Performance

From Slut Shaming to Systemic Racism, Indie Opera Tackles Timely Issues

These operas are not the types of performances seen at traditional opera venues with their generous budgets, megastars, and perfect-pitch performances.

Bess McNeill (Kiera Duffy) surrounded by men of the village in Breaking the Waves (photo by Dominic Mercier)

The Prototype Festival, which just completed its fifth season and is produced in collaboration with Beth Morrison Projects and HERE, has highlighted the growing influence of indie opera in New York City and beyond. According to Peter Szep, the podcast producer for indieopera.com, there are approximately 80 active indie opera companies spread throughout New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Texas, and Canada, a sprouting that sees no sign of slowing down.

This year, the festival, which ran during the second week of January, not only offered discussions with the creator of each of the seven operas it presented, but also a broader panel titled “Illumination or Exploitation: Depicting Violence Against Women In Art” — not your everyday opera lover’s fare.

Among the highlights was Breaking the Waves, which showed at New York University’s Skirball Center. Scored by composer Missy Mazzoli, with a libretto by Royce Vavrek, and directed by James Darrah, the piece is Opera Philadelphia’s adaptation of the film by Lars von Trier. The story is a complex, dour, haunting, and occasionally humorous morality tale exploring love, faith, sex, the church, Scots, and by default, all of patriarchy. Operas are particularly well suited as repositories of highly diva–driven dramas, and Breaking the Waves takes the idea of slut shaming, something von Trier is especially adept at mining, to new heights. The production induced a continuous emotional whiplash, slowly petering out at the end with drawn-out scenes of bereavement.

The live action commenced the moment the audience entered, with onstage events never missing a beat, even throughout intermission. There was full frontal female and male nudity, simulated hand jobs, and copulation interspersed with heart-wrenching, deluded self-sacrifice mixed with stern Calvinistic morality tinged by imagined conversations with God. The main character Bess McNeill, acted by Kiera Duffy, was a part that could have steamrolled a singer of lesser stamina — Duffy played naïve, coy, confused, in love, mutilated, and finally dead in various states of dress and undress. The same goes for the male lead, her husband Jan Nyman, or “Jan from the (oil) rig,” played by John Moore. His most substantial arias were delivered in a neck brace lying prone atop a wooden board.

Bess McNeil (Kiera Duffy) and her invalid husband Jan Nyman (John Moore) (photo by Nicholas Korkos)

Bess is in continual dialogue with God, whom she believes admonishes her by proclaiming, “I giveth and taketh away.” She praises her new husband Jan for his wonderful “prick,” then psychologically flagellates herself when Jan returns from the rig paralyzed by a head injury. In a drug–induced state he begs her to take on other lovers, telling her it will cure his illness. Bess, ever the dutiful wife, discovers in fits and starts she has a special talent for “getting fucked by strangers.” This begins her descent into excommunication by the church, abandonment by her own mother, degradation, and finally murder at the hands of a sexual sadist. Meanwhile the ‘victims’ of her out-of-control libido go scot-free. Eros and Thanatos occupy equal billing; as Jan incrementally recovers a bit more each time, Bess sinks further into moral turpitude. It begs the question of what really killed Bess. Love? Patriarchy? Hypocrisy? The church? Her character? Female libido? Jan’s brain on drugs?

The opera contains tight plot lines, larger philosophical questions, and empathetic characters. The live music never obscures the narrative, but inches it along. The addition of projected subtitles made sure none of the linguistic nuances of the libretto were missed. Breaking the Waves is not a radical opera, but is an important one that conveys complex human emotions and events.

M. Lamar in Funeral Doom Spiritual (photo by Jill Steinberg)

Funeral Doom Spiritual at National Sawdust resembled, in moments, pre-development Williamsburg during its Mustard Factory and Billy Basinski’s Arcadia days. The opera was performed by M. Lamar and co-composed by Hunter Hunt-Hendrix and co-librettist Tucker Culbertson. Lamar, a Yale School of Art dropout and self-described “NEGROGOTHIC devil worshipping free black man in the blues tradition,” entered a pink, lilac smoke-filled stage in a campy costume. He sat down to play the piano, accompanied by his banshee level wails, moans, and screams. There was live, mostly string music by the black-hooded James Ilgenfritz Ensemble, who resembled goth klansmen. The performance dipped into sly moments where Lamar took on Marianne Anderson–like posturing and poses.

Yet, over its 75 minutes Funeral Doom Spiritual distilled generations’ worth of traumatic grief and sorrowful mourning with “visions of black male personhood, embodiment, and subjectivity” and “neo-segregation.” The opera conveyed centuries of black ancestors literally carrying the coffins of tormented lost ones on their backs. The singing style was strongly reminiscent of Diamanda Galás’s tortured rendition of “Oh Death,” though Lamar preferred to call the music a mix of “soul and German lieder” or “negro goth music.”

Though bewitching and profoundly moving, I longed for the dramatic relief or interjection of some other character or point of view to contribute a counterweight to the endless wailing that included phases like “they cut off our manhood.” That being said, the performance successfully conjured up what Lamar described as the “negro zombie apocalypse,” while the image of a boy lying inside a coffin was projected onto the theater walls. The healing power of the church was alluded to with phrases about the “days of judgment,” and in a talk back after the performance, Lamar suggested the church has served as the “only place that attends to the interior lives of black people.”

Funeral Doom Spiritual performed live (photo by Jill Steinberg)

These are certainly not the types of presentations seen at traditional opera venues with their generous budgets, megastars, and perfect-pitch performances. Even mid-sized opera companies are imploding from fiscal overreach, as a new media-saturated generation wants to be moved by performances that reach beyond traditional topics, plots, storylines, and concerns. According to Kim Whitener, producing director of HERE and co-founder of Prototype, in 2008 “the general conversation was that new works couldn’t be produced because they were too risky and audiences wouldn’t come.” Since that time the emphasis has shifted towards actively seeking more radical pieces and fostering new voices and genres, as general directors seek timely and diverse voices and themes. Prototype, as well as the many indie start-ups busting out are starting to fill a vacuum by presenting voices that were previously absent.

The Prototype Festival ran at various venues around New York City from January 5–15.

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