Saturday, February 6, 2016

NYC Prototype Festival 2016

Bombay Rickey
Opera-Cabaret Presentation
HERE Arts Center
January 9, 2016

It's Bollywood meets surf rock meets Incan opera star.
Photo credit: Prototype
Lei: For our maiden voyage with the much-hyped Prototype Festival, we caught Bombay Rickey’s evening of “opera-cabaret” dedicated to the mysterious and mystical figure of the late great Yma Sumac. It was not really an opera but rather a series of musical numbers sewn together by a humorous narrative presented as banter between the different band members.

The Incan princess herself.
Photo credit: 20 minutos
Lui: The music of Bombay Rickey is a heady cocktail of very different genres stirred up by the leading lady’s use of her brilliant coloratura soprano both for traditional vocals and as a musical instrument. In this particular instance, it was their signature blend of Bollywood, spaghetti western, and surf guitar meets the Incan exoticism of the intriguing Yma Sumac, whose musical idiom is actually a perfect fit for the group’s otherwise highly evolved eclecticism. Mozart’s Queen of the Night was also thrown in the mix quite nicely as this soprano could totally handle it. I have a feeling they could be onto something if they keep exploring the Sumac sound. I sense a kindred spirit there.

Lei: While I loved their musical ideas and found them highly powerful, entertaining and thought provoking, more often than not the narrative felt forced and borderline silly. It was painfully evident that these artists are very fine musicians but it’s really not their job to be cabaret comic entertainers. If they only stuck to their music, that would have been more than enough to carry the show.

Lui: The conceit of the unnecessary narrative glue of the show was that the singer (Kamala Sankaram) somehow channeled or had become the reincarnated spirit of Peruvian singer Yma Sumac. Though the story took many twists and turns, it eventually included a series of diatribes about everything from identity politics and political correctness to cultural appropriation, late night television and Charlton Heston movies. Still, Bombay Rickey’s music is exciting, sophisticated and highly entertaining, will definitely look forward to seeing them again.

Channeling the spirit of Yma Sumac.
Photo credit: Prototype

David T. Little’s Dog Days
NYU Skirball Center
January 11, 2016

Here, little doggie.
Photo credit: The Guardian
Lei: NYU’s Skirball Center was packed and the buzz was palpable – on a Monday night no less. I have learned to keep my expectations very low on contemporary operas but nevertheless go every time as a (mostly painful) duty to keep up with what composers and librettists are popping out as opera nowadays. While Dog Days had an amazing score, I had a fundamental problem with virtually everything else. Libretto and theatrical plot did not work with the music. In addition to the usual problem of sung operatic English sounding ridiculous (why on earth do people need to sing “I’m out of deodorant”?), music and voices were all brutally amplified, which produced a cacophonic and fastidious effect. While I get the need to amplify the electronic effects in the score, I just could not get over feeling attacked by the sounds waves, and not in a good way. With maybe one exception (the Hello, beautiful aria), the work was just unpleasant to hear and rather ugly to watch. I do not need to see a girl wash her mother’s corpse with her own urine nor three men covered in blood writhe with feigned side-effects of their descent into cannibalism. I understand the points that the opera wants to make, with its reflection on the tenuous nature of civil society and that thin skein of decorum that makes us human and so on, but I also stand by the basic need for opera to be a pleasurable, enriching, exciting and enlightening experience. Dog Days just wasn't. I went home and listened to Verdi over and over again in the hope of cleaning out my ears.

Hello, beautiful!
Photo credit: Fort Worth Opera
Lui: Lauren Worsham, whose background singing in musicals seems to shine through the tessitura of her voice, was one of the highlights of the night. Her Hello, beautiful aria in the second half of the show was one of the most unique and unusually captivating musical moments I’ve experienced of late. The use of a camera mounted in the “mirror” was strikingly effective. Essentially, she sings the whole number staring straight into the mirror-mounted camera that is in turn being projected onto a huge screen above the stage and so the whole solipsistic aria, which is rife both with narcissism and a hearty dose of existential dread, ends up becoming an intimate theatrical experience. It opens up a space for the audience to peer directly into the raw soul of this quickly deteriorating character. The music here was also very interesting. Full of unusual tempo changes, false starts and longer flowing passages, intimating that a seed of self-confidence had taken root deep down inside her despite being overgrown with self-loathing and doubt, the aria kept you on your toes as you listened and stared transfixedly into her face on the big screen. Which also gave you that strange voyeuristic feeling of watching intently someone who both knows and doesn’t know she is being watched – strange because of the hybrid live-projection phenomenon they staged. It was like watching television, but there she was bearing her soul in a close up right there on the stage. It amounted to one of those moments of theatrical genius, I have to say.

Deodorant-less masculinity.
Photo credit: LAOpera
I wish I felt the same about most of the rest of the show. The music was brilliant. The story and most of the acting and other singing was not. Most of the text also lacked the kind of probing that the mirror aria put front and center. 

I’m all for staging bold challenging moments in opera or in any other genre but here the shocking bits just didn’t do it for me. From the cannibalism that apparently sends dad and brothers into seizure-like fits of convulsive hysteria to stripping mom and slowly wiping her body down with urine for like ten minutes simply felt gratuitous, anti-climactic and empty, though the intensity of the score in that final passage would lead you to think and feel otherwise: it features a sustained gradual crescendo of the entire electro-acoustic ensemble, with the electronic bits being featured most of all in this final movement. The reverb slowly builds like an enormous impenetrable wall of noise, consisting of feedback and other mostly abstract vibrating sounds that come off sounding like radiation. It was powerful and intense but at odds to me with what was happening in the scene.
It's a bleak, bleak world.
Photo credit: New York Times
Jorge Sosa’s La Reina
An Electro-Acoustic Opera
FIAF’s Florence Gould Hall
January 17, 2016

Lei: We braved a snowstorm and even Citi-Biked through Central Park to get to the Upper East Side venue of La Reina, and I’m so glad we did as this brilliant work by composer Jorge Sosa and librettist Laura Sosa Pedroza (commissioned by American Lyric Theater) restored my faith in contemporary opera. Musically, La Reina had so much going on, starting from a blend of different sounds that worked surprisingly well together delivering a complex soundscape: classical orchestra, electronic sounds (news reports, an echoing feedback filter on the death goddess’ voice, recordings of roosters, sirens, children crying). The English/Spanish blend worked (and will work even better in the hands of Hispanic singers – this cast meant well but there were a few too many Mexicans played by Gringos who butchered Spanish words like nobody’s business).

Lui: The plot is loosely based on the novel La Reina del Sur by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, about the rise and fall of a young Mexican woman, who is anything but ordinary. From the innocence of her provincial youth, she goes on to lead one of the most powerful and ruthless drug cartels and eventually winds up in prison. Interestingly, the novel is based on the real life of the Mexican drug cartel leader Sandra Ávila Beltrán and was also the source of a popular Mexican telenovela starring the actress Kate Del Castillo, who came to the forefront of international news recently for her key role in brokering an interview between El Chapo Guzman and Sean Penn (which is rumored to have led to the arrest of the Mexican drug lord).

The stuff Mexican telenovelas are made of.
Photo credit: Telemundo
Lei: As reworked for the opera, the story was thrilling and utterly captivating, timely and cathartic. It is the story of trauma, vengeance, violence and repentance, rife with morally ambiguous situations in which our heroine is forced to turn to the dark side and ultimately sees the light at the end. Fast paced and with many coups de théâtre, this opera has lots of staging potential (what we saw was a concert reading). The work was pleasant to the ear (pretty rare for a contemporary composition) and often oozed just sheer beauty. Most of all it was moving and deep just as an opera should be. The score features a multi-layered yet effective and smart use of different sounds, with the right balance between the classical and the electronic. The complexity of the score mirrors many levels of the story that encompasses travel through space and time as well across different dimensions (both in this world and the one that awaits in the afterlife).

Lui: At its core, La Reina is something of a Mephistopheles story. We open in the jail cell of La Reina who is praying to La Santa Muerte, patron saint of drug dealers, or so we’re told, when suddenly La Santa Muerte comes to life and appears to the suppliant prisoner. What ensues is a panoramic reprisal of the life that La Reina has lived and a reflection on everything that brought her to where she is today. In many ways, Goethe’s Faust seems to be in the background here, with the title character in the role of Faust and La Santa Muerte filling the shoes of Mephisto, who takes her on a guided tour of the intricacies of her life and leads her to reflect on what it all amounts to. And it is a wild, wild ride at that!

Lei: The libretto by Laura Sosa Pedroza and Jorge Sosa is pure genius, peppered with colorful regional Spanish expressions like, “Si quiere azul celeste que le cueste,” and other popular sayings  and nuggets of folk wisdom that a grandmother in a small village in Sinaloa might use. The language was very vivid and alive. As well as colloquial gangster talk as when one of the cohort says, “Chinguense ese para que los demas aprendan.” It’s real language from the streets that really enlivens the story.

Lui: Another fresh cultural touch was the way the composer incorporated the Mambró children’s nursery rhyme. Once I tuned into the way the composer intermingles these different musical vocabularies, I started to think that he could could have done much more with this kind of experiment in order to make the story come across even more authentically. Rather than draw on so much of the musical vocabulary of late twentieth-century operatic language, Sosa could have given this uniquely Mexican piece far more regional flavor. In my mind it would have been enriched by more Latin rhythms, more Mexican flavor, more regional inflection in all the best ways.

La Santa Muerte comes a knocking.
Photo credit: Prototype
Lei: The opera had several highly lyrical and moving moments: an innocent love duet at the wedding early in Act I, all of La Santa Muerte’s bits with the eerie, otherworldly electronic effects they used on her voice, not to mention the perfect deployment of coloratura by her character, and the finale that takes us to the land of Mictlan filled with candles symbolizing the countless victims of violence. Sosa’s unconventional compositional and dramatic ideas definitely have potential for a fully staged incarnation.

Lui: There were really a lot of suggestive dramatic moments that present real possibilities for a fully realized and utterly unique operatic experience. One of the key moments was when La Reina commits her first murder and she comes to realize how natural the cruelty of her dirty business comes to her. “L’arma fue leger en mi mano,” she reflects in retrospect on this pivotal moment in her journey. This is a mujer with cojones. And that to me was another plus about this opera: the conviction of this incredibly strong female lead. There isn't nearly enough of this kind of thing in the classic repertory.

And so, I have to hand it to the Prototype Festival for bringing us so many utterly unique voices, for representing experiences so different from what one usually finds, especially on the operatic stage and finally for giving us some hope that contemporary opera can break into new uncharted territory but also be beautiful and touching at the same time.  

– Lui & Lei

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