Q & A: Roxie Perkins & Ellen Reid On Creating ‘p r i s m’ & Winning MCANA Award For Best New Opera

By Chris Ruel

It was announced on Wednesday that Roxie Perkins and Ellen Reid’s “p r i s m”  had won the Music Critics Association of North America third Annual Award for Best New Opera, following in the footsteps of such works as “Breaking the Waves” and “The Wake World.”

The opera, which premiered on November 29, 2018, as part of Los Angeles Opera’s Off Grand Series, tells the story of the devastating psychological fallout of sexual assault and how the human mind processes and retains memories of trauma, using color as a device reflective of the mental chaos left in the wake of sexual trauma.

OperaWire connected with Reid and Perkins about their win and the creation of “p r i s m.”

OW: Tell me, how do you feel having won the MCANA’s Third Annual Award for Best New Opera?

Roxie Perkins: It’s incredibly exciting that our piece and all the amazing work of our collaborators is being celebrated– it’s also very humbling considering the other great works that premiered this year. Overall, we just feel extremely honored.

OW: What does this award mean to you personally?

Ellen Reid: Winning the MCANA award is a huge honor. Winning this award for “p r i s m,” a piece that we thought would be so polarizing, a piece with such challenging subject matter, is truly beyond our wildest dreams. Receiving the MCANA award has given us courage to make brave work. We are indebted to the critics and audience members who would ‘go there’ with us. It wasn’t always (if rarely) comfortable, but it is definitely worth it. We hope that receiving this award will help “p r i s m” reach a broader audience and further the international dialogue around sexual assault and its aftermath.

RP: Coming from my background as a screenwriter/playwright/director, this award is especially meaningful to me because I know what an uphill battle it can be for young, female writers to get the opportunity to create original material in any medium– especially if you’re writing about subject matter that could be dismissed as a “woman’s issue.” I am very grateful that my collaborators were willing to take a risk and trust that audiences would connect to an original story. In that light, this award makes me feel hopeful that perhaps more producers/institutions will begin to see that taking a chance on new, original voices can create memorable work just as much as adapting already beloved stories can.

OW: How was it that the two of you came together to work on the project?

ER: We were introduced by the brilliant James Darrah, who directed “p r i s m.” Roxie was working on a play that needed music, so he brought me into the process. I was struck by the urgency and potency of Roxie’s text and was eager to work with her on a new opera.

OW: At any point in the creation process, did you get the feeling that you were making something magical, that things were happening during certain moments that just blew you away, and gave you shivers?

RP: There were so many magic moments during the creation of this piece! Here are three off the top of my head. One was definitely at our first workshop at Arizona State University. This was the first time we got to hear any of’ Ellen’s music played, as well as the first time I ever heard words’ I’d written sung operatically. It ripped all the skin off my body to hear the words come to life that I’d been living inside of for so long. It was the first time I really felt the magnitude of what “p r i s m” could become.

The second moment was when Ellen sent me the score for Act one and I plunked through it (very clumsily) on a keyboard in my bedroom. As soon as I heard the opening melody, I froze. It just felt so right, and I remember thinking that no matter what else happens–I know that this part is magic. Lastly, when we were in rehearsal in New York, we happened to be working on Act two during the first snowfall of the year. Our rehearsal’ room’s windows faced the street, and as Becca Jo Loeb (Lumee) sang her aria from Act two, snow began to fall very slowly. It felt like we were inside a snow globe, and also that maybe time had stopped existing, and gave me both literal and emotional shivers.

OW: Tell me about the collaborative process. How would you describe the working relationship?

ER: Our working relationship was very collaborative and involved. We would meet for literally six hours at a time at this diner in Los Feliz called Fred 62 where we would hash out ideas around story, symbology, pacing, and characters. We were able to workshop the piece twice, which led to many discoveries, both musically and textually.

The entire “p r i s m” team was involved in the development. Beth Morrison and James Darrah were always present, and their thoughts helped reflect and refine our creative impulses.

OW: When the initial reviews started coming in, were you surprised?

ER: Absolutely. We thought the piece would be very polarizing. We were holding our breath, hoping that we had made something that could permeate many divides to reach our audiences. When the LA Press was so effusive, we were truly in shock. We were blown away that people were responding with such positivity, and that it was a literally sold out run.

OW: Roxie, staying with you and your creative process, from where did the idea for “p r i s m” arise. I’m forever curious as a writer to hear not just about the formation of the initial idea, but the process of creating a compelling story. How many iterations did the libretto go through before you said: “This is it. This is what I want to say and how I want to say it?”

RP: The initial idea came from a mix of shared thematic interests that Ellen and I had and several ideas I presented to her about how to explore those themes. My own experience of PTSD is very formed around the memories associated/triggered by color and the way that trauma can erode language. I was really interested in making a piece that incorporated those ideas while exploring the sensory experience of living with PTSD. It was also very important to me to make an opera that confronted the emotional aftermath of sexual assault but did not depict the violence in any literal form on stage.

The piece went through many radical evolutions over the course of three years through a lot of discussion, writing, and rewriting. When I eventually landed on the rough form of what “p r i s m” is now we knew that it felt right but, for me at least, the writing process never really feels over until curtain call.

Once Ellen began to write the score, many more significant libretto rewrites happened as I was able to react to the full scope of her work. Even later on while we were in rehearsal for the premiere and I went through the process of creating the supertitles and choosing what language to show in the titles and what language to hide– that in itself felt like just another continuation of the libretto writing process.

OW: As with any art, once it leaves the artist’s hands and is put out into the universe, there’s a loss of control; the viewer, listener, reader, brings their own experiences to the encounter. But there’s still a vision the artist desires to impart. What was it that you hoped those in the audience would take away from their encounter with “p r i s m?”

RP: I think that it’s important to make work about uncomfortable subject matter in order to de-stigmatize the topics and encourage more compassionate conversations to happen around them. My greatest hope for what people that have experience with trauma/mental health issues and see the show is that watching “p r i s m” makes them feel less alone in what they’ve been through. For those audience members that don’t share those experiences, I hope that they can walk away from the show with a more nuanced understanding of the complex experience of trauma and how it can affect’ one’s relationship with their family, their past, and themselves.

Ultimately I hope that the show can either help people extend empathy towards those with experiences outside of their own, or help people extend more empathy towards themselves.

OW: What as the most challenging aspect of writing the libretto? How did you overcome the challenge?

RP: This being my first libretto, I think the most challenging aspect was figuring out how to utilize what is so incredibly unique and magical about opera, and also still experiment with form and language in my own voice. It was difficult, especially at first, to not be overwhelmed by the medium as someone from outside of it and without any serious musical training. I ultimately just had to trust that all I could do was bring myself generously to the work and not worry about whether what I was interested in pursuing was “opera-ey” enough. I’m very grateful to Ellen, James, and Beth for the freedom they gave me to explore and the enormous amount of faith they put in me to pull it off.

OW: Ellen, the MCANA Award for the Best New Opera isn’t the only recognition you’ve received for “p r i s m;” you were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music this past spring. It’s been quite a year for you. How do you feel about these monumental achievements?

ER: I am honored, and I am truly blown away beyond belief. These recognitions are both life-changing and life-affirming. Creating “p r i s m” was a very collaborative process, and the “p r i s m” team was overwhelmingly supportive and invested. “p r i s m” couldn’t exist without every artist that was involved. I hope that the recognitions that “p r i s m” has received will help it reach a larger audience and thereby help illuminate the devastating psychological effects of sexual assault.

OW: How did you formulate the musical ideas to accompany Roxie’s story?

ER: Roxie and I worked very collaboratively. Since our conversations around the story and the subject matter were really in-depth, I knew where the text was coming from and felt like it was my job to make the audience feel the text in the way we meant it. I would express to Roxie what I wanted to do musically in broad strokes, and she’d take that into consideration while writing. We came up with the structure together. We’d talk about the styles or music and language that would embody each act and go for those things together.

OW: What excited you about writing the music for “p r i s m?”

ER: I love many different types of music, and I was excited to be able to weave various styles into “p r i s m” in a way that exciting compositionally and also necessary for the storytelling.

OW: What was the most challenging aspect of writing the score? How did you overcome the challenge?

ER: The most challenging part of writing the score was crafting Act one. I was trying to limit the musical palette to something that didn’t involve many extended techniques or electronics, and so conveying the depth of the action through the limited musical vocabulary was really challenging. When I got stuck, I asked some people I really respect for their feedback. Marc Lowenstein, Julian Wachner, Missy Mazzoli, James Darrah and Jodie Landau looked at the score with me. It truly takes a village!

OW: And finally, are there plans for collaborations in the future?

RP: We hope so! Ellen and I would love to collaborate again in the future but don’t have exact plans as of yet.


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