Like so many other cultural events, this year’s Prototype Festival was entirely virtual. Undaunted, it not only went ahead, but included productions that took full advantage of the online medium.
One was the dark opera The Murder of Halit Yozgat by Ben Frost. Brilliant camera work made this powerful piece an immersive experience. The show crashes into existence amid a tangled percussive rumble. High-concept, mostly unmelodic, it’s scored for strings, percussion, and recorded sound (what we used to call “tape”). It recounts – and recounts, and recounts – the 2006 murder in Germany of a son of Turkish immigrants. One of a string of white supremacist anti-immigrant killings, it’s a grim subject indeed.
Commissioned by Staatsoper Hannover and intended for a live production in 2020, now brilliantly reconfigured for video, the opera operates in a highly abstracted stream-of-consciousness mode, reminiscent of Dada with a splash of Rashomon. It mesmerizes with restless repetitions as cameras wheel slowly around and among the singers and musicians, revealing the theater’s empty seats, the sound system, the conductor, and all the workings.
Frost and librettist Daniela Danz tell the tale in fragments of internal and external conversations. They get into the heads of Yozgat and of the customers who were present at the time of his murder in the internet cafe where he worked. All play their parts again and again. Shots ping out. Yozgat falls. Insistent off-beat rhythms and moans from the strings suggest the dissociative horror of the discovery of a murder.
The cast, masked against the pandemic, leaves the raised stage, then, having switched roles, returns to sing it all over again. Each repetition surges past over a different but always disturbing score. The effect is like a recurring nightmare. The power of the sound and imagery builds with each iteration.
“I have learned that it helps to say Yes,” sings a voice, presumably Yozgat’s – “Yes” when asked if he’s German, “Yes” when asked if he’s Turkish. On the last repetition of the line, the German affirmative “Ja” stretches to a howl.
On the last go-round, the set has been struck and the action rolls along on a bare stage as snow falls and wind howls. A cloaked and hooded figure crawls around the perimeter of the stage, slowly peeling off lines of tape that mark the edges, as if casting the story adrift into an uncaring, forgetful cosmos. But even if we didn’t know the name of Halit Yozgat specifically, we don’t forget what his murder signifies. We can’t forget or ignore the neo-Nazi movements that continue to invade civilization, whether in an internet cafe or a capitol building.
This is an astounding piece of work.
The Planet: A Lament, by contrast, is filmed straightforwardly on a bare proscenium stage. Newly created by a group of composers, choreographers, and Papuan dancers from across Indonesia, this staged song cycle is grounded in Melanesian lament traditions.
Garin Nugroho directs the soloists and the 14-voice Mazmur Chorale, which hails from Kupang, a city on the Indonesian side of the island of Timor. The action’s ostensible trigger is a destructive tsunami, but the topic is environmental disaster writ large, a calamity as urgent and everpresent as the hatreds illuminated in The Death of Halit Yozgar.
Sung entirely a capella, the laments don’t add up to a fully focused piece of theater. The symbolism is heavy-handed, and the accompanying video, while suggestive, doesn’t add very much. But the keening music and striking dance sequences carry plenty of power on their own. A number of excellent soloists lead different songs, and in some the chorus sings in full harmony.
Some more polished than others, the voices convey a redolent naturalism. Prayers, wordless rhythmic chants, songs of renewal, and nature red in tooth and claw all take their turns. Three “Eaters” invade the space with aggressive choreography. Bare feet sound like flapping wings in a wonderful dance sequence about a “heavenly bird” losing her nest but finding her way back to security. And the cycle leaves us with a hopeful message: “The stone tomb never closes; there is always a resurrection.”
Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists could also be described as a staged song cycle, but instead of an earthy folk legend, this flashy production offers a surrealistic dreamscape. It premiered at the Reykjavik Arts Festival in 2014.
With text by the poet a.rawlings, the show aligns the stages of sleep with the stages of a butterfly or moth’s development. The show combines opera, symbolism, light show, wordplay, and a stern nightclub vibe into a visually stunning and musically compelling hour of stagecraft.
Valgeir Sigurðsson’s score features eerie soundscapes, techno beats, and disquieting melodies. Scurrying video effects and light patterns dazzle the viewer’s lizard brain. (Or is it the insect brain?) In rhythmic counterpoint three singers frame this “story” that’s also “not story,” conflate “wingbeats and heartbeats,” and invite us to surrender to the vagueness of meaning. An impressive staccato number in 11/8 time, a touching aria, voiceless sequences of sound and lights – over more than a dozen songs, the “story” evolves, until the full-grown creature punches hesitantly out of its (paper) cocoon.
Icelandic mezzo-soprano Ásgerður Júníusdóttir, the production’s vocal fulcrum, reveals much of her wide range, including deep contralto; Alexi Murdoch and Sasha Siem sing the modernist-minimalist material in pop-theatrical style. It all gels remarkably well. Like The Planet: A Lament, but with a very different aesthetic, this show dramatizes the cycle of life.
The Prototype Festival ran from January 8-16. It included one live event in Times Square but was otherwise online. Two productions not reviewed here, MODULATION and Times3, remain available through Feb. 28.