A cry in the dark, gentle yet penetrating.
In ancient times, this sound from a creature must have been made: a sound was used to make drama, and – long before 16th century Italy – opera was really born.
So when “mɔɹnɪŋ [morning//mour]” begins, Gelsey Bell’s wonderful, uncategorized guide to what might happen on Earth millions and billions of years from human history feels like a connection to the roots of art. just such a gentle, penetrating cry in the dark; a slippery hum from the singers, the most obvious applause, and then the lights.
Presented by the brave, invaluable new music theater Prototype festival at HERE Arts Center in SoHo, “mɔɹnɪŋ [morning//mour]” is an intimate storytelling ritual, a kind of campfire tale that offers a glimpse far beyond the future. generally perceived.
Dressed in commune-style thrift store model shootouts on a barely adorned mushroom stage in front of over 100 people, Bell and four other artists sing and play modest instruments and objects, including drizzle and swirling marbles in bowls; simple synthesizers; a hand-held Celtic harp and a curved wooden saxophone.
The group never clarifies the catastrophe that destroyed human existence. (“In the first few hours,” he begins, “millions of dogs have peed where they don’t want to.”) But in song and speech, Bell, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Justin Hicks, Aviva Jaye, and Paul Pinto—poetic, prose, funny, and heartbreaking. way—describes the stages of rewildification, decomposition, and future evolution.
Clearly ominous but ultimately cunning and sweet, sad and lovable, and utterly adorable, the 90-minute show directed by Tara Ahmadinejad evokes the wordless collective seriousness of Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson’s enigmatic texts, and her spinning talent and populism. The sharpness of “Spring Awakening” that translates into the bright pop sweetness of Duncan Sheik. Bell is also a veteran of Robert Ashley’s groundbreaking operas, where he nods using sarcastic, realistic speech (sometimes with airy musical cadences) over lightly stunned drones.
The prototype began delivering small-scale but high-impact, carefully considered and often exciting work 10 years ago. It filled a void for experimental but professionally produced opera, edited by Beth Morrison Projects and HERE, many of which were staged in intimate black box-style venues and had a distinguished track record: Two Prototype shows, Du Yun and Royce Vavrek’s “Angel’s Bone,” and Ellen Reid and Roxie. Perkins’ “Prism” won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
This year’s iteration, which runs until January 15, marks a delightful return to cinemas for the festival, which went almost entirely virtual in 2021 and was canceled last year due to the Omicron wave. The loss of Prototype 2022 felt particularly acute because classical music and its stylistic descendants have largely survived an epidemic that had otherwise ravaged dance and theater even more.
The work that Prototype offers has spanned a wide spectrum, but over a decade or so a kind of home style (or at least cliché) has emerged. The subject matter is extreme, politically charged, and emotionally brutal, even by opera standards of suffering. Electronics are often in the mix, as are amplification, even in small movie theaters, and the music is rock-inspired and intense—and often just loud, exciting for some artists, with the urgency of shouting in your face, which can be exhausting from others.
Despite a few crash moments, the three premieres over the first weekend of this year kept the volume pretty reasonable. (Silvana Estrada’s “Marchita” and David Lang’s “Note to a friend” hit theaters this week, and the animated opera “Undine” is on the air.)
Even without (too much) screaming, Emma O’Halloran’s uncle rarely marks intensity in his desperate and desperately concerned two-hour double bill for the connection, “Trade/Mary Motorhead,” librettos by actor and writer Mark. O’Halloran – at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side.
Directed by Tom Creed, both operas offer virtuoso showcases for daring singing actors. “Mary Motorhead” is a lively, charismatic Naomi Louisa O’Connell monodrama starring a storyteller about a woman imprisoned for murdering her husband. Set in a hotel room, where two men, one old and one young, meet for sex, Broadway veteran Marc Kudisch and tenor Kyle Bielfield are fiercely bonded as they oscillate between aggression and affection.
With Elaine Kelly leading the NOVUS NY ensemble, O’Halloran shapes clear, communicative vocal lines; the text always sings. “Mary Motorhead” finds the protagonist sometimes angry, sometimes exhausted; “Trade” has the relentless, effectively tearful sensuality of Kevin Puts’ recent Metropolitan Opera play “The Hours,” but more impressive without the exaggerated embellishments of the Met work.
O’Halloran rips through the emotional waves of these stories with some squeaky electric guitar riffs, but Du Yun’s collaboration with librettist and director Michael Joseph McQuilken and baritone Nathan Gunn at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in Kips Bay is “In Our Daughter’s Eyes.” – has more of a chamber metal spirit, a Prototype trademark.
Structured as a series of diary entries (and Maruti Evans’ set), written by a future father struggling to keep from falling off the wagon after learning that his unborn child has devastating health problems, the work (and Maruti Evans’ set) has a naturalistic essence but also features dreamy flights. Once a handsome star on Mozart and Britten, Gunn is now in his early 50s and is the physical and temperamental embodiment of the serious American father. He is the embodiment of masculinity with all his confidence and concern – direct, vocal and talkative even as tragedy unfolds.
The score is intriguingly varied and eccentric: sometimes soft but warm, as in a clever passage combining cello and silent trumpet; sometimes noirish Badalamenti style cool vamping; sometimes cold instrumental fluctuations and fractures; and sometimes it explodes with a loud, frenzied energy.
Louder rock passages have much in common with McQuilken’s recent, wailing collaboration with composer David T. Little, which premiered in Philadelphia a few months ago. As with that piece, the music here is much more interesting than the text, which requires a little more finesse. And the 75-minute length is palpable in a one-man show; The “Mary Motorhead”, by comparison, takes a compact 30.
Despite a bit of a delay towards the end, “mɔɹnɪŋ [morning//mour]” felt pretty tight without losing its charmingly patient opening. One of his most memorable scenes is a humorous nostalgic look at people and their habits after the Anthropocene was long gone: “I loved their commitment to two-dimensional images in rectangular frames,” continues one line.
The quiet climax of the piece is a song that enjoys the “nothing lasts forever” ethos. Climate change is, of course, the unspoken context of the study, and Bell offers a much more accepting (actually Negro-optimistic) vision of its deadly consequences than the current liberal consensus – something closer to the early epidemic fantasy that “nature is healing”. “The disaster seems to be a fait accompli, so why don’t we embrace what’s to come?
But is the piece the implication that control over our destiny is an illusion and that resistance is (at best) a futile complicity in climate denialism? I am not sure and this was the question why “mɔɹnɪŋ [morning//mour]” made me smile but uneasy. And wanting to hear again: Please bring a sound recording.