The third season of the Prototype: Opera/Theatre/Now festival opened ominously last week, with 31 young women dressed in black singing against the evil that can come with group control. Toxic Psalms, performed by the Carmina Slovenica vocal theater company of Slovenia for five performances at St. Ann’s Warehouse, was a powerful 90-minute collision of music — ranging from medieval to modern — accented by movement.
This “choregie” style developed by artistic director Karmina Šilec for Carmina Slovenica is based on the idea of choruses in Greek tragedy, mixing ensemble choreography with choral performance. Toxic Psalms, directed by Šilec, is described as “a reflection of the spiritual anguish of today.” At times somber and meditative, at times visceral, the chorus of Toxic Psalms was a response to violence against women, suppression, and control.
With its high-contrast details, Toxic Psalms at times resembled a more budget-conscious Robert Wilson production. Šilec deployed sparse props and occasionally made use of a smoke machine; the predominant color came in the bursts of yellow provided by scattered lemons, glow sticks, and a wandering girl in a yellow dress. The chorus transitioned from the haunting 18th-century hymnal “Stabat Mater” by Pergolesi, to a prowling call-and-response version of contemporary Estonian composer Veljo Tormis’s 1972 anti-war song “Raua needmine” (“Curse Upon Iron”) with megaphones. Interspersing these pieces with Rachmaninoff’s “Rejoice, O Virgin” — the melody of which backed the Pussy Riot performance that led to the bandmates’ two-year prison sentences — and other selections like a Syrian Orthodox song, Toxic Psalms attempted to show the potential poison of groupthink through a global voice.
Toxic Psalms wasn’t perfect. Šilec struggled to balance the more abstract vocal and movement sections, when the performance’s message was often submerged by the incredible visuals, with the heavy-handed monologues that slowed the piece’s pace. However, witnessing the New York debut of Carmina Slovenica’s intense and unique approach to political performance was a reminder of why festivals like Prototype, which continues through this Saturday, can be so invigorating.
There’s a cluster of performing arts festivals happening around the APAP conference this month, including COIL, Under the Radar, and American Realness. Prototype, co-produced by Beth Morrison Projects and HERE with a focus on opera and chorus, neither of which are widely represented in an experimental way in New York, is already showing in just its third year how these art forms can have an unexpected contemporary resonance. Especially at a time of heightened anxiety about the ways that religion, extremism, and us-versus-them attitudes can destroy communities, the incredibly talented young women of Carmina Slovenica remind us that a collective can also be a positive power.