Social Justice And Virus Drive Innovative Opera At Prototype Festival

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An image from ‘Modulation,’ the centerpiece of the Prototype Festival. It’s a collection of mini-operas by 13 composers designed for the internet that viewers are able to navigate on their own. (Photo: Prototype Festival)

NEW YORK – In Times3, a surreal collage of voices intones, “You’re all by yourself. It’s quiet. What is this place?” The question posed in the work, a hypnotic sonic experience created for the 2021 Prototype Festival, refers to the hilly island of Mannahatta centuries ago, but it certainly seemed relevant in Times Square on a frigid day in January as I listened to the piece on my headphones. Sitting in one of the empty pedestrian plazas, I was alone except for two apparently homeless people, a man in a Disney costume, and a few employees of the Big Bus tourist company, who wandered about forlorn in a futile search for customers.

‘Times3 (Times X Times X Times)’: Hypnotic sonic experience.

Times3 (Times X Times X Times) was created by the theater artist Geoff Sobelle and the composer-vocalist Pamela Z for Prototype’s re-imagined annual festival. Prototype has been at the vanguard of redefining opera since its founding in 2013 by Beth Morrison Projects, offering cutting-edge contemporary opera-theater and music-theater works. This year, the organizers decided to create a new season responsive to the pandemic and social justice movements. The unamplified operatic voice has never been a driving factor for Prototype, unlike for traditional opera companies, so the company is better equipped than most for the Zoom era. Its lineup this year included imaginative works created specifically for digital consumption, along with live performances filmed pre-pandemic.

Times3 (available for download until Feb. 28) layers fragments of interviews with historians about the area and was designed with the armchair traveler-listener in mind. The piece’s haunting electronic sounds, vocals, and snippets of text reference iconic images and sounds of Times Square, such as the three-note subway motif and Broadway’s ubiquitous ticket touts. The suffering of the Lenape, the indigenous people of Mannahatta displaced by the building of the city, is also an important theme in the piece.

The work instructs its listeners, wherever they may be, to pay careful attention to their sonic surroundings. For me, in a mostly shuttered Times Square, pigeons outnumbered people, and there was much less traffic than normal. But I was alert to the sounds that still permeated the eerily empty space: an occasional car honk, sirens, and construction noise that seemed to optimistically herald a post-pandemic rebirth. Early in the piece, when an insistent percussion underlines a voice saying “tick, tick, tick,” hammers from a nearby building site created a sort of counterpoint.

Modulation, the centerpiece of the festival (also available for viewing until Feb 28), is a collection of inventive digital mini-operas by 13 composers, each approximately five minutes long. Instead of peering at singers via their device, the viewer enjoys a wide-ranging collection of beautifully filmed and illustrated pieces designed for the internet.

The audio and visual journey begins at a screen called the Clearing, a sort of virtual concert hall lobby that enables guests to navigate their own path via categories titled Fear, Identity, and Isolation. Also prominent is a theme of breath, with references to George Floyd’s desperate plea “I can’t breathe,” the asphyxiation of Covid patients, lung problems caused by environmental disaster, and the dangers of singing during the pandemic.

Clicking on Isolation leads to cave-like dwellings whose five doors open to an array of sound worlds. In Bora Yoon’s moving Gaia’s Lament (inspired by Dido’s Lament), female vocals soar over shamanic drumming, clips of “I can’t breathe” chants from BLM protests, the sound of a child coughing, and the urgent voice of Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg. Daniel Bernard Roumain’s I Have Nothing to Do Except Love is a powerful tribute to his mother’s experience with dementia. A woman (Minna Choi) sings and dances in the street, embodying freedom and movement during isolation.

In ‘I Have Nothing to Do Except Love’ by Daniel Bernard Roumain, a woman sings and dances in the street. (Sam Woolf)

Sahba Aminikia’s haunting Ayene (which means “mirror” in Persian) is a collaboration between musicians in the U.S. and Iran, where women are banned from singing in public or on recordings. Raven Chacon’s moving La Indita Cautiva features a soundtrack of traditional songs known as Inditas, which narrate the grief and strength of indigenous people, accompanied by filmed images such as a barefoot girl on a horse. In Jimmy Lopez’s Where Once We Sang, masked people wait in line while a soprano declares, “Where once we sang, we will sing again.”

Yvette Janine Jackson’s Fear Is Their Alibi explores the pervasive racism of American society, while Juhi Bansal’s Waves of Change was inspired by the Bangladesh Girls Surf Club, which encourages girls to escape a life of child labor and teen marriage. The entryway to the Fear section evokes a bombed-out basement littered with rocks and accompanied by a soundtrack of anxious gasps, mutters, and groans. In Molly Joyce’s Out of a Thought, earthy female voices pulse over a claustrophobic drone as images of an empty attic flicker with nightmarish intensity.

My favorite of Modulation’s short works was Paul Pinto’s brilliantly illustrated Whiteness: Blanc. It explores an issue familiar to many Americans of color with a non-Anglo name, who often experience conversations such as: “Where are you from?” “Ummm, Queens.” “No, where are you really from?” At one point, images of Pinto’s disembodied head create a chorus of identical, dancing faces.

A chorus of disembodied heads in Paul Pinto’s ‘Whitness: Blanc.’ (Kameron Neal/Jon Burkland for Zanni Productions)

“Are you Turkish? Are you German?” asks a character in The Murder of Halit Yozgat, another Prototype offering that explores issues of identity. The world premiere of the opera, inspired by the 2006 assassination of a 21-year-old man in his Turkish immigrant parents’ internet café in Germany, had to be canceled. So Ben Frost, the composer and director, filmed rehearsals and released a film instead. The apocalyptic score, a blend of acoustic instruments, electronics, and heavy metal propelled by frantic drumbeats, includes footage of empty theaters and socially distanced musicians in rehearsal. “This is Germany. Cold land” is a recurrent motif in the libretto. The claustrophobic music is unyielding until the final scene and aptly illustrates danger, but I found the music so relentless that I admittedly hit “pause” a few times – a hazard of Zoom performances.

‘Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists’ explores sleep and dreams alongside lepidoptery, the study of butterflies and moths.

Composer Valgeir Sigurosson’s fantastical Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, inspired by the award-winning book of the same name by poet angela rawlings, received its premiere in 2014 at the Reykjavik Arts Festival. “Welcome to the center for sleep and dream studies,” sings a scientist in this surreal and engrossing work, which explores these nocturnal themes alongside lepidoptery, the study of butterflies and moths. Sigurosson’s eclectic score meshes lyrical, dreamy interludes with music of nightmarish intensity, accompanied by visuals ranging from eerie (a man in bed with a disembodied hand touching him) to claustrophobic (a flashing screen).

From ‘The Planet – A Lament.’ (Gregory Lorenzutti)

I loved Garin Nugroho’s harmonically rich, poignant song cycle The Planet – A Lament, inspired by Melanesian lament traditions. The work, which received its premiere at the Asia TOPA festival in January 2020, features a female soloist, the Mazmur Chorale (from Kupang, Indonesia), and Papuan dancers who portray a community struggling after a tsunami. The costumes, dancing, and a backdrop of video footage of environmental disasters are visually stunning, every detail sharp for home-bound viewers.

“There is always a resurrection of humanity and nature,” sings the choir. Despite the tragic undertones, the work is an optimistic one: The program notes describe it as “an act of catharsis that mourns a world lost, while offering hope for another that may yet be nurtured in its wake.” When this performance was filmed in early 2020, the production team could probably not have imagined the implications of that statement for listeners only one year later. Even the sound of the applause at curtain call seems to signal a rebirth for hopeful listeners anxious to emerge from the pandemic’s long, dark months of seclusion.