NEW YORK — Opera has everything to lose if it ossifies, and much to gain if it programs a little bit more like Prototype.
What’s that, you might ask? The January festival of new opera and music theater sprawls across small venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn. A co-production of Beth Morrison Projects and HERE, Prototype isn’t usually the place to go for a relaxing evening out. And that sense of adventure and experimentation is the point.
This year, both headlining operas confronted women’s mental trauma, unflinching. Audiences were asked to sit with truth through pain. The issues at the heart of composer Ellen Reid and librettist Roxie Perkins’s “prism” (sexual violence and PTSD), and Philip Venables’s “4.48 Psychosis,” (depression) uncannily reflected the past year’s events. 2018 saw countless survivors of sexual violence bringing their stories to light in public. It also saw the suicides of prolific artists Avicii, Kate Spade, and Anthony Bourdain, and in their wake, discussion around mental health amplified. The myth of the melancholy genius still remains, but it is slowly dissolving.
Any vestiges of that myth could have been sandblasted away by “4.48 Psychosis,” based on firebrand English playwright Sarah Kane’s final work. The harrowing play was first staged in 2000, the year after she committed suicide following a years-long battle with depression. On the page, it reads more like a poem, without setting, characters, or stage directions. It does not feel two decades old. Some parts feel as if they could have been tweeted yesterday. The same platitudes told to Kane — “It’s all right, you will get better” — are the same words people with depression hear now.
With the wondrous English soprano Gweneth-Ann Rand as central figure, a crack ensemble of six identically attired female singers chanted and keened with impunity. Irritating Muzak oozed from a white speaker. Even a heaping spoonful of camp — an obvious “Psycho” reference and interjections by a twinkly synthesized organ — only brought a wink of light to the hungry abyss. The score does not specify race, but Rand, the ensemble’s sole black singer, was restrained, manhandled, and in one tableau, held down and choked — adding another layer of horrifying subtext for the New York audience.
A few small trims were made to the play, but it could have used a few more. At a certain point, I became numb to the unrelenting horror. However, it never felt gratuitous or voyeuristic. Opera loves to make its women suffer beautifully for the sake of drama, but here was ugly, messy suffering with no rhyme or reason, the stuff at the nucleus of trauma.
In past years, Prototype has given audiences an early look at younger female composers’ works that later ascended to greater prominence. The 2016 festival, for example, saw the world premiere of Du Yun’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Angel’s Bone,” and 2017 held the New York premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s “Breaking the Waves,” which garnered massive critical acclaim and made the shortlist for the Best World Premiere Prize at the International Opera Awards.
Ellen Reid’s “prism,” presented here after a run in Los Angeles, seems poised to be next in line. As a new full-length opera with a completely original story, “prism” is a rarity, and its story and score intertwine to create a dark fairy tale of survival, abandonment, blame, and agency. When we meet our heroines, mother and daughter Lumee and Bibi (challenging roles perfectly carried off by Rebecca Jo Loeb and Anna Schubert), they appear inside a glass box in an immaculate white bedroom adorned with feminine trappings: an ornate headboard, pink flowers, flowing sheer nightgowns. Bibi is sick and cannot walk, and Lumee frets that her “bones will erode to pure dust.” Clues materialized as to the root of her affliction: a sinister blue light seeping under the door, the medicine Lumee forced on Bibi, a seemingly nonsensical string of words the two recited like a spell.
Mirroring the fanciful games Lumee and Bibi played together, the first act’s sound landscape was iridescent and pillowy. The helpless Bibi suffered beautifully in that idealized world, making for acute whiplash when after intermission, the scene changed to a neon-colored discotheque, the incantation decoded, and what happened to Bibi was revealed. Lumee, an aging party girl, sneaked the underage Bibi into a club and left her alone, where she was sexually assaulted. Visually, the scene was not explicit, but in all else, it was vivid: gashes of noise in the score and sharp shards of detail in the libretto, such as the chain Bibi’s assailant wore and her lost scrunchie. The exit from the opera’s complex psychological labyrinth seemed too quick and tidy, but it ended as such stories should. Power was restored to the survivor, Bibi, and compassion extended for Lumee’s misguided, smothering love.
From opera’s inception, it has been flooded with adaptations of myths, plays, books, and more recently, films. Operas based on new stories are risky, but commonplace at Prototype. In this case, the risk paid off.
In opera and beyond, the festival’s open-minded sensibility is part of the thrill of attendance. An evening of “smoky pop songs, propulsive invocations, and leaps into the operatic realm” in a subterranean cabaret? Sure, why not? This was “Train With No Midnight,” the brainchild of singer and writer Joseph Keckler, who appeared on the floor-level stage looking like a baby cherub grown up and gone Goth. Accompanied by three musicians, Keckler poured his silky baritone voice into acidly witty original songs about such things as nauseating pet names and spending New Year’s Eve on an Amtrak train. With songs in languages including German, Italian, and French, he served opera/pop fusion that doesn’t taste like Velveeta.
A bilingual “multi-media theatrical concert” by a team of American and Mexican collaborators about the life of Pancho Villa? Sure, why not? There were, it turned out, many reasons why not. “Pancho Villa From a Safe Distance” tried to be many things at once (song cycle? documentary? rock opera? hagiography?) and didn’t succeed in any of them, leaving listeners who knew little about Pancho Villa with scant new information but maybe a case of seasickness from the wobbly camerawork on the big screen behind the musicians.
For that matter, how about a free outdoor performance of Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer-winning “Partita for 8 Voices” in the middle of Times Square at rush hour? Vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth has by now performed the piece so many times that the singers can mostly pull it off with their backs to one another. It wasn’t as clean as a performance in a more formal venue, but that wasn’t the point. Against the ensemble’s angelic whoops and tight harmonies, the sounds of the city rubbed up: bike bells, sirens, touts striding through promoting comedy clubs. The audience swelled as passersby and tourists joined in. They could tell something special was happening.
New York, various locations, through Jan. 13. www.prototypefestival.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.