Reid, Perkins Win Opera Award For Profile In Trauma

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Bibi (Anna Schubert) loses the use of her legs and is tended by her mother (Rebecca Jo Loeb) in the suspenseful ‘p r i s m,’ winner of the Music Critics Association of North America 2019 Award for Best New Opera. (Noah Stern Weber photo)
By Kyle MacMillan

BREAKING NEWS – Composer Ellen Reid’s first opera, a searing work for two singers exploring the traumatic effects of sexual assault, is the recipient of the third annual Award for Best New Opera from the Music Critics Association of North America.

Winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Music, the timely work titled p r i s m draws on the personal experiences of librettist Roxie Perkins and Reid herself.

Despite some previous efforts, Reid, 36, did not complete her first full opera until last year. But her collaboration with Perkins drew immediate praise from critics upon its November premiere at REDCAT in Los Angeles. Mark Swed, writing in the Los Angeles Times, declared: “Reid, in a word, has arrived.”

p r i s m is a gripping, probing work about a fraught mother-daughter relationship and the loss of an artificial, protected realm,” wrote the committee of prominent critics who chose the opera for this latest distinction. “Ellen Reid’s arresting music, broad in its stylistic reach and rich in its solo vocal, choral, and orchestral palette, vividly matches and intensifies the opera’s mysterious, psychologically charged dramatic essence.”

MCANA’s annual award, which spotlights a fully staged opera that premiered in the previous year in either the United States or Canada, is the only such honor in North America and one of the few in the world that recognizes both composer and librettist. Previous awards went to Breaking the Waves (composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek) in 2017 and The Wake World (composer-librettist David Hertzberg) in 2018. The runners-up this year were An American Soldier by composer Huang Ruo and librettist David Henry Hwang and Proving Up by Mazzoli and Vavrek.

The 2019 award committee was co-chaired by Heidi Waleson, opera critic of the Wall Street Journal, and George Loomis, a longtime contributor to the Financial Times and Musical America. Rounding out the group were Arthur Kaptainis, writer for the Montreal Gazette and Ludwig van Toronto; John Rockwell, former critic and arts editor of The New York Times and co-New York correspondent for the British magazine Opera, and Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker.

Composer Ellen Reid utilized extended musical techniques in ‘p r i s m’ to reflect the brutal reality of a traumatized young woman who must decide whether to take her life back. (James Matthew Daniel)

“I’m so thrilled that p r i s m is speaking to people,” Reid said. “We really had no idea how people would respond to it, because it’s so dark. Speaking for myself and everyone on the team who put so much into it, we really believed in the piece, and we are just so thrilled that the reception is positive. It’s really, truly incredible.”

The Tennessee-born Reid has written music for multiple realms. She produced her first feature film score for the 2014 mystery drama The Midnight Swim. In the fall of 2019, she will begin a three-year appointment as creative adviser and composer-in-residence with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Perkins, 28, a writer and director for theater, television, and film, has created works for such presenters as The Tank NYC, Berkeley Repertory School of Theatre, and On the Verge Summer Repertory Theatre.

Librettist Roxie Perkins says the letter spacing and lower case title of ‘p r i s m’ reflects a wish to help the audience to understand they’ll be watching ‘a different way to see the world.’ (Flannery Silva and Jake Eisenmann)

The two were introduced about five years ago by James Darrah, who directed p r i s m. They quickly became friends and began talking about the possibility of collaborating on an opera. “We both came from this mixed-arts background and thought we could be an interesting pair to work together,” Perkins said.

It didn’t take the collaborators long to settle on the subject matter. “We connected on that right away,” Perkins said, explaining that she and Reid were “interested in the way that trauma affects memory, and specifically the way trauma can affect familial relationships after the event and how it affects one’s relationship to one’s own past and one’s own body.” Then, they had to develop an accessible and engaging story, a process that took about two years.

Bibi’s post-traumatic hallucinatory states are mirrored in a shifting color palette. (Weber)

The resulting three-act opera focuses on a traumatized young woman (Bibi) who is confined to her bedroom and, with the help of her guilt-ridden mother (Lumee), tries in some way to come to terms with the horrific violation she has experienced. Perkins, who said she has experienced post-traumatic stress disorder differently than it is typically presented onstage or in films, tried to evoke its “sensory, hallucinatory qualities,” including directions for changing colors that mark shifts in Bibi’s mental state.

Although the two creators chose the word “p r i s m” for the opera’s title, Perkins said, the word never appears in the opera, and it was not meant to be a “call-out to something.” Instead, it suggests a means of perception. “To me,” she said, “the lettering and spacing and lower case were supposed to open up an audience’s mind — that what they are about to watch is a different way to see the world. That they’re going to need to listen for the words, but they are also going to need to listen between the words to see what is actually happening to these two characters.”

The world premiere of ‘p r i s m’ was given at REDCAT in November 2018 by the LA Opera Off Grand. (Larry Ho)

The opera is scored for a 12-voice chorus and a 14-member orchestra with a percussion section that includes a vibraphone, flexatone (a handheld instrument that creates a kind of glissando effect), and SPD-SX Sampling Pad. Each of the three acts has a different musical palette, with vocal lines that “soar lyrically one moment, then go on the attack with combative intensity,” according to a review by Jim Farber for San Francisco Classical Voice. “Act 3 is at the limit of possibility,” Reid said. “You are in a brutal and raw reality where extended techniques reign. Much of the music is written without a staff and is made to sound like noise and rage. Act 3 ends with a heroic and stark call of the chorus as Bibi has to decide whether or not to take her life back.”

“She evokes a world of its own,” Swed wrote of Reid’s score, “through a chamber orchestra of strings, shimmering percussion, harp, piano, flute, bass clarinet, and horn that becomes a maker of wonder, mystery, suspense, fear, and glory. Notes slide into one another as if guided by a secret force. Melodies are endless and inventively transformed, the atmospheric pressure ever changing.”

The Los Angeles Opera premiered the work in November 2018 as part of the company’s “Off Grand” series, and it was seen in New York in January under the auspices of the Prototype Festival presented by Beth Morrison Projects in association with Trinity Church Wall Street. Additional performances are scheduled for September at the Municipal Theatre of São Paulo in Brazil and March 13 and 14, 2020, at the Kennedy Center.

p r i s m is an unusual opera not only because of its gritty, real-life subject matter, but also because its creators are both women, and the libretto is an original story rather than an adaptation of a play or other pre-existing work. Also, with this opera, Reid became the first composer to receive commissions from L.A.’s four major classical music institutions — the Los Angeles Philharmonic, L.A. Master Chorale, and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in addition to LA Opera.

The composer and librettist are already talking about another opera, but for now the attention on p r i s m is keeping them busy. “So, there are not exact plans yet,” Perkins said, “but I would love to work with Roxie soon, and I think we’re just gearing up for what that will be.”

The 2019 Award for Best New Opera will be presented July 26 at the opening reception of the MCANA annual meeting at the Tanglewood Music Festival.

Kyle MacMillan served as the classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music, and Early Music America.