Preview: Winter Jazzfest 2016
Ron Pope and the Nighthawks at Irving Plaza

“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. 

Abigail Fischer and Kyle Bielfield

But, aside from the inherent brutality of the story, Angel’s Bone plays out very conventionally. The wife is no more interesting than a guest on the Jerry Springer Show, and the opera does not achieve what one might expect from a work of mature musical theater. 

It was difficult to discern even this much about the story, because the production worked against itself at every turn. The audience was seated on folding chairs on risers with a shallow incline. As a result, I could not see half of the stage action because of all the heads in front of me (and I am taller than most). Many audience members were craning their necks this way and that, just trying to get a glimpse of what was going on.

The biggest obstacle to me, however, was that the show was INCREDIBLY LOUD. Now, I’ve been to many a rock club where bands have cranked it up to 11, and sometimes sheer loudness itself was part of their act. But in a work of opera, such an unrelenting wall of loudness - as if the show was being performed inside the turbine of a 747 - works against comprehension. Throughout the entire evening, I understood only a handful of spoken words, and the singing for the most part was completely incomprehensible. Just listening to this onslaught was tiring.

The one exception was a solo by the Girl Angel (Jennifer Charles, a rock singer), who delivered a scalding punk-rock soliloquy about her sexual abuse. If only the entire evening were this lucid! In fact, it was more comprehensible because Ms. Charles didn't try to sing operatically. With all of the loud, rock and noise-based music underlying the score, perhaps more naturalistic diction would have made the singing easier to grasp than highly stylized operatic warbling.

Kyle Pfortmiller, Jennifer Charles, and Abigail FischerWhich begs the question: when an audience cannot see what is happening on stage, and they cannot hear the lyrics being sung, how do they enjoy an opera? If a publisher puts out the greatest book of the century but prints it in 2-point type that readers need to use a magnifying glass to read, people aren't going to buy the book.

Even with these hindrances, it was clear that there was a seriously intelligent and worthy work lurking under all of the loudness. In addition to the four main performers, all of whom were of the highest caliber, the Choir of Trinity Wall Street lent expert singing and acting help, and the chamber orchestra NOVUS NY, conducted by Julian Wachner, was crisp and precise (if LOUD).

The very polite tea-party applause at the end of the show was a clear indication not of the quality of the work, but of the shared relief that we had just been released from being sonically pummeled for 90 minutes. And while our ears may have been ringing, our hearts and intellects were not.