Opera Feed

“Angel’s Bone" at the Prototype Festival

by Steven Pisano

Top - Kyle Pfortmiller, Bottom - Kyle Bielfield, Jennifer Charles

(All photos by Cory Weaver.)

Angel’s Bone, presented by the unflaggingly innovative Prototype Festival and directed by Michael McQuilken, portrays the lurid tale of a suburban couple (Kyle Pfortmiller and Abigail Fischer) facing financial and marital distress who one day miraculously discover a Boy Angel (Kyle Bielfield) and a Girl Angel who have fallen out of Heaven and landed in their backyard.

It doesn't take long for this blessing to turn dark. At the wife’s blunt request (“Prune them!”), the husband holds high a gleaming meat cleaver and savagely severs the angels' wings. The couple then holds the angels prisoner in a clawfoot bathtub and exploits them by charging people for various services, including sex. The wife later entices the Boy Angel to impregnate her so that she can give birth to a human-angel hybrid. In the wife’s view, capitalizing on these innocent messengers of God is an acceptable way for her to finally get the life she feels she always deserved. 

The story is bold and daring, inspired by worldwide human trafficking, ranging from children sold for sex to indentured domestic workers. The United Nations estimates there are almost 30 million people in the world today living as slaves: a crisis in our midst. Unfortunately, composer Du Yun and librettist Royce Vavrek fail to explore this pressing issue in artistic terms. It seems to me that artists—writers, composers, filmmakers, painters, whatever—are uniquely equipped to help us understand or at least make us think about such issues by exploring their ramifications. 

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“Dog Days” at the Prototype Festival

by Steven Pisano

John Kelly, Lauren Worsham(Photo by Ellen Appel.)

War is everywhere. People are starving. The meager food rations air-dropped from military helicopters are not nearly enough to stave off hunger. All the animals, including the birds, have died. Or maybe they have all moved away, as if sensing that something even more terrifying than war is coming closer. Clearly, the apocalypse is at hand.

This might sound like a slight exaggeration of today’s front page reporting on Syria or Afghanistan or Iraq. But it is the very real, and bleak, world faced by the family in David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s Dog Days, an electrifying and, to say the least, startling chamber opera which had its New York premiere at the NYU Skirball Center this past weekend, presented by Beth Morrison Projects as part of this year’s Prototype Festival. (It was originally produced in 2012 at Montclair State University.)

Dog Days is extreme. It is like being Tasered with a 1000 volts of electrical energy, straight to the brain. It won’t kill you. It will jolt you alive. But it does take a little while to get there. The first act at least partially tricks us into thinking this might be some peculiar variation on Beauty and the Beast. In the advertising for the production, it certainly looks like a quirky rom-com between a Man-Dog and a wide-eyed young girl. But if you took this bait, you are in for a shock.

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Hold on to Your Seat: The Prototype Festival Starts This Week

Prototype Festival
Now in its fourth season, the Prototype Festival has become an essential part of the New York cultural season. Featuring cutting-edge new chamber opera and music-theater works, shows are almost always sold out, and many of the people you see in the audiences are some of the top composers, performers, and directors in the music-theater universe. They know it’s the place to see brave and electric new work. So if you haven't picked out your shows already, you should go to the Festival site right now.

Originally presented almost exclusively at HERE (in Soho), this year’s schedule has spread across Manhattan and Brooklyn to venues including 3-Legged Dog Art & Technology Center, NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, HERE, National Sawdust, and the French Institute Alliance Française.

Last year premiered the chamber opera masterpiece The Scarlet Ibis (Stefan Weisman and David Cote), and featured the still-evolving Aging Magician (Paola Prestini). This year’s shows are Angel’s Bone (Du Yun and Royce Vavrek), Dog Days (David T. Little and Royce Vavrek), The Good Swimmer (Heidi Rodewald and Donna Di Novelli), The Last Hotel (Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh), Saga (Gregory Frateur and Nicolas Rombouts), Bombay Rickey (performed by the eponymous Brooklyn band), and La Reina (Jorge Sosa and Laura Sosa Pedroza). This year's festival will also feature the New York premiere of David T. Little's Dog Days, which had its world premiere to high acclaim back in 2012.

Performances run through January 17; tickets and information available here.

Julia Wolfe's "Steel Hammer" at BAM

by Steven Pisano


(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

Last week, BAM’s Harvey Theater presented Steel Hammer, a theatrical working of Pulitzer Prize-winning Julia Wolfe’s 2009 cantata exploring the African-American folk hero John Henry, the “steel-driving man” of the post-Civil War American railroad.

Reimagining a work of art music as theater meant creating all the stage business from scratch. The six performers from the SITI Company--Akiko Aizawa, Eric Berryman, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, Gian-Murray Gianino, Barney O'Hanlon, and Stephen Duff Webber--under the direction of Anne Bogart, were uniformly excellent. But the material by four playwrights was not at the same high level as Wolfe’s music. One exception was a tour-de-force soliloquy written by Carl Hancock Rux and performed by Ms. Chevannes, recounting a chance encounter with the steel hammer-wielding John Henry by a migrant named Mamie.

Eric Berryman as the folk hero John Henry gave a tireless and noble performance as the embodiment of the myth. Asked to run dozens of times around the circular platform on stage, he ended up dripping sweat and fighting for breath, much like a railroad worker expended from digging tunnels through mountains.

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