Prototype Festival 2020 Review: Blood Moon
Garrett Fisher & Ellen McLaughlin Take on Big Questions & Get A Big WinBy Chris Ruel
East met West during Wednesday evening’s performance of Garret Fisher and Ellen McLaughlin’s “Blood Moon,” a chamber opera for three voices staged at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in New York, one of six opera/musical theater productions featured in this year’s Prototype Festival. The show was the third in its world premiere run.
Commissioned by Beth Morrison Projects, the creative power of “Blood Moon” delivered an impressive sensory and intellectual feast. Director Rachel Dickstein’s staging was alive with visual power, while Steven Osgood led an exceptional group of instrumentalists through wildly intricate rhythmic elements and mystical interludes with tight control. Taken as a whole, “Blood Moon” was 90-minutes of riveting, poetic opera theater.
The work’s story is beautiful in its simplicity. 40 years in the past, a man (the Nephew) brought his aunt to the top of a mountain and abandoned her to die beneath a full moon. The action picks up with the Nephew returning to the summit on the 40th anniversary of his act and beseeching the moon to facilitate a conversation with his deceased aunt. His goal is to release her spirit and free his guilt. The moon grants his wish and the ghost of his aunt appears. The ghost of the Aunt schools the Nephew in the mysteries of transience and permanence, living and dying, and freedom and imprisonment.
With no convoluted plots or intrigue to navigate, the economy of the narrative enabled one to absorb the experience, to sit and soak in the sound of the human voice and the instruments, and be lifted into the realm of spiritual meditation. “Blood Moon” is not for the philosophically averse as the poetry of the libretto is steeped in Eastern thought. Easy questions and answers are not offered; rather they are left for the audience to contemplate and chew on long after the conclusion of the show.
The Artistry of “Blood Moon”
Puppeteer/Dancer Takemi Kitamura worked the Aunt’s ghost puppet in the tradition of bunraku, a revered and highly intricate art form involving multiple puppeteers, each controlling certain parts of the doll. In “Blood Moon,” Kitamura did all the work herself. The result was splendidly haunting, particularly when, with the puppet raised to eye level, she circled the stage, causing the gauzy, green dress clothing to flutter and flow in the breeze. As a dancer, Kitamura was equally impressive, twisting and turning her body with frenetic energy to express the turmoil within the Aunt.
Countertenor Ju-eh/Juecheng Chen, singing the role of the Moon, entered wearing a flowing iridescent gown that draped his arms while the center of the costume shimmered silver, matching his painted face. For much of the show, he stood in front of a projected image of the moon that waxed and waned in size. Vocally, the countertenor’s instrument gleamed like the glowing orb he portrayed. There was a precise crispness in his diction and solid control at the top and bottom of his range. When singing in trios and duets, his voice hovered above that of mezzo Nina Yoshida Nelsen, always complimenting her line, never overpowering it.
Singing the role of the Aunt, Nina Yoshida Nelsen, was a powerhouse. Her voice and actions convincingly expressed the emotions of abandonment—from anger to sadness to helplessness and loneliness. When she sang of the moon, the Aunt’s sole companion on that terrible night, the sentiment felt real and full, leaving an impression that was lasting in its potency. Of particular note was Nelsen’s achingly poignant recitation of the Aunt’s three memories: the crane, the kite, and the night the Nephew abandoned her on the snowy peak. Nelsen exquisitely represented McLaughlin’s poetic libretto as she sang the “Three Memory” sequence.
The first memory was that of a crane, the aunt recalling her sadness at being unlucky in love. She speaks of the beauty of watching the bird take flight, how it filled her spirit during a dark moment in her life. “Suddenly before me a sand hill crane lifted, lurching, ungainly, her great wings churning the air. Then she heaved herself into grace and dawn’s open sky,” she says.
The second memory was of a kite she made and presented as a gift to the Nephew. She remembered the young boy running and the kite rising from the earth. In his excitement, the Nephew inadvertently drops the string. They recover the kite, but shortly thereafter, the Nephew purposefully releases the tether, “… teaching [the kite] freedom and its home. Its home in the sky.”
The final and most devastating of the three memories is of the night the Nephew left her to perish. It is here where the Aunt speaks of the moon as her companion. “I was not alone. I was not alone. I had the moon… I gazed, all night I gazed at it and thought back on what I’d been, what I was soon to lose. Even in my dying, there was beauty.” Nelson had splendid material to work with and she did McLaughlin’s words justice.
Wei Wu, as the Nephew, boomed with his mighty, Grammy-award winning bass. Wu sang Kobun in the world premiere of “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” a role he will reprise this year with San Francisco Opera. With a human taiko drum voice, his tone reverberated throughout the auditorium whether employed tenderly or released with Zeus-like power.
Wu performed with nuance, coloring his lines with the weight and gravity of the Nephew’s deed. He made the Nephew’s guilt, remorse, and sorrow palpable and relatable. Wu didn’t portray a monster, though the Nephew’s deed was monstrous. Instead, he displayed a man tormented by regret and remorse. Similar to the depth of feeling displayed by Nelsen in the “Three Memories,” Wu sang with devastating effect the Nephew’s memories, recalling the Aunt lovingly bathing him, the delicious peach she picked and handed to him, and, finally, his connection to her, singing, “I find that everything I kept of my life has something to do with you. With you. Oh, my aunt. All these years, I’ve been yearning for you.”
With such radiant performances by the four artists on stage, it’s difficult to single any out as a show-stealer. They were all stellar, giving 100 percent in service to their characters.
It’s rare for individual instrumentalists to get shout-outs in opera theater reviews. But with chamber operas, there is the opportunity to hear stand-out performances and, with “Blood Moon,” there were three.
First are the two taiko drummers, Fumi Tanakadate and Barbara Merjan. The show opens with their thunder. I watched as they readied themselves, their bachi held high, their muscles tight and ready to deliver the blows to the skins before the big boom. Throughout the performance, I often glanced over to observe their artistry and marvel at how they could at one moment shake the room and at another, produce distant, soft rumbles. It was special to watch, to hear, and to feel.
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the stage, Adam Young, alternating between the viola de gamba and cello, played some of the most haunting lines of the evening. I’m partial to the instruments, but Young worked the strings and bow in ways that sent not a few shivers up my spine. When he played, I closed my eyes and let the sound wash over me.
Ellen McLaughlin’s libretto was pure meditative poetry. I’ve given you a taste of some of the lines she penned, but the one that struck me like no other spurred the contemplation the opera seeks to inspire. “Ours and not ours.” This line is sung in reference to the moon, but really it refers to everything. What we believe to be ours is. But equally so, what we believe to be ours is not. Such is “the strangeness of brief time.” The one thing we can do is live our lives while we can, for even our lives are ours and not ours.
Visually and musically intriguing, emotionally gripping, and philosophically beguiling, “Blood Moon” took on the big questions and came up with a big win.