If January is less guaranteed to bring frigid temperatures to New York City than it once was, there’s still one thing the new year reliably heralds: PROTOTYPE, the annual festival of contemporary music-theatrical works presented by Beth Morrison Projects and HERE, now in its eighth year. The festival centers on opera, but its broad purview has included everything from oratorios and dance performances to immersive multimedia rock concerts. In past years, the number of offerings has bordered on the overwhelming; this year, the organizers pared things back—for better and for worse.
One of the genres most noticeably pruned in this year’s lineup was the idiosyncratic autobiographical show. At their best, these shows have been devastatingly personal or exuberantly weird. But too often they’ve strayed into the maudlin or self-indulgent, so it’s not surprising to see them fall from favor. This year, there was only one: Jeremy Schonfeld’s Iron & Coal.
It may have been autobiographical, but it was hardly small. Schonfeld was the frontman for an ensemble comprising Contemporaneous, MasterVoices, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, with Rinde Eckert and Daniel Rowan joining him as soloists. Iron & Coal intersperses spoken narration with rock songs and choral odes (accompanied with projection and animations by S Katy Tucker and Thomas Seltzer) to tell the interwoven stories of Schonfeld’s difficult relationship with his father and his father’s experience of and life after the Shoah.
It doesn’t all come together. Schonfeld’s songs are lively and engaging, but they feel frustratingly generic next to the incisive specificity of the narrated portions of his father’s life, and the fragments, in turn, have too many songs between them to come together into a cohesive narrative. (The device of having Rowan play Schonfeld’s father at a young age and Eckert play the father in old age also becomes confusing as the songs pile up and the two sometimes sing at the same time.) To put it bluntly, it’s also hard to invest emotionally in an A plot about a standard-issue dysfunctional family, when the B plot is the systematic murder of six million people. The stakes are just too disparate.
While not a solo vehicle, the other show furthest removed from operatic stereotypes was Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro. A dance-theatre piece conceived and choreographed by Gregory Maqoma, with text by Zakes Mda (drawing inspiration from his novels Cion and Ways of Dying), the show features a troupe of virtuosic dancers (led by Otto Andile Nhlapo) performing a series of visceral scenes overflowing with the violence of colonization to live music from an Isicathamiya vocal quartet.
While the prevailing mood was somber, there were moments of ecstasy and even humor, as when the lead dancer had to be shooed offstage by the singers despite his persistent attempts to keep dancing after the end of one of the numbers. The connection to Boléro was made clear in the opening gesture: A long, mournful wail pealed out from the darkness, and then Ravel’s insistent rhythm began, gradually forcing the shapeless expression of human loss to conform to the contours of an artful melody, the ache concealed beneath a stylized surface but always writhing to break free.
The segmented, episodic structure of Cion is similar to that of Magdalene, which features 13 poems by Marie Howe with music by fourteen composers, all women. Magdalene was presented in HERE’s main space, which is notorious for being inconveniently dotted with immovable scene-breaking columns that support the rest of the building. Hana Kim’s set found such an effective workaround for these that I thought at first they had been removed. Other visual details were less convincing, but the pool of water at the foot of stage was used to spectacular effect, both as an arena for the actors to dance in and as a surface for dazzling projections and reflections of light. (Lighting design was by Christopher Kuhl.)
Howe’s poems are full of frank imagery; one, “Their Bodies,” set fluidly by Tanner Porter, describes the penises of the narrator’s numerous lovers. But their evocative narratives are also diffuse, to the point that it’s not always clear whether Danielle Birrittella (the lone singer in the piece, a ferocious performer who created the work in conjunction with Zoe Aja Moore) and Ariana Daub (who dances in counterpart to Birrittella, often in the nude) are embodying the same character(s) from scene to scene. Having each scene be written by a different composer doesn’t help, though there are fewer noticeable discontinuities than you might expect.
Given this episodic structure, I can’t help but wish the creators had chosen to end with a different poem. In “Magdalene Afterwards,” set by Emma O’Halloran, the singer proclaims herself to be a kind of universal woman:
I’m bored at the business meeting… I’m walking the goats… I’m cooking rice and beans Cooking dal Cooking lamb Reheating pizza…
This is a disastrous misstep. There is a long and violent history of white women making themselves the metric by which womanhood is measured, while those whose experiences do not resonate with those of white women — specifics of employment or cuisine aside — are treated by those in power as less than fully women, less than fully human. Despite the numerous composers of color involved in this project, having Birrittella sing this poem re-enforces and perpetuates that history, and ends the work with an extraordinarily flimsy politics of similarity, one that has no room to imagine that some women may themselves be in positions of structural power over other women. (There is no consideration, for example, that the woman in the business meeting may be making bombs to drop on the woman herding goats.) People are too varied for a politics of similarity to ever succeed; we need a politics of solidarity instead.
Ricky Ian Gordon’s Ellen West also set primarily pre-existing text, the poem of the same name by Frank Bidart. (Bidart also supplied a prologue and epilogue, parts of which were pre-existing and parts of which were written specifically for the opera.) The festival program bills Ellen West as an “operatic poem,” and that’s essentially what it is: a sinuous thread of text so emotionally charged that it curls off the page into bodies and sets, lights and sound. Based on the real-life case of an anorexic Jewish woman in the early 1900s, the show unfolds with grim determination. Josh Epstein’s lurid lighting design does much to keep one’s attention engaged as the work unfolds—the declamatory nature of Bidart’s poem is ill-suited to large-scale dramatic tension, and while the sense of grief that permeates Gordon’s score is palpable, it grows monotonous well before West’s inevitable death at the end.
Death and poetry were also running themes in Blood Moon, with music by Garrett Fisher and libretto by Ellen McLaughlin. Forty years before the action of the show, a Man (velvety bass Wei Wu) brought his aging Aunt (commanding mezzo Nina Yoshida Nelsen) to a mountain top and left her to die there under the full Moon (bewitching countertenor Ju-eh/Juecheng Chen), so that she wouldn’t inconvenience him as he pursued his career. Now that he’s the same age as she was then, he’s come back under another full Moon to seek forgiveness. (The setting is generically East Asian, if not specifically Japanese. A note from festival dramaturg Peter McCabe reassures audience members that the piece draws inspiration “from several global artistic traditions.” I suspect some will find this note more convincing than others; mostly it just made me wonder what curatorial changes would need to be made to the festival to render such apologia unnecessary.)
What follows is a memory piece with only a little room for the aunt to be angry at her murderer, and a libretto that hovered awkwardly between the specificity of drama and the abstraction of ritual. (The interjections from the Moon were particularly stilted.) The presence of Takemi Kitamura as a puppeteer and dancer doubling the Aunt only muddied the action. The Man sometimes addressed his Aunt when singing to her, sometimes the puppet, and sometimes the space between them; both Nelsen and Kitamura were emoting powerfully during the Aunt’s arias, making it unclear where to look.
By far the most traditionally operatic offering of the festival was Rev. 23, a post-apocalyptic (in the Christian sense) comedy of sorts with music by Julian Wachner and a libretto by Cerise Lim Jacobs. After the second coming of Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, Lucifer (Alexander Birch Elliott), Hades (Kyle van Schoonhoven, the butt of some truly regrettable fatphobic attempts at jokes), and the Furies (Anna Schubert, Naomi Louisa O’Connell, and Melanie Long—all dressed in slutty goth clothes and torn stockings, in a lazy, misogynistic equation of women’s sexual liberation with moral degeneracy) team up with Persephone (Colleen Daly) and Sun Tzu (Paul An) to corrupt Paradise and restore things to how they were before Armageddon.
They do this by giving Adam (Brian Giebler — a fine singer, though why anyone would cast a white person to play the primordial human is beyond me) and Eve (the mellifluous Sophia Byrd) art from before Judgement Day, so that the two first humans, who have reverted to their prelapsarian state, will remember yearning, heartache, and melancholy, realize negative emotions such as those are necessary for the full human experience, and break out of Eden all over again. (Fastidious countertenor Michael Maniaci rounds out the cast of principles as Michael the Archangel.)
These are clearly the building blocks for a wicked farce, and much of the writing is quite strong. Jacobs’s libretto is witty and brisk, and Wachner’s score moves fluidly between styles, catching the shifting psychological moods and throwing out cheeky references to the Western canon. (That said, he does occasionally fall prey to the pernicious operatic tendency to repeat lines in ways that don’t make dramatic sense, and there were several moments where you could see the performers scrambling to fill the time between when their character first heard a line and when the score finally gave them the chance to respond to it.) Adam Rigg’s sets were a riot of color, and – slut-shaming Furies aside – Molly Irelan’s costumes were a great deal of fun.
Unfortunately, the work is a philosophical train wreck on every level. The show seems to side with the forces of Hell, asserting that perpetual bliss will necessarily grow stale, that humans need sorrow for a satisfying (after)life. Maybe so, but there’s a difference between the melancholy heartache of loving someone who will never love you back and the “twisted stomachs and torn limbs” of children that Sun Tzu eagerly dreams of. Surely the L-RD G-d, Creator of Heaven and Earth and Fashioner of All Things Visible and Invisible, could arrange the necessary bouts of melancholy as needed for the resurrected souls in the New Jerusalem without dragging humanity back into a world stricken with rape, slavery, and genocide? (Then again, I’m used to thinking about the World to Come from a Jewish perspective; maybe this kind of Divine incompetence is a Christian thing.)
That mention of rape isn’t hypothetical. In this version of the Hades/Persephone myth, Hades has canonically raped Persephone six months a year every year for millennia. Disturbingly, Wachner sets their first duet — in which Persephone sings of lying next to Hades, “My body tense and hard/My heart seething, surging with hate” — to a lush, tender accompaniment, an uncomplicated love song. Lucifer gets Hades on board with his latest scheme by promising he’ll get Persephone back, and the Furies egg him on. (Persephone’s motivation is unclear throughout. Abused women certainly do sometimes go back to their abusers, a difficult story that this opera does not seem interested in telling; Persephone vacillates at random between wanting the fresh joy of bringing spring to a winter-stricken earth again and simply wanting to make people suffer.)
It’s hard to root for this team.
If I’m misreading the show and we’re meant to side with the art-hating, authoritarian forces of Heaven over the sexual assault–happy forces of Hell, we’re faced with the obscene proposition that the achingly tender poems of Jewish feminist poet Marge Piercy, say, corrupt the human soul just as much as Mein Kampf—the libretto is clear that all literature, including Supreme Court decisions, serves Infernal purposes equally well, and explicitly mentions Hitler’s screed as one Lucifer plans to distribute. In this reading, the soundscape where Adam and Eve are lured away from Eden – already questionable in its exclusive use of Western art, because apparently no other cultures have produced music about people feeling sad? – would take on even more troubling undertones, since the bulk of the sound samples used come from genres that originated in Black U.S. culture.
Either way, the prissy, ineffectual Michael was a crude stereotype of emasculated homosexuality that could have come directly from Rush Limbaugh’s overheated imagination. James Darrah’s direction featured the worst clichés of opera, repeatedly having characters fail to see or hear things happening feet away from them in broad daylight as an inexplicable contrivance to keep the plot on track. If the forces of Hell showed up with this opera to lure me away from Paradise, I wouldn’t budge an inch.
For all their problems, Rev. 23 and Blood Moon had the clearest overall dramatic structures of this year’s offerings, and it doesn’t feel like coincidence that they were the only operas in the lineup with original libretti written specifically for the project at hand, instead of being pieced together from pre-existing text. PROTOTYPE makes a big show of emphasizing the theatrical aspect of what they do – their tagline is OPERA | THEATRE | NOW – but they seem to be leaning away from developing the next generation of libretto writers. The message from the festival directors at the start of every program explains that festival curation “begins with the compositional voice.” What comes next is not a search for a wordsmithing voice to match, but a description of the “works created by American composers” that they’re looking for, as well as “musical experiences” from international voices. Tellingly, the festival overview describes Rev. 23 as “Julian Wachner’s” opera, with Jacobs relegated to a secondary mention in a subsequent sentence. (The Dramatists Guild would like a word.)
This is dispiriting. Quality opera depends on good music, yes, but it depends on more than that. It depends on good characters, good words—on a good libretto. Opera is a collaborative form; you won’t get strong results by letting one of its creative foundations languish. If opera is to be a viable form in the 21st century, we must develop wordsmiths who know how to shape text to its unique demands. Previous iterations of the PROTOTYPE festival have been better about developing a new generation of librettist talent; let us hope that this year is an aberration, and not a sign of things to come.
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.
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