As In Years Past, New York’s Prototype Festival Delivers Operatic Evolution

The 2024 edition of the festival turned an unflinching gaze toward motherhood, music history and the legacies of racism that haunt families and institutions alike.

The late James Jorden, Observer’s opera critic from 2014 through 2021, once wrote: “Season after season, PROTOTYPE introduces to New York pieces that shift the whole paradigm of what opera is and can be.” Nothing has changed. The ever-innovative festival returned earlier this month for its eleventh season, with works that consider motherhood, music history and the legacies of racism that haunt families and institutions alike. To give you a taste of what you missed, we’ve rounded up the first week’s shows below.

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The Promise, Wende

Wende in ‘The Promise.’ Photo: Raymond van Olphen

To be or not to be (a mother)? This was the question at the center of Dutch singer-songwriter Wende’s The Promise, which turned the cozy HERE arts space into something resembling an underground show. The Promise, fresh off a successful run at the Royal Court Theater in London, is a rock-pop song cycle, loosely cohering around the crises of identity that come with the transition from young- to full adulthood: sexual curiosity, fear of loneliness, feeling lost and of, course, the crossroads of the child decision. With words contributed by five London-based female playwrights (EV Crowe, Debris Stevenson, Stef Smith, Somalia Seaton, and Sabrina Mahfouz), The Promise is at once relatable and sometimes texture-less. Some memorable lines appear here and there—one song envisioned life as a series of moves… “moving into a spouse, into a fridge, into the dark of a screen”—but imaginations of motherhood and the eventual choice to be childless feel divorced from the details that make each experience unique. The music runs the gamut from Fiona Apple-style indie to barstool singalong ballad to punk show, cementing Wende as a versatile songwriter and, one hopes, more fully introducing her work to an American audience. Wende is a consummate performer—alternately generous, neurotic and wrathful with a voice that shivers and snarls—but the show meanders in its Hamlet-esque consideration of its central question.

Terce: A Practical Breviary, Heather Christian

Heather Christian and the ensemble of ‘Terce.’ Photo: Maria Baranova

A female mystic by the name of Julian of Norwich once characterized the whole of God’s creation as a hazelnut. Seeing it, she asks, “‘What may this be?’ The answer: ‘It is all that is made.’” She marvels at its littleness—how could something so tiny contain so much?

Heather Christian’s Terce: A Practical Breviary, riffs on Julian’s words along with others from Hildegard of Bingen and of Robin Wall Kimmerer, in an off-beat, energetic and tremendously moving new take on the 9 a.m. prayers. The project, which takes folk, gospel and medieval organum and blends them into something miraculous, looks for the Divine Feminine in all creation, reaching to heaven while rooting its feet firmly in the earth. It’s a show that is both polished—Keenan Tyler Oliphant’s direction and Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin’s stunning environmental design take care of that—but also earnestly rough around the edges. Not all of the performers are professional, but they bring an unmatched energy, as if diving into the rich loam of Christian’s music and emerging with hands full of growing things, voices lifted to the sky.

At the heart of Terce is the beauty of noticing things and our relationship with the earth. Mother Nature is Christian’s star character, but the cliches never come. Instead, Terce felt utterly earnest and refreshingly vibrant in its depictions of the labors and beauty of women’s experiences—earthy, messy, inspired and alive. The poetry (also by Christian) is amongst the best I’ve heard or read in a while; lines leave you feeling scrubbed clean, tender-skinned but zinging with energy.  One refrain adapted from Julian of Norwich captures the sweet pain of being alive “a wound of contrition, a wound of compassion, a wound of the earnest longing for someone.” Another, taking the metaphor of The Fall and making it about tripping, tumbling, finds gratitude even for the scrapes and bruises. “There is no error in my falling” for “gravity will hold me accountable and down.” Christian’s music is similarly illuminating, with voices entwined in harmony or songs sung in quiet defiance over the hum of a vacuum cleaner and a litany of prayers (one that will touch the soul of every writer: “When I scramble the words, come reorder me”) punctuated by a saxophone solo infused with bittersweet longing. Other moments juxtaposed the chiming of bells with effusive vocalizing from the chorus, so joyous that words aren’t necessary. Like Julian’s hazelnut, Terce is small but within there is a whole world of feeling. I left the theater exalted.

Adoration, Mary Kouyoumdjian and Royce Vavrek

Mark Kudisch and Omar Najmi in’ Adoration.’ Photo: Maria Baranova

A writing exercise goes horribly awry in Mary Kouyoumdjian and Royce Vavrek’s Adoration, which premiered at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture on January 12.  An adaptation of Atom Egoyan’s lacerating film of the same name, Adoration is a psychodrama about terrorism and Islamophobia that anchors its questions in family secrets and betrayal. At the prompting of his French teacher, Sabine (a searing Miriam Khalil), the teenage Simon (Omar Najmi, in a vulnerable, moving performance)—his parents both dead in an accident years earlier— imagines his father as the mastermind of a failed terrorist attack. The “exercise” takes its real-life cue from the thwarted Hindawi affair of 1986, in which a pregnant Irishwoman flying from London to Tel Aviv became the unwitting mule for 3.5 pounds of explosives placed in her suitcase by her Jordanian fiancé, Nezar Hindawi. After posting the exercise online, Simon’s fictional exercise goes viral, landing him at the center of an online controversy, while his attempts to reconstruct his parents’ lives and understand the circumstances of their deaths lead him to painful discoveries about his family history.

In this version, Simon’s father Sami (played here by a stellar Karim Sulayman) is Palestinian, and his interracial relationship with Simon’s white mother Rachel (Naomi Louisa O’Connell) leads to violent reactions from her family. After Sami and Rachel die in a car accident, Simon has only his grandfather (Marc Kudisch, terrifying) and uncle (David Adam Moore) to reconstruct his parents’ lives, but his grandfather’s hatred colors Simon’s view of his father more than the young man can admit.

Adoration is blisteringly uncomfortable to watch, but sleek and engaging to look at in Laine Rettmer’s production, which seamlessly blended recorded footage, hand-held camera work, projections, and practical sets. Vavrek’s libretto never pulls its punches, skewering the outrage content machine of the internet, the weird, insidious workings of white women’s “innocence” in Islamophobic rhetoric, and the ways bi-racial children may be forced by racist family members to “choose” one parent or one identity over another. At the same time, Vavrek allows even his nastiest characters humanity and moral ambiguity, resisting easy answers and leaving much productively unsaid. Kouyoumdjian’s score, for string quartet with some electronics, is almost relentlessly tense—ninety minutes of in-drawn breath passes with barely a moment’s respite. It rightly refuses to let us get comfortable. None of the adults in Simon’s life can reconstruct his parents without an unspoken agenda, meaning his very memories of his family are made into ideological battlegrounds in a war he isn’t yet fully aware of. Kouyoumdjian’s score keeps us rapt and suspicious the whole time.

Together, Kouyoumdjian and Vavrek avoid almost all the potential pitfalls of this disturbing premise, instead delivering a complex and provocative piece that not only prompts questions about the rhetoric of terrorism, dark reflections about the dangers of imaginative empathy and the (im)possibility of knowing one’s parents fully.

Angel Island, Huang Ruo

Jie-Hung Connie Shiau and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street in ‘Angel Island.’ Photo: Maria Baranova

The walls of Angel Island’s detention have poetry etched into them, evidence of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants who were examined, detained and imprisoned there on their way to America between the 1880s and the 1940s. One such poem begins, “Imprisoned in the wooden building day after day/ My freedom withheld; how can I bear to talk about it?”

Scored for chorus and string quartet but also heavily featuring two dancers (Jie-Hung Connie Shiau and Benjamin Freemantle, both excellent), Chinese-American composer Huang Ruo’s Angel Island juxtaposes a history lesson in anti-Asian racism. There’s a lot of history to tell, from the Los Angeles Chinese Massacre of 1871 to the multiple Chinese Exclusion Acts that created the holding pens on Angel Island—with musical commentary from the chorus, much of which is adapted from words scratched on the walls of Angel Island’s cells. Director Matthew Ozawa envisions a woman encountering history along with us, paging through documents while the ghosts of detained Chinese immigrants surround her. Bill Morrison’s film work similarly layers images of Angel Island’s waters and shore, historical documents, and the faces of Chinese immigrants.

Ruo’s exquisite vocal writing, which built out cluster chords with utmost precision and an almost startling clarity, and the perfectly calibrated and moving singing from the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, made this piece spellbinding at various points in the evening. Choral movements give way to lengthy voice-over passages, which deliver history lectures that educate at the expense of dramatic flow. A work that might be termed Sino-pessimist, Angel Island completely upends the received “immigrant narrative” that ennobles struggle by giving it a happy ending in America. Instead, Ruo’s chorus is trapped between worlds, unjustly imprisoned and unable to move forward or backward. Part oratorio, part contemporary dance, part documentary, Angel Island feels like a necessary reconsideration of American history, especially for those unfamiliar with the long legacy of anti-Asian racism that is carried out both by physical and bureaucratic violence.

Chornobyldorf, Roman Grygoriv and Illia Razumeiko

Marichka Shtryrbulov in ‘Chernobyldorf.’ Photo: Artem Galkin

What is opera after the apocalypse? Told in seven movements, or “novellas,” Chornobyldorf imagines a world where humanity attempts to reconstruct musical performance through rituals that soon enough disintegrate. Creators Roman Grygoriv and Illia Razumeiko, who are themselves composers, performers and multi-instrumentalists, draw on Greek myth, opera and oratorio, ritual sacrifice and post-Soviet and post-apocalyptic imagery to create what they call an “archeological opera.” Each movement, here called “novellas,” layers atop its predecessor, digging deeper by juxtaposition. There is no narrative, but instead a collection of images and an ever-expanding sonic palette. Layering live singing and live theater with recorded sounds and film (the excellent work of Dmytro Tentiuk), Chornobyldorf confidently integrates modes and mediums to arresting visual effect. Actors seem to wander in and out of the film’s screens, the space of the theater expanding outwards into images of blue skies sliced up by rusting metal rigs, while dancers writhe around the show’s edges, and instrumentalists strip down to nothing and dive into the drama.

The show loses some of its focus in the second half, retreading dramatic ground and becoming self-indulgent and over-long as it approaches its climax (which looks a lot like a rave). At its best, though, Chornobyldorf offers mesmerizing commentary on the rituals that define all operatic performance. It suggests that all opera may be more or less archeological, involving reconstructions and repetitions of history that we only think we understand. Grygoriv and Razumeiko’s vocal writing is exceptionally strong, refracting Monteverdi and Mozart through their own delightfully distorted mirrors and leaning hard into extended techniques in a score for two lap harps, brass, prepared piano, electronics, flute and cello. This sound world is at once ancient and futuristic—sounds of water, the groans of metal, the sizzles of electronics— the voice writing easily moving between bel canto singing, tight counterpoint, chant and guttural sounds: those post-verbal clicks and squeaks that remind us that human voices exist on a continuum with those of animals. Rigorously experimental and often striking, Chornobyldorf may not land all of its punches but hits hard enough to shake loose some of opera history’s dust.

As In Years Past, New York’s Prototype Festival Delivers Operatic Evolution