Opera Greets the Morning at the Prototype Festival


“These people are not drunk,” a choir in quirkily customized blue robes sang on Saturday, “because it’s nine in the morning.”

Watching these smiling performers in the light-flooded Space at Irondale in Brooklyn, I was surprised to discover that this startlingly contemporary sentence was a translation of a biblical verse, Acts 2:15. And it was an appropriate sentiment at, yes, about 9 a.m.

In “Terce,” presented as part of this year’s Prototype festival of new opera and music theater, about three dozen choir members were praying, as Christians have done at that hour from the era of the early church. The work adapts and takes its name from the traditional liturgy for 9 o’clock, the time when the Holy Spirit is believed to have appeared to the apostles on Pentecost.

In Brooklyn, there’s a twist, if not a wholly unfamiliar one: The divinity being celebrated in this folk-soul-gospel-medieval amalgam is, according to the script, a woman, a mother, “an undeniably female creator.”

Politically charged, scrappy, stirring, deeply earnest: “Terce,” created and led by Heather Christian, embodies Prototype, now in its 11th season and organized by Beth Morrison Projects and HERE, the arts center in SoHo. (The festival runs through Sunday.)

The hourlong performance had the intimacy that is crucial to this year’s best festival offerings. The members of the community choir that Christian has organized sing, dance and play instruments only steps from the audience that surrounds them. And, whether it’s the cold weather or the constant bad news, that closeness feels sweet and reassuring this January.

It’s sweet and reassuring, too, in even cozier confines at HERE, where Prototype is presenting “The Promise,” a rock-cabaret song cycle that Wende, a Dutch singer, conceived with a group of collaborators.

Among those creators is the composer Isobel Waller-Bridge, perhaps best known for scoring her sister Phoebe’s hit TV show “Fleabag.” And the lyrics of “The Promise” — the work of five writers — do reflect a kind of “Fleabag” sensibility. They are the voice of a modern woman, single, funny, dissatisfied, morbid, ambivalent at best about having children, prickly yet vulnerable. “I’m a lonely bitch,” goes one song’s rueful refrain.

Restlessly stalking the tiny space and moving among the three other musicians, Wende has a mischievous grin that can swiftly give way to sneering anger and quiet despair. Her voice is tautly powerful yet quivering, a little like Fiona Apple’s — sometimes sultry, sometimes airy and wry. With resourcefully varied lighting by Freek Ros, the 19-song, 100-minute cycle keeps shifting its tone and pace; songs with pounding, propulsive jungle beats exist alongside vocals half-spoken to a piano.

If the final minutes come close to being cloying without quite tipping over, they have that in common with “Terce.” But just as the physical proximity of the performers feels welcome this season, some sentimentality does, too. Wende somehow manages to create that rarity: anthemic crowd singalongs that even a hardened critic feels compelled to join.

“The Promise” and “Terce,” the Prototype presentations that are sticking with me most this year, are both plotless and characterless. Also leaning abstract, but in a far wilder and more surreal mode, is “Chornobyldorf,” a sprawling production of well over two intermissionless hours at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theater. It has bravely traveled from Ukraine as a kind of nostalgic reminder of the loud, messy, nudity-filled, often self-serious, generally baffling shows that were once fixtures of downtown New York.

The many-page synopsis describes a convoluted genesis for this “archaeological opera in seven novels,” created by Roman Grygoriv and Illia Razumeiko. But the premise is similar to “Station Eleven,” the book turned TV show, and the play “Mr. Burns”: After an apocalypse — the Chernobyl nuclear disaster is the specter here — a society tries to rise from the ashes though whatever fragments of culture remain.

In the case of “Chornobyldorf,” this takes the form of revived yet still-distant memories of Baroque opera and polyphonic chant, shot through with eruptions of blastingly amplified punkish rage. The texts are difficult to decipher. The costumes are cut in ornate antique styles, but dolled up with bits of electrical wiring, and the instruments, many hand-built, are seemingly a collection of whatever was left over when the world ended: percussion, trombone, fluegelhorn, flute, folk string instruments like the bandura and dulcimer, sighing accordions.

The sonic landscape creaks and roars, squeals and simmers, as this little society puts on eerily robotic, intensely solemn rituals, building to a screaming Mass and a climactic, hysterical danse macabre around a huge medallion of Lenin hanging from the ceiling. On a screen behind the performers, film footage pans through outdoor scenes, with nature looking majestic — and almost entirely abandoned by humans.

The slow, stylized pace and insular symbolism, together with the vivid film element and arcane eroticism, evokes Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster” cycle. And though the work is baggy, a dreamlike atmosphere takes hold; it’s hard to tell the exact meaning of a statuesque naked woman being stripped of the cymbals that hang from her arms, but the sequence is nevertheless arresting.

“Adoration” is the most standard-issue, proscenium-theater opera Prototype is presenting this year. Based on a 2008 Atom Egoyan film, the 90-minute piece — being performed at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in Manhattan — trudges through a complicated plot involving a teenage boy’s announcement to his classmates that his father is a terrorist. (It turns out he’s not telling the truth, though to what narrative or emotional end is never quite clear.)

Setting the story to music offers the promise of delving into the nuances of a group of troubled people. But the drearily expository monologues go on and on in Royce Vavrek’s leaden libretto. And while Mary Kouyoumdjian’s score offers some sinuous music for string quartet, its fevered quality feels generic and eventually tiresome; the drama, shapeless.

More compelling than any character in “Adoration” is Dominic Shodekeh Talifero, the performer-protagonist of “Vodalities,” one of Prototype’s three short, online streaming offerings — and he doesn’t even speak words or sing pitches.

Joined for the piece’s 16 minutes by the quartet So Percussion, he virtuosically yet subtly explores what he calls breath art, a delicate form of beat-boxing that inevitably, painfully suggests the Black Lives Matter rallying cry “I can’t breathe.” (The other digital presentations are “Swann,” a longing aria based on the true story of a 19th-century Black man who wore drag, and the antic, voice-processed “Whiteness.)

Huang Ruo’s “Angel Island,” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, delves into the dark history of American discrimination and violence against Chinese immigrants, many of whom were processed on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay.

The 90-minute work’s structure is elegant: Sections of historical narration, as in a Ken Burns documentary, alternate with poetic pieces for chorus, with members of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street singing the words of writings found on the walls of the island’s immigrant processing center. Filling the back wall of the stage is a screen for the film artist Bill Morrison’s trademark, haunting manipulations of scratchy, blurry archival footage, its ghostliness echoed by the choir’s floating, elegiac sound.

The slow-burning patience of Huang’s score is a virtue, even if the sections tend to linger too long — particularly the nonchoral ones, with the narration on top of a string quartet sawing away as accompaniment to balletically aggressive duets for two dancers, an Asian woman and white man.

But the gradual build to a hypnotic conclusion was moving, with choral repetitions as relentless as waves on a beach, punctuated by the slow, steady beat of a gong. It was reminiscent of “Terce,” which ends with the metallic shimmer of a gently shaken chandelier made of keys and cutlery.

There was a sense, in both finales, of the potential of music and performance — of community — to cleanse. To help us both remember and move forward.



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