Justin Davidson on the Prototype Festival

“Paul’s Case”Photo: Stanley Photography

In Willa Cather’s 1905 short story “Paul’s Case,” the title character is a teenage aesthete in industrial Pittsburgh, trapped in a world of prosaic prosperity. Paul works as an usher in the concert hall, loiters in the rain outside a fancy hotel, and haunts the backstage of a downtown theater. But what he really needs is a powerful dose of Manhattan. The compact grit-to-glamour tragedy, with its willowy protagonist and its chorus of disapproving adults, seems ready-made for opera. Cather offers stage directions: Paul emerges from the “white bathroom, resplendent in his new silk underwear, and playing with the tassels of his red robe.” She prepares the scene for extravagant arias: “the rumble and roar, the hurry and toss of thousands of human beings as hot for pleasure as himself, and on every side of him towered the glaring affirmation of the omnipotence of wealth.” She even narrates the final curtain.

Just over a century after the story’s publication, the composer Gregory Spears and the librettist Kathryn Walat took up the challenge of turning the drama about a music lover into a bona fide musical drama. The chamber opera they wrote has been circulating for several years, advancing on New York far more cautiously than its protagonist. Finally, it arrived at the Prototype Festival, and the result is a compact, alluring, and attractively obsessive work that bangs around claustrophobically inside Paul’s mind. In Kevin Newbury’s effective, tightly focused black-box production, we don’t experience the Waldorf’s glitter, or the magical furor of a snowstorm at night, or the teeming of wealthy cosmopolites. We only know the main character, and then only through his voice: the sweetly fervent, ceaseless tenor of Jonathan Blalock, who sings and sings for 90 minutes and never seems to fade. Not even Cather could have asked for a more perfectly Paul-like performer.

Spears has studied his seventeenth- and eighteenth-century opera, the ornate, tendrillike vocal lines garlanded with sprays of grace notes. When you can write so elegantly, the temptation is to do it all the time, and Spears succumbs. Paul twice decides to flee his troubles: Once he boards a train; then he throws himself beneath one. At each point in the opera, his ardent song rises gradually in pitch and volume, lifting itself from a soft bed of drones and pulse-quickening tremolos. When the grown-up chorus crowds in on him, Spears deftly gathers their hectoring melodic lines into a glimmering weave. But the composer keeps pulling back from giddiness and despair, preferring the safer ground of prettiness. We don’t feel the crackling sensual forces pushing him to live, or the bleak suck of the spirit that pulls him towards death. Instead, Spears gives his Paul the very quality that Cather’s Paul abhors: caution.

Timidity is not a problem for Prototype’s trio of founding producers, Kristin Marting, Beth Morrison, and Kim Whitener. In its second season, the twelve-day festival found the crevices in New York’s underground opera life and filled them with inventive shows and intrepid, if tiny audiences. Paul’s Case played at HERE, which also hosted Have a Good Day!, a collective meditation on the lives and humiliations of supermarket-checkout workers who scan barcodes with beeping guns and customers with gimlet eyes. This cashier’s cantata is the work of Lithuanian composer Lina Lapelyte, librettist Vaiva Grainyte, and director Rugile Bardžiukaite, and it’s a tour de force of deadpan comedy.

As the audience arrives, ten female singers in blue aprons sit in a row, patiently zapping prices while loudspeakers pipe in the store’s echoey background burble. We get a litany of mundane lamentations: the 5:20 a.m. bus from an outer suburb, a spilled sour-cream container, germ-encrusted coins, chipper announcements over the PA system — all the mind-eroding routines of petty commerce. But all this complaint comes wrapped in a score of incantatory, almost liturgical serenity, so that the singing cashiers seem to be uttering a fundamental truth: Life is a series of discounts and disappointments.

A third Prototype offering, Kamala Sankaram’s Thumbprint, marries deeper hurt to shallower music. Sankaram, a singer as well as a composer, takes the role of Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman who atones for her 12-year-old brother’s sins by suffering a gang rape, then fights a legal war for justice. Working from a libretto by Susan Yankowitz and Sankaram simmers together ragas, Qawwali songs, and Pucciniesque soft-core lyricism, into an opera that is almost exactly double its ideal length. Virtually every phrase is immediately repeated, a stylistic tic that quickly becomes tiresome, dilutes the drama, and draws attention to a cast bifurcated between gentle folk and monstrous villains. The real Mukhtar Mai is a dauntless crusader who, despite having grown up illiterate, has deployed publicity deftly. The operatic Mukthar is a female Muslim incarnation of Paul, chafing at her community’s narrow-mindedness, but choosing struggle rather than suicide. Translated to the stage, Paul’s story is poetic and Mukhtar’s is didactic, but it’s hard to see how a chamber opera in lower Manhattan can contribute much to her cause. At best, Sankaram is singing to the converted.

Justin Davidson on the Prototype Festival