Angel’s Bone opened the Prototype festival of opera and theater on Wednesday night at the Three Legged Dog Art & Technology Center. Technically a world premiere performance Wednesday night, the work has been in development since 2010 and was shown in a preview at the 2014 Prototype festival. The years of incubation are evident. Angel’s Bone is a fully realized vision. Spare yet complex, the work is a wholly original parable on the danger of greed. The work of composer Du Yun ranges across musical genres, from medieval polyphony to punk, in a way that interweaves and juxtaposes the sacred and the profane without ever degrading to pastiche.
The opera opens with a married woman, Mrs. X.E. (Abigail Fischer), fantasizing about telling her husband that she doesn’t love him. “What if I didn’t love you?” she asks a stand-in for Mr. X.E. “What if I was meant to be legendary?”
The X.E.s are having financial difficulties. They have defaulted on their mortgage, missed payments, and even gone a week without power. All these problems Mrs. X.E. sees as hardships she and her husband have endured. When her husband (Kyle Pfortmiller) finds a pair of fallen angels in the yard, Mrs. X.E. sees them as a reward and a salvation. “We need this,” she urges her husband. Handing him a butcher knife, Mrs. X.E. asks her husband to remove the angels’ wings. “Prune them,” she says, in one of the opera’s most chilling moments. Keeping the angels, stripped of their feathers, captive in a claw-foot bathtub, the X.E.s force the angels into prostitution. Strangers come into their home — the Choir of Trinity Wall Street changing from the black robes they initially wear into assorted street clothes — to see the angels, be with them, and take things from them.
In the program notes and in promotional materials for the opera, Du explains that its story concerns human trafficking. The opera tracks along lines of currency — money, love, sex, or feathers — and manipulation. Angel’s Bone never becomes explicitly political, but the angels can stand for more than human victims. Like the subjects of any extractive economy, they have been plundered. When Mr. X.E. explains to the angels that it will all be OK, putting the Girl Angel into a chiffon skirt, we see that the angel trusts Mr. X.E. She and the Boy Angel believe all people are essentially good.
Kyle Bielfeld, an astonishing tenor who studied at New York University and Juilliard, is perfectly cast as the Boy Angel. The Girl Angel is played by Jennifer Charles, one half of the New York-based music group Elysian Fields. Bielfield’s and Charles’s voices mix in a pleasingly delicate way, with Charles ringing fainter but just as clear as Bielfield. Charles is given one solo, a punk-like song that screams the pain of sexual assault. For this she takes a hand-held microphone.
The scenic and costume design are by Matt Saunders and Kate Fry, respectively. Both include 1980s-era designs, a nod to the days when overt greed was good. Royce Vavrek’s libretto is admirable for its directness. (Vavrek has another piece, the New York City premiere of Dog Days, playing in Prototype.) The NOVUS NY orchestra is conducted by Julian Wachner.
The space at 3LD is an all-white black box theater. There are no wings, no fly space, no orchestra pit. The audience sits in folding chairs on risers opposite the space. Stagehands walk through and around the periphery of the performance space, moving walls on which videos are projected, and picking up props. The orchestra is positioned upstage right. When they aren’t part of the action, the members of the chorus stand behind the instrumentalists . A bed is wedged into the downstage right corner.
These component parts — choir, singers, set design, choreography, video, and music — come together in moments of very effective theater. After the couple has committed to pimping the angels, Mrs. X.E. takes down her hair, facing the audience through an empty mirror. She is singing to her reflection, but minutes later she walks a catwalk formed by the choir members, who freeze in vogue-like dance movements. Mrs. X.E. is advertising her wares — “feathers glisten like diamonds” — to a decadent, almost grotesque clientele.
The space is handled effectively by director Michael McQuilken, who joined Du’s project last year, and it adds to the experimental feel of the work. Nevertheless, Angel’s Bone is a mature and complex work. It is a fable inside an allegory and its soundscape ranges across the history of Western music. Given this grand scope, I was left wondering how it might play on a bigger, more formal stage.
Innovative opera and music theater are flourishing in New York and other cities in the United States, thanks in part to producers like Beth Morrison and the people at HERE. But this flourishing is also partly the result of structural forces playing out in the classical music world. We are witnessing the rise of what music historian Joseph Horowitz calls the “post-classical musician.” Choosing not to rely on performing arts institutions for full-time work, these performers and creatives are combining freelance work with teaching and other jobs to form their careers. The logistical challenge of bringing these ensembles together to create a show like Angel’s Bone is enormous, hence the importance of cultural centers like New York City in attracting and retaining talent. Angel’s Bone might have legs; an established opera company could well perform it in the coming years, if Du and her collaborators agree.
Then again, contemporary American operas like Angel’s Bone that touch on timely yet universal subjects, are sung in English and performed in intimate spaces like 3LD, challenge opera’s reputation opera for being elitist, stuffy, and effete. Perhaps to stage it in a conventional opera setting and format would amount to clipping its wings.
Performances of Angel’s Bone continue at the 3-Legged Dog Art and Technology Center (80 Greenwich Street, Financial District, Manhattan) through January 16. The Prototype festival continues through January 17.