course, nonsense. The play represents a great many things, and so does the opera: psychotic breaks, depressive nightmares, incompetent doctors, suicidal ideation, and more besides. It’s not naturalistic, but it represents things. Its meaning is clear.
And that meaning is grim. Before the show started, an inane Muzak arrangement of “The Girl from Ipanema” played from a loudspeaker at the top of the stark white set in an endless quiet loop. It was a droll gesture that promised a wryer evening than the leaden 90 minutes that followed. In scene after scene, Venables successfully captured the endless inert grey fog of certain depressive states. But in conveying this bored tedium, he created stretches that were, well, tedious and boring. If you’ve never been suicidally depressed, I suspect these passages might be harrowing; if you have been, they sort of just feel like Sunday afternoon.
I found myself eagerly awaiting the transitions between the scenes, when the orchestra — the impeccable, electrifying Contemporaneous — burst into frenetic life, and Kane’s words came not in distended incantations from the singers on stage, but in furious volleys of scathing wrath from the speaker over their heads. I’m of two minds about Venables’s choice to set the doctor-patient exchanges — some of the most conventional dialogue writing in the show — as a duet for two percussionists, with the words projected on the backdrop and two actors, Gweneth-Ann Rand as the patient and Lucy Schaufer as the doctor, miming the scene. Having every syllable of “I’m tired of life and my mind wants to die” pounded out by a bass drum certainly hammered home the weight of the words. But I go to the theatre to see and connect with people, not metal pipes, and the stretched delivery of these lines sapped many of the longer exchanges of their snarling intensity.
Like a direct rejoinder to Venables’s skepticism towards theatrical representation, there was p r i s m, a phenomenal achievement of operatic art. With a libretto by Roxie Perkins and a score by Ellen Reid, the show is far from naturalistic, using surreal metaphors of color and space to convey the aftershocks of trauma.
A mother, Lumee, and daughter, Bibi, (Rebecca Jo Loeb and Anna Schubert, respectively) are sequestered together in a mirrored room, a sanctuary of yellow against the harsh blue of the world outside. Bibi is afflicted by a mysterious ailment that renders her unable to use her legs. The two perform cryptic ritual movements and recite a rote string of nonsense words, Reid’s score blossoming with bucolic warmth at the promise of safety and the memory of happier days long gone.
But all is not well, even aside from the mystery ailment. Bibi finds herself drawn to the ghostly allure of the blue light that seeps under the door, as Lumee becomes increasingly emotionally abusive towards her daughter. One well-placed “fuck,” and the entire world pulls apart at the seams, with the subsequent acts stripping away the fantastical cover story to reveal a seedy reality long repressed.
The core of the second act is a nauseating rape. It is not depicted as such on stage: Bibi stands, facing the audience, drenched in orange light, surrounded by a dizzying array of disco balls while silent dancers who have been prowling around the set slowly remove their undergarments, facing the back wall. The sung text picks out fragmented details — a gaudy necklace, a missing scrunchie — leaving our imaginations to fill in the rest. In my three years of attending the PROTOTYPE festival, I have seen many sexual assaults depicted on stage; this was far and away the most brutally effective, crashing waves of sound from the orchestra tensing my entire body and leaving me gasping for breath.
Act III felt a hair rushed, the ending ambiguous. Bibi escapes from the toxic rats’ nest of her mother’s apartment, but a young girl striking out alone in the world with no money and nowhere to go is not often a story with a happy ending.
Having attended every festival offering except for the performance of Caroline Shaw’s Partita in Times Square, I want to zoom out and offer some thoughts on the festival as a whole. There’s a longstanding debate in certain circles about whether the music or words are more important in opera. I usually find it a fairly silly debate, since both are necessary for a successful work. But I found myself thinking about the divide between librettists and composers as the week went on. By and large, all of the works in this year’s festival are quite strong, musically. Psychosis and Dreams of the New World had pacing issues, and Pancho Villa’s vocal writing left me cold, but most of the weak points were in the words. In Mila, character development is just missing. Infinite Hotel isn’t clear about which events are happening when. ThisTree holds emotion at an inert remove.
None of this is unique to contemporary opera – libretti from the heyday of the 1800s aren’t exactly famous for their literary quality – but it still feels like a missed opportunity. PROTOTYPE stands out for its commitment to cultivating composers who write dramatically—which is to say composers who treat music as a key component of the unfolding drama, an engine that can drive a story forward on its own. That’s a tall task for a composer to meet, but the PROTOTYPE curators consistently showcase composers who rise to the challenge. Right now, it simply doesn’t feel like librettists are expected to meet the same bar, though some of them certainly do here and there.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Writing a good libretto is hard, but it’s perfectly doable, and it should be something we expect with the same degree of confidence we expect a composer to produce a good score. I look forward to the day that the opera world pays as much attention to the words as the music, when compelling characters and clear narratives — naturalistic or not, linear or not, surreal or not — are the standard, not the exception, when all the parts of this ecstatic, maddening genre are recognized for the critical role they each play in making the whole successful.
I also look forward to the day that PROTOTYPE lives up to the rhetoric of its program book. The exuberant directors’ note proclaims that “PROTOTYPE has never shied away from the issues and subjects of our time.” But vast swaths of the current landscape go unaddressed.
With the exception of an achingly tender ballade of lesbian desire in Psychosis, there’s no queer content in any of these works. All of the characters are cis. There’s no engagement with disability rights, the unfolding ecological crisis, yawning wealth disparities and the deepening exploitation of Capitalism, the international resurgence of the far right, the persecution of religious minorities, or any number of other contemporary issues and subjects—let alone the intersections between them. The Memphis section of Dreams of the New World is a trenchant engagement with the history of antiblackness in the United States. But other gestures at addressing issues of race and immigration, namely Pancho Villa and the casting of Psychosis (which pits one black singer against five white ones), feel tentative, hopelessly muddled, or, in the case of Mila’s casting, questionable at best.
As in previous years, the works that speak most forcefully and authoritatively on contemporary issues are those addressing issues primarily affecting women—usually cis, straight, white women specifically. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that; no one festival can tackle every single issue facing the world, though with a cumulative 47 performances of 12 works across eight days, PROTOTYPE has more room than many.
If the organizers want to highlight stories that speak to the lives and issues of women, that’s certainly their prerogative, and a necessary thing in a culture disproportionately deluged by the stories of men. But if that’s what they’re going to do, they should probably not claim to explore “human interrelatedness in all its forms.” There’s too much missing for that claim to hold water, and advancing it only makes it seem like the festival organizers simply don’t realize how much they’re leaving out.
So that was PROTOTYPE 2019: a heady snapshot of creation in action, of the promise and peril of new works still coming into being… of opera, in the broadest sense of the term.
Brin Solomon writes words and music in several genres and is doing their best to queer all of them. Solomon majored in composition at Yale University before earning their MFA in Musical Theatre Writing at NYU/Tisch. Their full-length musical Window Full of Moths has been hailed for its “extraordinary songs” that “add magic to otherwise ordinary lives”, and their latest one-act, Have You Tried Not Being A Monster, has been described as “agitprop for Julia Serrano.” Their writing has appeared in VAN, New Classic LA, and National Sawdust Log, and they recently won runner-up at the 2018 Rubin Institute for Music Criticism.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
Vivien Schweitzer reviews the opening night National Sawdust's fifth season, a mix of compositions and improvisations honoring Clara Schumann, Meredith Monk, Mary Lou Williams, and other distinguished creators.
https://nationalsawdust.org/thelog/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/women-composers-inset-2.jpg600900Vivien Schweitzerhttps://nationalsawdust.org/thelog/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/national-sawdust-log.pngVivien Schweitzer2019-10-01 00:00:162019-10-01 10:42:44In Review: A Night of Women Composers
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