Sexual Assault, Refracted Through An Operatic Prism

A surreal scene from Act II of Ellen Reid’s p r i s m, given its world premiere by LA Opera Off-Grand. (All opera photos: Larry Ho)
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES – We see it again and again in our concert life – operas and concert music written years, decades, or even centuries ago that uncannily anticipate issues and events in our current turbulent times. So it was with p r i s m, a new opera by composer Ellen Reid and librettist Roxie Perkins.

They started working on it five years ago, not suspecting that four years later, the #MeToo movement would suddenly spring up. Then, as they were putting the finishing touches on the piece for the world premiere at REDCAT (Nov. 29), the Brett Kavanaugh hearings happened, brought to a head by dramatic testimony from sexual assault survivor Christine Blasey Ford. So p r i s m became an amplification of the headlines as opposed to a prophesy – and as a result, LA Opera Off-Grand, in league with the ever-enterprising Beth Morrison Projects, didn’t have to push hard in order to get our attention.

Bibi (Anna Schubert) in agony in her claustrophobic bedroom.

Funny thing is, from just reading Perkins’ brief synopsis in the program leaflet, you would have little idea of what to expect from this sometimes baffling, roughly 72-minute (plus intermission), three-act opera. Bibi (soprano Anna Schubert), a young woman who lives with her over-protective mother Lumee (mezzo-soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb), is depicted in the program note as being afflicted with a “mysterious illness,” unable to walk. But we all knew her “illness” is PTSD from a sexual assault, which was made clear from the beginning by a scene that may be either a flashback or a real-time hallucination.

Director James Darrah placed Act I – described as “Sanctuary as it should be” – inside a white, cozy, old-fashioned bedroom encased in a transparent cube. Bibi is kept there under the tight control of her mom, frequently experiencing the trauma churning within her in a sequence of mad scenes. The 14-member chamber orchestra led by Julian Wachner and a chorus were hidden behind a heavy back curtain.

Lumee (Rebecca Jo Loeb) peers out through the transparent cube.

As intermission neared an end, the usual hubbub in the lobby was interrupted by the sight of a troubled Bibi being carried around by four mute dancers who then slowly transported her back into the theater (located in the basement of Disney Hall). That kicked off Act II (“Sanctuary as it was”), which looked like it was taking place inside a surreal disco, with 23 mirror balls dangling almost to the floor. This apparently represented the outside world from which Bibi was shielded; perhaps it was her glamorous former life before the assault.

The dancers, who by now were stripped down to their G-strings, eventually left Bibi alone on the floor after conducting a ritual of sorts. Then, with Act III (“Sanctuary as it is”), the cube returned, the bedroom now a dreary shambles. Bibi is urged by unseen choral voices to run, the music gets increasingly violent, and she finally makes the move out of her cloistered room to face the real world.

A troubled Bibi on the dance floor in Act II.

Throughout all of this, I couldn’t help but recall the late Don Hewitt’s wise and savvy directive to his writers and correspondents on TV’s long-running 60 Minutes program – “Tell me a story.” I didn’t get any sense of that from this libretto, which was often an incoherent hash of isolated words that didn’t coalesce into anything. Perkins didn’t offer any help in the post-performance panel talk either, her most frequent answer to questions being “Yes and no.”

Darrah, who frequently works with Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco to inject visual interpretations and effects into concert pieces, called upon lighting designer Pablo Santiago-Brandwein to create garish, spectacular or moody effects. The team of writhing, mute dancers may become a Darrah trademark; his 2017 Das Klagende Lied in San Francisco had a similar quartet. Yet, as in some of his past productions, his ideas really didn’t clarify much in the plot. Tell me a story.

Ellen Reid demonstrates a fluency in several idioms in `p r i s m.’ (James Matthew Daniel)

Nevertheless, a viewer could get a sense of the agony, disruption of normal life, and sickening feeling that a sexual assault survivor experiences – and that’s where Reid saved the day. At 35, she has become an extraordinarily resourceful composer, pulling influences from everywhere. In the panel discussion, she claimed that p r i s m is actually three operas in one, with a “French” first act, an “American” second act and a “German” third act – and to some extent, that trichotomy was borne out in what we heard.

In Act I, Reid’s score graphically and precisely tracked the emotions of her two characters, with gorgeous neo-Romantic tapestries full of harp, flute, and glistening percussion giving way to the mind-warping sounds of a flexitone and sliding hallucinatory voices. In Act II, all amplified hell broke loose from the orchestra, which was now completely visible and augmented by a rock `n’ roll rhythm section that suddenly dominated the landscape while the lines entrusted to Lumee became quite lyrical. By the time Act III rolled around, the music was reduced to scatterings of aleatoric col legno (the bouncing of the wooden part of the bow on the strings) effects and taps on a cymbal – avant-garde all the way.

Throughout the piece, Reid’s music generated tremendous tension wherever needed, inspiring Anna Schubert to respond with a passionate performance in the role of Bibi. And REDCAT’s sound system operated at a clear, focused, realistic, not-too-loud level.

This opera represented the culmination of a remarkably fruitful year for Reid, who landed premieres with all four major Los Angeles musical ensembles – Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Los Angeles Master Chorale, and now LA Opera – in 2018. p r i s m ran on consecutive days through Dec. 2, after which it heads for the PROTOTYPE Festival In New York City Jan. 6-12, 2019.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.

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