I had a range of thoughts about Ellen Reid and Roxie Perkins’s opera Prism, which won the Pulitzer prize. I loved Reid’s music, but thought the text by Perkins and also the staging (despite evocative design) were too elementary, somehow both too indirect and too obvious. And I longed for the days decades ago, when artistic music theater pieces had a much bigger audience.
Which, I thought, was where the most powerful part of the story really might begin. What now does she do?
But what seemed most problematic to be was how indirectly everything was told. Without naming what had happened, what was happening.
Am I being fair?
I should note that, as a man, I perhaps can’t appreciate the full force of the piece. A woman who has come through metoo might bond with it more, feel more aroused by it, perhaps more comforted. Less (maybe a lot less) concerned with things that didn’t work so well for me.
I have to allow that possibility. And also that perhaps I’m a curmudgeon, too anchored in the past. What I kept thinking of, during the performance, were European films from the 1960s that I fell in love with either then or later, by Antonioni and Godard. In which not much is plainly stated, but really couldn’t be, because the films are truly deep and complex. So that whatever story they may seem to tell — to the extent that we even know what the story is — is only the surface of their meaning.
And while I was thinking of those films, I also thought of music-theater pieces that made an impact on me and on many people in New York in the 1970s and ‘80s, by Meredith Monk, Philip Glass, and Robert Ashley. In which (as in those 1960s films) deep meanings were evoked, but would be cheapened with any simple summary.
Meredith’s piece Quarry, for example, is so much more than just an excavation of her childhood. Ashley’s operas seemed impossible to clearly understand, but that became their strength, was part of what made them so engrossing. Because the separate parts (speech, music, and more) that went into them were so terrific, and radiated so winningly together. So somehow it almost seemed that we know what all of it meant, even we weren’t quite able to put it into words.
I missed that in Prism. There I didn’t feel that direct statements of meaning were avoided because to make the case directly would cheapen what was being said. Instead it seemed easy to say what wasn’t spoken. Making me wonder what was gained — except a sense that this was Art — by making everything so indirect.
Remembering bigger audiences
And then the small audience. By reacting to which perhaps I’m showing the nostalgia of someone in his seventies for another age.
Or maybe not!Those pieces by Meredith and Philip Glass (along with others by Laurie Anderson, which worked in similar ways but which I didn’t love as much) had large audiences. Hundreds, thousands of people.
Ashley’s pieces were done in smaller spaces, but they, too, drew notable crowds, made up of people notable not just for their numbers and enthusiasm, people joyfully connecting with something that spoke to them, but also for who the people were. Artists, many of them, who did important work in other fields.
All this against the background of an exploding arts scene in downtown Manhattan, with new developments in music, dance, theater, and visual art all connecting, all reinforcing each other.
And growing so strong that they inspired the Next Wave festival at BAM, where works living in this newly opened territory for art were produced in the Brooklyn Academy of Music opera house for thousands of people.
That was another age
An exciting age to be an artist in, to see and hear art in, feeling that the culture, the zeitgeist, our consciousness was changing.
For Prism, by contrast, I felt (and this isn’t the fault of the creators or producers, or of the larger Prototype new opera festival that Prism was part of) like I was in a hall of mirrors. Work that was important because it was considered to be important, but which might not be reaching out beyond the place in which it was born.
Of course, if I lived in New York and could have seen more of Prototype, maybe I’d see a wider audience attracted to it, curious about it, being changed by it. Or maybe I’d see that if I saw more of what Beth Morrison, the producer here, presents through her Beth Morrison Projects.
Though generally I don’t see connections with a wider consciousness where new things in classical music are featured. I used to, at least in the exciting peak years of minimalism. Don’t see it now.
Who was there
What I did see at Prism was a not surprising and of course helpful audience for the piece, made up, I thought, of arts presenters, who might themselves present the production, or others by the same creators or producers. The production having sensibly been timed (I’d assume) to coincide with the big arts presenters conference which happens in New York each year.
I could imagine there were funders at the performance, too, people who either funded it or might fund things like it in the future.
This is one way new work of this kind — done with deep commitment, and with a deep sense that it’s important art — emerges and sustains itself. I just can’t help thinking that the work would be stronger, less obvious in content, more able to change the lives we lead, if from the start it had more connection to the outside world. If you’re telling stories other people tell, it helps to tell them in the same arena other people are in, so you know you’re hitting home.
To which I’d add that it would be wonderful if I were wrong about all this!
Though I felt similar things about four short new operas that the Washington National Opera presented this season. And about David T. Little’s Soldier Songs, which I saw in DC some years ago. And which explored the horrors of war in general, and of the Iraq war in particular, with no sense that anyone had made art or written books or written journalism or made movies about such things before. Which made the piece seem painfully naive, despite the great sophistication of the music.