Prototype Fest Revives Bold Pre-Covid Spirit In Cluster Of New Operas

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Nathan Gunn in Du Yun and Michael Joseph McQuilken’s ‘In Our Daughter’s Eyes’ at the Prototype Festival. (Photos by Maria Baranova)

NEW YORK — Since 2013, the Prototype Festival “Opera|Theater|Now” has provided an antidote to the post holiday doldrums in New York City. The brainchild of impresario Beth Morrison and Kristin Marting, director of the downtown theater/arts center HERE, this two-week downtown festival has launched an impressive list of convention-defying new works. After two seasons hamstrung by the global pandemic, the festival returned for a triumphant 10th-anniversary season of mostly live performances.

Over the last decade, the festival has launched and nurtured a number of artists and works that have gone on to wider fame. David T. Little’s Soldier Songs, produced in 2013, has since been mounted by opera companies throughout the U.S. Ellen Reid and Roxie Perkinsp r i s m began life as a co-commission with LA Opera and earned both the 2018 Pulitzer Prize and the Music Critics Association of North America’s Award for Best New Opera. The festival has also introduced American audiences to imported works like 4.48 Psychosis and The Murder of Halit Yozgat.

The pandemic naturally interrupted the festival’s momentum, reducing 2021’s offerings to three on-demand digital programs and an outdoor soundwalk installation in Times Square, also available online for an extra year. A resurgence of the virus required last-minute cancellation of the 2022 festival altogether, though several of the productions were rescheduled for later in the year.

In ‘In Our Daughter’s Eyes,’ Nathan Gunn plays an expectant father who has kept a diary to deal with his fears, inner demons, and unexpected crises.

In 2023, Prototype returned in full force with 28 performances plus a last-minute extension of one opera, five staged productions, one digital work available to stream on demand, and a participatory “All Sing” held outdoors in Times Square.

This year’s festival opened Jan. 5 with the East Coast premiere (after its LA Opera premiere last April) of In Our Daughter’s Eyes, a monodrama about a man preparing for the birth of his first child. With music by Du Yun (whose previous Prototype show, Angel’s Bone, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017), a libretto by Michael Joseph McQuilken, and a creative assist from baritone Nathan Gunn, the work’s 75-minutes traced the interior monologue of an expectant father as he kept a diary to deal with his fears, inner demons, and unexpected crises. Du Yun was the only creator whose own life was explicitly referenced, but a viewer might easily infer that McQuilken and Gunn, both fathers themselves, had incorporated elements of their own life experiences.

The unit set was a woodworking shop in which the unnamed man built a crib, sorted old toys, wrote in his journal, and physically reenacted memories and fears. Director McQuilken used both live action and video to evoke memories, dreams, and states of mind beyond the set. The demands on Gunn’s vocal skills were minimal, but his performance was a tour de force, utilizing his athletic as well as singing and acting skills as he conveyed the naked emotions of a man confronting intense hopes and terrors. I found this the most profoundly realized and polished of the three works I experienced.

‘Mary Motorhead,’ part of a double bill by Emma O’Halloran and Mark O’Halloran, featured mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O’Connell as a woman serving an 18-year prison term for murdering her husband.

My second show was the world premiere of a double bill by Emma O’Halloran (music) and Mark O’Halloran (librettos), Trade and Mary Motorhead, two one-acts set in working-class Ireland. Mary Motorhead featured the charismatic mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O’Connell as a woman serving an 18-year prison term for murdering her husband. Mary’s story is the “secret history” of how a wild girl, hungry for more than life offered her, destroyed her man in an effort to hold him close. In Trade, an older man (Marc Kudisch) who pays a younger man (Kyle Bielfield) for sex talks his way over the course of their encounter to an intimacy they’d both longed for in their respective lives. Directed by Tom Creed, both pieces take place on a static set, with stage lighting providing the only visual variety. Both follow their characters on a harrowing emotional journey, though the unknown outcome of the characters’ relationship gives Trade more dramatic impact.

Du Yun and Emma O’Halloran use similar methods to organize and pace their dramas, though each has a distinct musical language. Repeated rhythmic bass patterns are often employed to establish the mood of a scene, with instrumental forces adding color and enhancing tension, more like film scoring than melodic accompaniment. Both composers set text more like plainchant than speech or melody, with nary an aria to be heard. Du Yun’s six-instrument ensemble incorporates more chaotic, improvisatory-sounding passages and non-traditional techniques (a notice at the door warned that the show was loud, with earplugs offered), while Halloran’s writing for 10 members of Novus NY is more conventionally lyrical. In neither piece did melody shape the vocal line or overwhelm the drama of the text.

In ‘Trade,’ an older man (Marc Kudisch) pays a younger man (Kyle Bielfield) for sex.

Prototype projects have typically treated grim subjects, often incorporating physical and psychic violence, but these two evenings suggested that the pandemic isolation led to more introspection. The confessional format examines the process of how we construct our personal narrative, incorporating our own foibles into an acceptable self image. This was theater with a sense of vulnerability and tenderness, without abandoning a wide dynamic range. (As always with Prototype productions, vocal parts were electronically amplified.)

A third show, MƆɹNIŊ(Morning/Mourning), was billed as an “experimental” opera, and indeed it departed from the more conventional and confessional model of the other two evenings. Inspired by The World Without Us, Alan Weisman’s 2007 popular nonfiction book, Gelsey Bell’s speculative, often fanciful narration offers a timeline of the breakdown and restoration of the physical world after the disappearance of humans. The five singers (Justin Hicks, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Gelsey Bell, Aviva Jaye, and Paul Pinto), who also play a variety of unusual instruments like vintage synthesizers, Celtic harp, and daxophone, take turns relaying chapters of the 1.6 billion-year process. Spoken text, solo song or unison chanting, and five-part harmony added variety, and the writing gave each singer a chance to show their vocal strengths.

Justin Hicks, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Gelsey Bell, Aviva Jaye, Paul Pinto in ‘MƆɹNIŊ(Morning/Mourning.’

The sometimes-dry catalog of natural processes was enlivened by poetic turns of phrase and occasionally humorous detail, like an ongoing thread about the Australian octopus, an imagined species, learning to communicate with tree roots and fungi. Stage ritual, repetitive instrumental riffs, and extended vocal techniques at times crossed the line from compelling to pretentious, and the piece felt about 10 minutes too long, but ultimately MƆɹNIŊ was the most truly original, both musically and theatrically, of my three staged Prototype experiences. It has been extended through Jan. 22; for tickets go here.

The festival’s online offering this year was Undine, a dreamily enigmatic short animated opera about a shape-shifting mermaid. The main creative and musical Netherlands-based team of Sjaron Minailo, Stefanie Janssen, Michaël Brijs, and Richard van Kruysdijk created an urban myth accompanied by songs that ranged stylistically from operatic to singer-songwriter soft rock, reflecting displacement, alienation, and desire.

Originally imagined as a multi-screen performance with musicians onstage, lockdown restrictions led to reworking the project into a stand-alone film. While promotional copy emphasized the mermaid’s addiction to plastic, what came through more vividly in the hand-drawn, primarily black-and-white imagery was the sense of isolation of all the characters — surely yet another by-product of the pandemic.

A screen shot from the festival’s online offering, ‘Undine.’

I had to miss one final project, Marchita, a staging of the debut album by the young Mexican folk-jazz singer Silvana Estrada.

Uptown, the opera world agonizes over the Metropolitan Opera’s recent announcement that it will be producing more contemporary opera in the face of declining ticket sales. Downtown, the buzz around the festival as an incubator of fresh work suggests that it’s not a bad idea to bet on the future, even if Prototype didn’t sell thousands of tickets over its ten days.

The Prototype Festival continued through Jan. 15 with three performances of a new opera by David Lang, note to a friend, based on the writings of Japanese novelist Ryunosuke Akutagawa. It was commissioned by and performed at the Japan Society.