NEW YORK, N.Y. – In an art form dominated by men, a small organization run by four women is transforming opera with cutting-edge work.
The Prototype Festival is presenting its sixth edition this month in venues around New York. Two years ago it premiered Du Yun’s “Angel’s Bone,” a story of child trafficking that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for music. Last year it staged Missy Mazzoli’s “Breaking the Waves,” among the most acclaimed compositions of the 21st century, based on the Lars von Trier film.
This year’s typically precocious program includes Gregory Spears’ “Fellow Travelers,” adopted from Thomas Mallon’s novel about an affair involving a gay State Department official during the McCarthy era.
“The sort of standard trajectory for a composer of the past would have been to wait until they may be 40 or something and they have had lots of things under their belt and they have large institutions who are supporting them and then they get a big commission,” said Beth Morrison, Prototype’s founding director. “Well, this generation of composers wasn’t interested in that.”
Among 10 works presented through Saturday before audiences of 77 to 600 is Alicia Hall Moran’s avant-garde “Breaking Ice: The Battle of the Carmens,” mounted on an ice rink with performers and a portion of the audience on skates, a nod to Debi Thomas’ 1988 Olympic competition with Katarina Witt.
That is a stark contrast with the Metropolitan Opera, which has presented just two staged operas composed by women in its 135-year history: Ethel M. Smyth’s “Der Wald (The Forest)” in 1903 and Kaija Saariaho’s “L’Amour de Loin (Love from Afar)” in 2016.
“That alone is a cause for a revolution and a cause for real anger and outcry,” Mazzoli said. “Women are less likely to be given big risky projects than they are a 10-minute orchestral commission or a 10-minute string quartet. … Men are often given opportunities based on their potential, but women are often given opportunities based on their past experiences.”
Morrison, a former administrator at Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute and producer of New York City Opera’s contemporary showcase VOX, runs the festival with Kristin Marting and Kim Whitener of HERE, dedicated to hybrid live performances in theatre, dance, music and visual art, and with Jecca Barry, the executive director of Beth Morrison Projects.
“People say that there’s just white men composers, but it’s just not true,” Marting said. “There are artists working at scale and vision of all different colours and all different genders.”
An initial $400,000 budget, half provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, has risen to $750,000. Future projects include Ellen Reid’s “Prism,” which will be shown by Prototype and the LA Opera next season.
“It’s so much easier to commission John Adams. It is a household name.” Du Yun said. “For organizations like the Met, first of all they feel like they have to sell tickets, and major art presenters, they always worry about that first. So it’s like they say, ‘Who is big already? And who is a star name?’ They always think that our audience is not ready.”
Protoype coincides with conferences of music industry executives in New York.
“I think it’s a radical point of intervention,” LA Opera chief executive Christopher Koelsch said. “It is a genuinely experimental festival which gives opportunities to emerging artists, which is hugely important inside the ecosystem and then I think as critically creates opportunities for those works to live beyond the one-off.”
Mazzoli said women administrators are more likely to back compositions by women. “Breaking the Waves,” in which a paralyzed oil rig worker encourages his wife to have sex with other men, was first seen in 2016 at the Opera Philadelphia, where Sarah Williams is new works administrator. Mazzoli’s “Proving Up,” the story of Nebraska families trying to claim land under the Homestead Act, debuts this weekend at the Washington National Opera under artistic director Francesa Zambello.
Reid and Mazzoli founded Luna Composition Lab, a not-for-profit that pairs teenage girls with prominent female mentors who are composers. She made a connection between opera and the “Me Too” movement.
“My hope is that the focus on abuse and these sort of grotesque stories that are coming out will lead to a very productive discussion about the changing culture first,” Mazzoli said. “The next step needs to be a fundamental change in the way that women are treated, particularly in academia and large institutions, and the very culture of young men. And hopefully that will lead to a discussion of opportunity.”