Experimental Opera! What to See at This Year’s Prototype Festival

The annual music and theater festival presents high culture at low prices from new voices in the field of contemporary opera.

Photo courtesy of Beth Morrison BMP

For those of us whose exposure to opera amounts to little more than a distracted high school field trip and a justifiably beloved Bugs Bunny cartoon, it’s hard to imagine the genre as anything other than portly sopranos belting out a gilded vision of the 19th century. The seventh annual Prototype Festival, a coproduction of regular BAM booker Beth Morrison Projects and downtown avant-garde theater Here, upends those expectations with a roster of 11 fresh works, many of them American performance debuts or in-progress pieces.

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Photo by Alex Marks/Courtesy of Prototype

The emphasis for the nine-day series is on young librettists and composers, traditionally underrepresented voices, and female creators and stories. At $30 a ticket or $100 for a four-show pack, Prototype also offers excellent value for curiosity seekers in a genre that traditionally prices itself out of a dilettante’s range.

The entire festival lineup—which includes a one-night-only tribute to the late composer Matt Marks, a bilingual history of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, and a multimedia rock opera centered on one woman’s attempt at motherhood—merits attention and exploration, but I’m recommending the following four must-see performances. Take a chance and ring in the start of your cultural New Year with these exhilarating, challenging, and inspiring operatic works.

4.48 Psychosis

Playwright Sarah Kane was a Roman candle in the ’90s British theater scene, garnering praise and criticism for her transgressive and violent writing before her suicide at age 28. Kane’s final play, 4.48 Psychosis, has become her signature work, an experimentally staged and stylistically variegated assemblage of scenes straining against the miasma of clinical depression. Composer Philip Venables’s 2016 adaptation of 4.48 inspired rave reviews and sold out audiences at its Royal Opera staging earlier this year; this Prototype run is the opera’s U.S. premiere. Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Avenue (at East 24th Street), Gramercy; January 5–12

new york opera Performance Live Do
Photo by Stephen Cummiskey/Courtesy of Prototype

Out of Bounds: Partita for 8 Voices

Composer Caroline Shaw won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for music for the gloriously beautiful Partita for 8 Voices, a short a cappella suite written for her acclaimed vocal ensemble, Roomful of Teeth. Partita lifts themes and styles from an array of American traditions, both classical and contemporary, to produce a haunting musical piece that brims with delicate ecstasy. I imagine this first-ever free public performance of Partita, along the Times Square pedestrian walkway, will bring some genuine magic to midtown. Broadway Plaza (between West 43rd and 44th Streets), Times Square; January 7

Stinney: An American Execution

In 1944, a South Carolina jury sentenced a 14-year-old African-American boy named George Stinney Jr. to death for the crimes of rape and murder. He remains the youngest person executed in America after the 20th century. Though Stinney was belatedly exonerated by the same court system that killed him 70 years earlier, it’s not difficult to draw a connection between Stinney’s martyrdom and the institutional racism of modern policing. Composer Frances Pollack and colibrettist Tia Price’s challenging new work, based on the circumstances of the Stinney execution, drives those parallels home by employing vernacular song styles contemporary both to the 1940s and the 2010s. Florence Gould Hall at the French Institute Alliance Française, 55 East 59th Street (between Park and Madison Avenues), Midtown East; January 12 and 13

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Photo by William Roller/Courtesy of Prototype

Mila, Great Sorcerer

The life story of the millennia-old wise man Milarepa is an important parable within the Buddhist faith. As the legend is told, the young Milarepa sought revenge on his aunt and uncle, killing them and much of their home village through the use of black magic. This massacre changed Milarepa irrevocably, and he spent the rest of his life seeking enlightenment and atonement for his sins. Composer Andrea Clearfield’s exploration of Milarepa’s journey from mass murderer to Buddha incorporates ancient Tibetan instrumentation to the traditional vocal and chamber choir. Colibrettists Jean-Claude van Itallie and Lois Walden instill this tale with the breath of modernity, linking Milarepa’s regret over righteous killing with the immediate plague of PTSD affecting America’s homebound soldiers. Gerald W. Lynch Theater, 524 West 59th Street (between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues), Hell’s Kitchen; January 12 and 13

Care to make a night of it? Let us know!