In less than a decade, the Prototype Festival has made a name for itself as the go-ahead promoter of new opera in the US. Hampered by the pandemic, this year it has had to turn its ingenuity up to maximum to deliver a reconfigured programme, mostly online, which includes three premieres and three new works from outside the US.
None of them is described as an opera, and none of them is — at least in the traditional sense. What we get are music and visuals, taking in social issues, digital technology and multidisciplinary forms — everything that innovative opera composers are trying their hands at.
One of the shows — Ocean Body, a multi-screen installation — is experienced in person only, and can be viewed live at the HERE Mainstage in New York. Performances run until January 16 by appointment.
The other two premieres, both online, also hail from the US. Times3 (Times x Times x Times) is a half-hour “sonic journey” through New York’s Times Square, words by Geoff Sobelle, music by Pamela Z. Forget the musical cityscapes of Gershwin and Varèse. This is more an invocation of the genius loci of the place, going back to its origins as unspoilt countryside (cue birdsong), like a podcast rooted in the imagination.
The third of the premieres acts like a key to this year’s online festival. Prototype invited 13 composers to address one of three abiding concerns of the pandemic year — isolation, identity or fear. The result, Modulation, is a series of short filmed musical numbers accessed via interactive screens, in the manner of a digital maze. This has become familiar stamping ground for online opera in 2020, but the presentation and range of styles give this collection a slant of its own. I enjoyed Yvette Janine Jackson’s take on “Fear”, with its threatening atmosphere and strange drawings, and Jojo Abot’s multi-tracked solo.
By contrast, the three contributions from abroad all have their roots in the theatre, where they belong. The emphasis here is more on the themes or issues.
If it had reached fruition, Ben Frost and Petter Ekman’s The Murder of Halit Yozgat might almost have been a conventional opera. It tells of the murder of the 21-year-old son of Turkish immigrants in Kassel, Germany, in 2006. When lockdown stopped the production in its tracks, a film was made, blending rehearsal and documentary voiceover as the story makes its journey from drum-beating racial hatred to windswept, snowy desolation. Anger and grief are piled high here, making Valgeir Sigurosson’s Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists seem rather comfortably decorative by comparison.
Finally, from south-east Asia comes The Planet — A Lament, directed by Garin Nugroho and composed by Septina Rosalina Layan. Based on the experiences of a community devastated by a tsunami, it hymns environmental awareness with a blend of film, theatre, Papuan dancers and an Indonesian choir — a colourful and moving piece of theatre.
All streamed events are free of charge (except ‘Modulation’) and on demand until January 16, prototypefestival.org