Forced Online, an Opera Festival Searches for Intimacy


The annual Prototype Festival for new opera and music theater thrives on intimacy. His offers on a chamber scale – often politically charged, emotionally brutal and just plain loud – make your guts vibrate. Prototype has become known for screaming, moaning works like “Angel’s Bone” and “Prism,” which both won Pulitzer Awards and immersed themselves in tiny theaters that amplified their impact.

Watching a performance alone in bed on a laptop should, in theory, feel even more intimate. And yet, as I’ve found time and again over the past year, the screen tends to add immeasurable distance: the distance of my distractibility, the sub-par image quality, the experience that seems more like a pale reproduction of the thing than the thing itself. In other words, very unprototypical.

But this pandemic season, the brave festival – organized by Beth Morrison Projects and the arts organization HERE – has been forced almost entirely online. (It runs through Saturday.) Of the six productions, the only one in person is a 15-minute, multiscreen video piece that could have had the same modest impact on a computer.

The opening evening on Friday was the premiere of “Modulation”, for which a chic web interface divides a group of 12 newly commissioned music videos by various artists into three thematic groups. (Browsing between topics – fear, identity, and isolation – reveals a great deal of overlap.) You can choose the order in which to watch the films, which are each about five minutes long.

Molly Joyce’s “Out of a Thought” mixes horror tropes: flashing lights, the camera plunges into the darkness of an open box, grinds drones, scrubs complaints. Paul Pinto breaks his image up into a screaming chorus of heads that answer the most frustrating questions: “But where are you really from?” An interview with the mother of the composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, who suffers from dementia, provided the text for the invitation to tender “I have nothing to do but love”.

My favorites of the 12 included the sensitive, somber black and white “La Indita Cautiva,” Raven Chacon and Nacha Mendez’s new submission to a genre of ballads about destroyed girls in the American Southwest who were forced into bondage. For “The Divine I Am” Jojo Abot organized a colorful desert sacrament made up of expansive, pulsating sounds and earthy, echoing, triumphant screams.

For his short film, Jimmy López Bellido wrote a soaring, generally traditional opera aria for mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, which promises that “we’ll sing again” amid hopeful recordings of artists waiting at a stage door. Mariela Pabón’s animation is enchantingly casual for “Otro Cosa,” a driving but sweetly melancholy collection of shards of the Puerto Ricans experience at home and in the diaspora with Angélica Negrón’s catchy tune generated from Latin American pop hits.

Some of this year’s Prototype presentations felt easy – maybe more than they would have been live. This personal video installation “Ocean Body” is a gesture of reflection on distance and community between two talented creators and performers, Shara Nova and Helga Davis. Over a soft, dazed drone, they sing planning from screens facing each other at HERE in SoHo. The images have the slow-motion chic of an old Calvin Klein commercial. Sometimes Ms. Nova and Ms. Davis are shown by the sea in matching civil war-era white dresses tied together by meter-long cords, as if fate was the star of “The Beguiled”.

“Times3” is an audio piece for which the composer Pamela Z, who is known for fragmenting spoken text and processing it into musical expression, remixed interviews about Times Square with various experts in the space. The resulting audio quilt is most alive when Ms. Z’s own voice – smart and seductive, whether she speaks or sings – is in the foreground. Valgeir Sigurdsson’s “Broad Sleep for Butterflies” is a sluggish, mild hour that reflects on the connections between the human sleep cycle and the life cycle of butterflies.

Far more fascinating was “The Planet: A Lament”, composed by the Papuan musician Septina Rosalina Layan and directed by Garin Nugroho. It conjures up an impressive sonic and choreographic ritual that suggests a narrative of catastrophe, migration and rebirth. The hour-long stream is a recording of a pre-pandemic performance of the piece with applause from the audience. I’m jealous of the members of this crowd: the vibrating harmonies of the Mazmur chorale, impressive even through laptop speakers, must be personally powerful.

But nothing about this year’s Prototype was as important to the festival as Ben Frost’s brooding “The Murder of Halit Yozgat”. Yozgat, a 21-year-old German-Turkish man, was shot dead by right-wing extremist terrorists in 2006 in Kassel in his parents’ internet café. The investigation by the Forensic Architecture research group, which was presented at the Documenta art exhibition in 2017, found that a German secret service agent played a role in the crime.

The pandemic hit during rehearsals for Frost’s adaptation of Forensics’ work in the Hanover Opera House. When the actors got back together in May, they filmed the play without an audience.

However, this is not just sample material. With a seemingly generous budget, the film is a demanding piece in itself and yet conveys a sense of liveliness. The camera with the smooth sail circles again and again around a light-flooded structure on the stage: a stylized internet café in and around which the singers, wearing rehearsal clothes and often wearing surgical masks, walk around in artistic fear.

In Daniela Danz’s libretto, conversations are repeated over and over again, but they never come together to form a fixed story. Interludes of spoken narration repeat the facts of the case before the opera returns to misty darkness. Each of the enigmatic scenes ends with a father crying out for his son. Much of the vowel writing falls between speech and song, but is easily flowing, even melodious.

From an early age the music is almost unbearably aggressive: wild growling, stamping, roaring. But the soundscape grows more calmly and economically, while the two-hour score continues, while violence and anger give way to a mood of stunned despair.

It is the greatest work of this year’s festival. But it’s also the piece that best conveys the intense intimacy for which Prototype was rightly celebrated.