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Attenzione, Big Opera

The Prototype festival took risks, some of which didn’t pay off—and all of which made it feel necessary.

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These are good times for portable opera. The genre associated with massed choruses, long evenings, and multiton sets can also yield a 50-­minute show thrown together with a few musicians, some cables, and scenery that will fit in a van. It’s hardly a new concept—during World War I, Stravinsky wrote Histoire du Soldat as a multimedia petit spectacle that could tour on the cheap—but technology and the popularity of black-box theater have given it a fresh jolt of energy.

The contemporary mini music drama has found its impresarios in Kristin ­Marting, Beth Morrison, and Kim Whitener. They’re the nimble founders of ­Prototype, a pop-up festival that should quickly evolve into a New York institution. Armed with a jaunty slogan—“Opera/Theater/Now!”—the producers managed to pull off 29 performances of five premieres in three venues this past week. Audiences materialized too.

I caught a trio of splatter operas. Mohammed Fairouz’s Sumeida’s Song is adapted from a 1956 play by Tawfiq al-Hakim: In a village, a mother waits for her son, whom she hasn’t seen in seventeen years, to step off the train from Cairo—so she can order him to murder the man who killed his father. This story, which a century ago might have produced a syrupy verismo tragedy and which director David Herskovits staged with Tarantinian relish, seems to have sent Fairouz on a hunt for an appropriately seething musical language. He couldn’t quite find it. Instead, the young and lyrically gifted composer wound up treating a primal blood feud with a suavely modernist chamber opera, mingling Viennese melancholy with the odd North African motif.

David T. Little’s one-baritone show ­Soldier Songs got a little closer to the spirit of guerrilla opera, painting modern warfare in heavy-metal hues. Director Yuval Sharon, baritone Christopher Burchett, and the mostly silent but still eloquent 10-year-old actor Zac Ballard offered a punchy lesson on efficient, high-potency staging that could give many established companies an adrenaline jolt. Armed with blinding spotlights and plenty of explosive noise, they traced the evolution of the combat-ready psyche from sandbox shoot-outs to video games to actual traumas. Little interviewed soldiers and veterans, and he works the recordings through his score. “You wanna know the real story, or what you read about, what was on TV?” asks the composer’s uncle, a Vietnam vet. The answer never comes clear, and maybe in a musical work it doesn’t need to. We have all seen the footage, read the first-person accounts, experienced the gruesome special effects. Is there any news about the horrors of combat that is most effectively delivered by a baritone and chamber ensemble? Little writes sharp, elegantly bristling music for an amplified group that includes violins masquerading as angry guitars. Well, mildly irritated guitars, anyway—even the score’s most outrageous passages purr slightly, like a metal band after a day at the spa.

The most high-wire work I saw involved no live singers at all. In Bluebeard, a 40-minute work by the Dutch 33 1/3 ­Collective, the story—the rhapsodically violent folk tale about a nobleman who keeps marrying, then murdering, his brides—is a frame for a 3-D video projected on the floor and on a rotating white cube, with a hauntingly improvised prerecorded soundtrack. A virtual body, covered in a rug, lies prone. A flesh-and-blood performer arrives with a broom and sweeps the image of the rug onto a gurney, but the contour of the body remains, beneath a different shroud. Each flick of the broom sends a new layer fluttering, only to reveal another. Once swept under the carpet, brutality is not so easily laid bare.

Video has infiltrated mainstream opera houses, too, but in Bluebeard, three young artists with a white box have unstoppered a stream of 3-D illusions that the Metropolitan Opera should really be coveting. A holographic coin appears, spinning on the floor. Then more and more coins join in, a whirling choreography of virtual money and synchronized tintinnabulation. The scene feels like a taunt, and not just about the vanity of piling up riches. Prototype is the teenage hacker of the opera world, and in its first public action, it’s left a message blinking on Big Opera’s screen: CAN YOU DO THIS?

Prototype
January 9 through 18.


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