In ‘The Echo Drift,’ Singer And Moth Step Out Of Time

Blythe Gaissert, as convicted murderer Walker Loat, experiences an ‘Echo Drift’ at the Prototype Festival.
(Photos by Maria Baranova)
By Leslie Kandell

NEW YORK — Celebrating the present-cum-future of experimental opera and music-theater, New York’s annual Prototype Festival reminds concertgoers that this city extrudes music from everywhere. The Echo Drift, Mikael Karlsson’s high-tech one-woman opera, is in its premiere run through Jan. 20 at Baruch Performing Arts Center in the Flatiron district. Mixing references to Barber (Knoxville), Poulenc (La voix humaine), and Kafka (anything) it is, well, a nice try – which is key to the Prototype Festival mission.

Walker Loat (Blythe Gaissert) consults her time device.

Prototype produces opera using all available media. Developed in Sweden by Karlsson with librettist Kathryn Walat and “environment designer” Elle Kunnos de Voss, The Echo Drift was commissioned and produced by Beth Morrison Projects, HERE, and American Opera Projects. It was workshopped in 2014 at the Swedish Embassy in Washington, D.C.

The set is a harshly lit black box prison cell, revolved by hand, within the black box theater. Convicted murderer Walker Loat (mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert) is in solitary confinement. There is no explanation why. White line animations suggest movement through endless empty corridors, probably cell blocks. In this black and white world (Simon Harding’s projections), with actors in gray (Andrea Mincic’s design), the effect is disorienting, as solitary confinement would be.

The narrative shifts away from reality, and Walker is offered an imaginary way out of her apparently dismal fate as she creates a device to help her keep track of time. Finding a cocoon in her unpleasant soup, she hangs it on the wall, and it morphs into a white moth. The role of The Moth is spoken by the riveting John Kelly, who is first seen sitting among the musicians, before standing to walk to the cell. Kelly dives into weird parts the way movie actress Frances McDormand does, earning all the awards he has received for decades, from Obie to Eichelberger.

The Moth’s voice is Kelly’s, but its visual appearance is a vigorously fluttering shape on the cell wall. The Moth talks with Walker, eventually offering her an imaginary kind of freedom. Being allowed to step out of time, she would have a chance for a do-over. “Let’s see what you’re made of,” The Moth dares her.

Kelly has a cameo later, as the governor who hasn’t answered Walker’s letters. He also pushes and rotates the cell, which is the inner shape of the theater – the outer shape where the audience is.

The International Contemporary Ensemble, left, and Blythe Gaissert.

Karlsson’s compositions – this one solid, rhythmic, cast in easy modern tonality – have been heard around the city, mainly with dance troupes. The capable instrumentalists at stage right (clarinets, bassoons, saxophones, cello, harp, and piano) were members of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), intelligently conducted by Nicholas DeMaison. The music rumbled ominously, buzzed loudly, and tinkled like a flitting moth.

But until the end, it’s not made clear who Walker’s victim was. In fact, so much is unclear that one baffled critic observed it was a wonderful work to approach without “pre-notions.” It’s wonderful only if you want to buttonhole everyone who looks knowledgeable and attempt to learn what Walker was doing at the docks with a knife, or why she shot the governor, or what “Echo Drift” means — and hope for replies.

Titles, or a printed libretto, would transform this piece. Gaissert’s range is strong and well balanced, her English articulation good, the orchestration sensitive to the vocal line. Both characters were nicely miked. Kelly was perfectly clear because he was speaking. But titles are needed for singing, no matter what language, or how much a coach believes in a singer.

A scene from time-fluttering ‘Echo Drift’ at the Prototype Festival.

Director Mallory Catlett, veteran of productions for Beth Morrison, HERE, and BAM’s Next Wave Festival, has to sort it out. Titles are a tricky problem, but it’s hers. (She could have it tougher: At one Prototype event, a singer on ice skates, with a back-up combo and roses, offered a mashup of Bizet and Stevie Wonder in the middle of Bryant Park ice rink during a public skate.)

It turns out, from information gathered later, that Echo Drift is a “place outside of time and space where Walker is taken by The Moth and given the opportunity to relive the event that got her imprisoned….” It would help if that were brought out in this opera’s future incarnation.

Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, Musical America, Musical America Directory, and The Daily Gazette.