“There are all these incredible artists who create work that’s really hard to define,” Beth Morrison, a music theater impresario, said in a recent interview. “It’s beautiful, weird, and challenging, interdisciplinary work, and there’s very little room for that in New York right now.”
As one of the founders of the Prototype Festival in particular, Morrison, the leader of Beth Morrison Projects, produces with such incandescent enthusiasm just such works – operas and other pieces that can approach cabaret, concert or musical forms but defy categorization. She’s she, which started 10 years ago and returns Thursday with seven shows that are as distinctive and fearlessly bizarre as ever.
The niche Prototype occupies in the New York performing arts calendar—an entirely musical cousin to the Under the Radar theater festival this month—has become increasingly important as Lincoln Center moves away from offering festivities to host rooms and perks. For example, garde operas or small theaters producing new works with Broadway in mind.
Things didn’t get any better when Prototype, created by Beth Morrison Projects and HERE, took shape with the help of a Mellon Foundation grant. “There wasn’t much else,” said Kim Whitener, founding director (and formerly HERE’s) now an independent producer. “There seemed to be no room for this really important work.”
The prototype staged black box productions and work in progress over the years, and as his operas such as “Dog Days” and “Breaking the Waves” grew in scale, they spread to theaters across the city. Streaming projects commissioned during the pandemic. And last year, when the spread of the Omicron variant led to the festival being canceled just days before it started, it once again adapted, finding ways to save most of its schedules.
Du Yun and Royce Vavrek’s Pulitzer Prize winning film “Angel’s Bone” (2016). This year, Du Yun has a new chamber opera written and performed for baritone Nathan Gunn. Credit… Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
Along the way, he became one of the first supporters of artists such as Taylor Mac and Rugile Barzdziukaite, Vaiva Grainyte and Lina Lapelyte — the critically acclaimed Lithuanian trio known worldwide for their opera “Sun and Sea”. Two Prototype performances, Du Yun and Royce Vavrek’s opera “Angel’s Bone” and Ellen Reid and Roxie Perkins’ “Prism” won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
Du Yun is back this year with the chamber opera “In Our Daughter’s Eyes,” written and starring for baritone Nathan Gunn; other productions include Emma O’Halloran’s double bill “Trade/Mary Motorhead”, vocalist Gelsey Bell’s “mɔɹnɪŋ [morning//mourning]”, Silvana Estrada’s “Marchita”, David Lang’s “note to a friend” ” opera “Undine”. ” and the 10th anniversary celebration “The All Sing’ Here Lies Joy.’”
Morrison and Whitener – along with Kristin Marting, art director of HERE, who co-founded Prototypes and manages it with Morrison today, and Jecca Barry, a former director on the curatorial team for the 2023 edition – cover Prototype’s past and present in a group video. they discussed today Search. Here are edited excerpts from the speech.
In the last decade, what kind of impact have you observed Prototype on the industry?
JECCA BARRY We’ve seen other opera companies across the country launching their own festivals or exploring the idea of a second stage – other venues like black box theatres. Our first collaborative show with the Los Angeles Opera was “Dog Days” and it was on Redcat [a 200-seat theater]. LA Opera told us that 70 percent of the audience who came to see it had never set foot in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion [the company’s much larger home]. It’s actually about creating a completely different audience, and really, it’s Thereforeimportant to opera companies these days.
KRISTIN MARING It’s about both form and content. I feel the festival covers this spectrum of work. There’s a transition thing happening, and it’s because many of the artists we work with don’t try to stay within the lines. Then the second thing about the content: I feel like what we’re really interested in is socially relevant work that resonates with people – told by a set of people, a set of voices. I think it’s something the industry has happily included after being monochrome for so long.
How would you say that the cultural landscape of New York City has changed throughout Prototype’s history, and what did that mean for the festival’s mission?
beth morrison Currently, it is almost impossible to get an opera program at any venue in the city. The Metropolitan Opera is finally doing a new job with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, but there’s a lot of work created for smaller stages and other types of scenes that the big presenters don’t do here. And this is very difficult for a company like us that has no performance space. Our stuff used to be at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and that has completely changed. Lincoln Center doesn’t do opera. Shed doesn’t. This means that we can only do our work at our festival when we present it ourselves, and I think it’s really embarrassing.
BARRY The creative impulses are there. I mean, it’s unbelievable that so many young composers want to write their first opera right away.
WHO WHITENING They find their niche elsewhere. I just think we’re at a time of tremendous sea change; What we’re talking about about the loss of New York, you know, is a real sense of footprint for opera theater as we used to have.
How has the festival adapted when you think about the pandemic, changing audience habits, and new ways to present opera?
MORRISON We were truly proud of the commissions given to composers in 21 to create works in a digital space and to ensure that we have a presence and influence in the lives of our community at a time when we are all so locked in. Still, last year really sucked – having the festival canceled a week before its opening was utterly devastating. We lost several hundred thousand dollars because we paid all the artists. We managed to do three shows during the year, and then we moved other things to this January. But in conclusion, I think this year’s festival came together really well.
Does the festival’s success with awards such as the Pulitzer Prize affect how it works?
MARKINGI guess we take the same risks.
MORRISON We are committed to letting artists lead and sort of walking hand in hand and bringing their visions to the fore. This recognition is incredible and I think we are all very excited to be able to produce and present this work.
BARRY But I also think it’s a testament to resilience. Many companies developing new business, especially large corporations, are very strict in their structure about what it looks like and what the timeline is, and that’s not how any on-screen producer works. Both Pulitzer-winning pieces took more time than we originally thought and were remastered and rescheduled.
One artist asked, “Can I really do this?” And being able to say, “Yes, you can try this idea,” and on the other hand have the audience come and say, “I didn’t know you could do this with opera.” It’s very satisfying to be able to empower artists to take these risks and then see the audience.
MORRISON Especially with “Dog Days” and what Jecca just said – it reminds me of the phone call I got at the time David T. Little wrote: “I don’t think the last 20 minutes matter at all. The words. Good?” I love this phone call. This is the best phone call ever, because they’re asking permission to go in a totally pushy direction, and that’s what we want.
BLEACH When you truly trust the artist, they trust you too. They put this really raw, alien thing in your hands and trust you to go all the way.
BARRY And after that, we trust the audience. We’re putting out this work and trust that audiences will take this journey with us, and we have no expectation that anyone who comes to the Prototype show each year will love them all.
There are many world premieres at the festival this year. But we are still dealing with Covid and flu epidemics. How sure are you that Prototype is really back?
BARRY We have community agreements that we want everyone to follow to keep themselves as safe as possible. We do daily tests. We do weekly PCR. Anyone not performing is masked in the rehearsal. Therefore, we take many precautions. We agree that we can present all the performances we want to present to the audience this January.
BLEACH Something like opening night – all the artists getting together, getting together and partying – that’s definitely not happening right now. As a field, we miss this a lot. You hear everyone say: how much they miss the community.