Prototype Festival 2019 Review

By Xenia Hanusiak

In this seventh edition of New York’s annual Prototype Festival, artistic co-directors Kristin Marting, Beth Morrison, Kim Whitener and Jecca Barry continue to build a contemporary opera and music theater festival that is canny, opportunistic, and fulfills a niche.

Programmed during the high season of New York’s busy commercial arts markets (APAP, and ISPA), and experimental theater seasons (Under the Radar), the festival has a ready audience not only to fill the houses, but one that is informed and open to explore the new horizons of 21stcentury opera. The nine-day, 10 presentation festival in January is now steadied for its formulaic programming approach. Audiences can expect to attend at least one U.S. premiere of an international production, a full production of a new American opera, typically nurtured and developed by the Prototype umbrella in collaboration with its many co-operating organizations such as HERE, French Institute Alliance Francaise (FIAF) or the Baruch Performing Arts Center, a cabaret show, and a number of works-in-progress.

The festival’s thematic palette emphasizes cultural touchstones and issues of our times –typically, the matter is dark, melancholic, despairing, and hopeless.

4.48 Psychosis

Pain, mental anguish, and isolation opened the 2019 iteration. London’s Royal Opera House production of Philip Venable’s opera, “4.48 Psychosis,” a 90-minute adaptation of the final play by British playwright Sarah Kane opened at the Baruch Performing Arts Centre.  The subject is traumatic. It is a dramatic rendering of Kane’s suicide note. Venables does not create a brand new libretto, but rather cuts and pastes Kane’s textual materials across the vocal lines and through projections.

His score for a six female voices and an ensemble of 14 instruments reveals English lineage.  At any given moment, my ear was attuned to echoes of Purcell and Michael Nyman; Purcell because of the employ of ground bass and chromatic (weeping) vocal lines (think “Dido and Aeneas”) and Nyman because of his characteristic use of baritone saxophones (think the score for Greenaway’s “The Draughtsman’s Contract”). I am not suggesting that Venable’s approach is derivative. Save for some period specific, Berlioz sounding timpani and bass drum episodes, the score felt as as if it was written this century by a savvy pen.

In this performance, you could not fault the execution. Conductor and artistic director of Contemporaneous David Bloom marshaled the imported cast of singers from the London production, and his New York ensemble. The cast shared the emotional burden of the tragedy in solos and chorus. The voices consistently delivered an affecting beauty. I found this offer a salvation – a necessary antidote to witnessing this harrowing documentary of a hopeless life scenario.

Despite the rhythmic intensity of the score and the accomplished vocal writing, the theatrical and dramatic treatment was rather monochromatic. I was not persuaded by a point of view.


One could also not fault the performances in the Ellen Reid/Roxie Perkins opera-theatre work “PRISM.”  Billed as a rolling world premiere, “PRISM” featured the duo cast of mezzo-soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb and soprano Anna Schubert, the stratospherically acute Choir of Trinity Wall Street as an off-stage chorus, and instrumental work of Novus NY under the direction of Julian Wachner. As the mother, Rebecca Jo Loeb was particularly impressive, revealing at all times a lustrous and commanding timbre.

Once again, women are the unfortunate victims. “PRISM” is a psychological, reverse narrative that deliberates on the post-traumatic stress that accompanies the suffering of sexual assault. Centering on issues of guilt and possessiveness, escape and refuge, Roxie Perkins’ deliberately oblique libretto, narrates her concerns through the portrait of a troubled and perplexing mother-daughter relationship. Perkin’s route is circuitous and one has to dig deep to extract the opera’s reason to be.

Dramatically weak, this two-act, opera-theatre work interpolated with dance sequences, shone its most blazing light on the vision of composer Ellen Reid. Reid possesses a mastery of orchestration and an acute sense for dramatic settings. One quietly wondered if the collaborators in this offer undermined her significant achievements in the score.

Train With No Midnight

A provocation of a persuasively distracting kind arrived in the form of the magnetically intriguing, and out-of the-box talents of writer, composer, and rising performer Joseph Keckler via his one-man show “Train With No Midnight.”

Keckler is an original talent on the cusp. I was not reminded of anyone else. Though, if one searched high and low, one could veer towards the genre-defying work of Rufus Wainwright, or Joel Grey. Keckler owns a rich mellifluous operatic baritone able to scale falsetto heights and conjugate a variety of styles.

Train With No Midnight” is a biographical travel diary, that is one part coming of age story, and one-part documentary.  It is a musical road movie in cabaret style. Keckler’s songs are vignette-driven scenarios that take us in no chronological order to Germany, Bushwick, Brooklyn, home town Michigan, Times Square, and finally to the train with no midnight. Keckler explores liminal and shadow states.

Each song in Keckler’s catalogue (a.k.a. song cycle) is performed in operatic Italian or French, lieder-esque German or English. The song genre is nonspecific. Keckler casts himself as the lead in each of his journey locales and the parallel to Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer comes to mind.

The vision behind Prototype is worthy. The festival offers opportunities to rising artists such as Keckler and Reid and offers audiences a different passage to opera. Prototype remains a heroic venture.


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