A Penetrating Cry in the Dark at the Prototype Festival
A cry in the dark, gentle yet penetrating.
At some moment in time immemorial, emerging from some creature, that sound must have been made: A voice was being used to make drama, and — eons before 16th-century Italy — opera was truly born.
So it feels like a connection to the very roots of the art form when “mɔɹnɪŋ [morning//mourning],” Gelsey Bell’s wonderful, uncategorizable guide to what might unfold on Earth in the millions and billions of years after human history, begins with exactly such a gentle, penetrating cry in the dark; a slippery hum from singers, the barest shuffle of clapping, then lights.
Presented by the bold, invaluable Prototype festival of new music-theater at HERE Arts Center in SoHo, “mɔɹnɪŋ [morning//mourning]” is an intimate storytelling ritual, a kind of campfire tale that offers a look far beyond the future as we generally perceive it.
Dressed in commune-style thrift-store pattern clashes on a barely adorned cork stage in front of just over 100 people, Bell and four other performers sing and play modest instruments and objects including drizzles of water and marbles swirling in bowls; simple synthesizers; a hand-held Celtic harp and a bowed wooden daxophone.
The group doesn’t ever make clear the catastrophe that has wiped out human existence. (“Within the first few hours,” we are told for a start, “millions of dogs have peed in places they’d rather not.”) But in song and speech, Bell, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Justin Hicks, Aviva Jaye and Paul Pinto describe — poetically, prosaically, funnily, heartbreakingly — the stages of rewilding, decomposition and evolution to come.
Obviously ominous but ultimately sly and sweet, wistful and winsome and altogether lovable, the 90-minute show, directed by Tara Ahmadinejad, recalls the wordless collective solemnity of Meredith Monk, the enigmatic texts and yarn-spinning ability of Laurie Anderson, and the folksy keening, shading into luminous pop sweetness, of the Duncan Sheik of “Spring Awakening.” Bell is also an experienced performer in Robert Ashley’s pathbreaking operas, to which she nods here with the use of wry, matter-of-fact speaking (sometimes in airily musical cadences) over gently woozy drones.
Prototype began presenting small-scale but high-impact, carefully considered and often exciting work 10 years ago. Organized by Beth Morrison Projects and HERE, it filled a niche for experimental yet professionally produced opera, much of it staged in intimate black-box-style venues, and its record of accomplishment has grown distinguished: Two Prototype shows, Du Yun and Royce Vavrek’s “Angel’s Bone” and Ellen Reid and Roxie Perkins’s “Prism,” have won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
This year’s iteration, which runs through Jan. 15, marks a joyous return to theaters for the festival, which was almost entirely virtual in 2021 and was canceled last year because of the Omicron wave. The loss of Prototype 2022 felt especially sharp because classical music and its stylistic descendants were otherwise largely spared in an outbreak that wreaked more havoc on dance and theater.
The work Prototype has presented has ranged widely, but over a decade a kind of house style (or at least stereotype) has emerged. The subject matter leans toward the politically charged and emotionally brutal, extreme even by operatic standards of suffering. Electronics are often in the mix, as is amplification even in tiny theaters, and the music tends rock-inflected and intense — and often just plain loud, with a shouting-in-your-face urgency that can be thrilling from some artists, wearying from others.
Despite a couple of crashing moments, though, the three premieres over this year’s first weekend kept the volume fairly moderate. (Silvana Estrada’s “Marchita” and David Lang’s “note to a friend” open later this week, and the animated opera “Undine” is streaming.)
Even without (too much) screaming, the intensity rarely flags in Emma O’Halloran’s two-hour double bill about the down and out and desperate for connection, “Trade/Mary Motorhead” — to librettos by her uncle, the actor and writer Mark O’Halloran — at Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side.
Directed by Tom Creed, both operas offer virtuosic showcases for daring singing actors. “Mary Motorhead” is a monodrama featuring the vivid, charismatic Naomi Louisa O’Connell in the raconteur title role of a woman in prison for killing her husband. In “Trade,” set in a hotel room where two men — one older, one younger — are meeting for sex, the Broadway veteran Marc Kudisch and the tenor Kyle Bielfield are fiercely committed as they toggle between aggression and tenderness.
With Elaine Kelly conducting the ensemble NOVUS NY, O’Halloran shapes lucid, communicative vocal lines; the text always sings out. “Mary Motorhead” finds its protagonist sometimes angry, sometimes exhausted; “Trade” has the relentlessly, effectively weepy emotionalism of Kevin Puts’s “The Hours,” which recently played at the Metropolitan Opera, but is more affecting without the Met work’s overblown trappings.
O’Halloran rides these stories’ waves of feeling with some squealing electric guitar riffs, but Du Yun’s “In Our Daughter’s Eyes” — a collaboration with the librettist and director Michael Joseph McQuilken and the baritone Nathan Gunn at Baruch Performing Arts Center in Kips Bay — has more of the chamber-metal spirit that is a Prototype trademark.
Structured as a series of diary entries written by an expectant father who struggles to avoid falling off the wagon after learning that his unborn child has catastrophic health problems, the work (and Maruti Evans’s set) has a naturalistic core but also dreamlike flights. Gunn, once a hunky star in Mozart and Britten, is now in his early 50s and the physical and temperamental embodiment of the earnest American dad. He’s masculinity incarnate, in all its confidence and anxieties — direct, sonorous and conversational even as the tragedy builds.
The score is intriguingly varied and eccentric: sometimes spare yet warm, as in a clever passage bringing together cello and muted trumpet; sometimes noirish Badalamenti-style cool vamping; sometimes chilly instrumental squiggles and shards; and sometimes exploding in raucous, frantic energy.
The more blaringly rock passages have much in common with “Black Lodge,” McQuilken’s recent, wailing collaboration with the composer David T. Little, which premiered in Philadelphia a few months ago. As in that piece, the music here is rather more interesting than the text, which could use a little more subtlety. And the 75-minute length is palpable in a one-man show; “Mary Motorhead,” by comparison, lasts a compact 30.
Despite a bit of lag toward the end, “mɔɹnɪŋ [morning//mourning],” felt considerably tighter, without losing its charmingly patient way of unfolding. One of its most memorable scenes is a wittily nostalgic look back at humans and their habits, once the Anthropocene has been left far behind: “I liked their sustaining fealty to two-dimensional imagery in rectangle frames,” one line goes.
The quiet climax of the piece is a song that relishes the moral that “nothing lasts forever.” Climate change is the work’s unspoken context, of course, and Bell offers a considerably more accepting (indeed, Zen-ly optimistic) vision of its deadly consequences than the current liberal consensus — something closer to that early-pandemic fantasy that “nature is healing.” Disaster is a fait accompli, Bell seems to be saying, so why not embrace what’s to come?
But is the piece’s implication that control over our destiny is an illusion and resistance is (at best) futile complicit in climate denialism? I’m not sure, and that question is why “mɔɹnɪŋ [morning//mourning]” left me smiling yet unsettled. And wanting to hear it again: Bring out a recording, please.