“There are all these unbelievable artists who are creating work that’s really hard to define,” Beth Morrison, a music theater impresario, said during a recent interview. “It’s the work that falls between disciplines, that is beautiful and strange and challenging, and there’s so little space for that in New York right now.”
Morrison, the leader of Beth Morrison Projects, produces exactly those types of works — operas and other pieces that can approach cabaret, concert or musical forms but defy categorization — with white-hot fervor, particularly as one of the founders of the Prototype Festival, which started 10 years ago and returns on Thursday with seven shows as idiosyncratic and fearlessly strange as ever.
The niche that Prototype occupies on the New York performing arts calendar — something of a purely musical cousin to the Under the Radar theater festival, also this month — has become increasingly essential as Lincoln Center moves away from presenting festivals that would have hosted chamber and avant-garde operas, for example, or as small theaters nurture new works with an eye toward Broadway.
Things weren’t much better when Prototype, created by Beth Morrison Projects and HERE, took shape with the help of a Mellon Foundation grant. “There wasn’t much,” said Kim Whitener, a founding director (and formerly of HERE), who is now an independent producer. “There didn’t seem to be a space for this really important work.”
Over the years, Prototype has put on black box productions and works in progress, and expanded to theaters across the city as its operas grew in scale, like “Dog Days” and “Breaking the Waves.” During the pandemic, it commissioned streaming projects. And last year, when the Omicron variant’s spread led to the festival’s cancellation mere days before its start, it adapted yet again, finding ways to salvage much of its programming.
Du Yun and Royce Vavrek’s “Angel’s Bone” (2016), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. This year, Du Yun has a new chamber opera, written for and starring the baritone Nathan Gunn.Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
Along the way, it has been an early supporter of artists like Taylor Mac and Rugile Barzdziukaite, Vaiva Grainyte and Lina Lapelyte — the Lithuanian trio that went on to global recognition, and critical adoration, with its opera “Sun and Sea.” Two Prototype shows, the Du Yun and Royce Vavrek opera “Angel’s Bone,” and Ellen Reid and Roxie Perkins’s “Prism,” have won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
Du Yun is back this year with the chamber opera “In Our Daughter’s Eyes,” written for and starring the baritone Nathan Gunn; other productions include Emma O’Halloran’s double bill “Trade/Mary Motorhead,” the vocalist Gelsey Bell’s “mɔɹnɪŋ [morning//mourning],” Silvana Estrada’s “Marchita,” David Lang’s “note to a friend,” the streaming opera “Undine” and the 10th anniversary celebration “The All Sing ‘Here Lies Joy.’”
Morrison and Whitener — along with Kristin Marting, HERE’s artistic director, who was among Prototypes founders and leads it with Morrison today, and Jecca Barry, a former director who was on the 2023 edition’s curatorial team — discussed Prototype’s past and present in a group video call. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Over the past decade, what kind of influence have you observed Prototype having on the industry?
JECCA BARRY We’ve seen, across the country, other opera companies that have started their own festivals or explored the idea of second stages — other venues, like black box theaters. The first partnership show that we did with Los Angeles Opera was “Dog Days,” and that was at Redcat [a 200-seat theater]. L.A. Opera told us that 70 percent of the audience that came to see that had never set foot in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion [the company’s much-larger home]. It’s actually about creating a totally different audience, and really, that’s so important for opera companies these days.
KRISTIN MARTING That’s about both form and content. I feel like the festival spans this spectrum of work. There’s a crossover thing that’s happening, and that’s because so many of the artists that we’re working with are not trying to stay within the lines. Then the second thing about content: I just feel like what we’re really interested in is socially relevant work that resonates with people — a whole range of people, told by a whole ranges of voices. I think that’s also something that the industry has been incorporating, happily, after so long of it being monochromatic.
How would you say the New York cultural landscape changed during Prototype’s history, and what has that meant for the festival’s mission?
BETH MORRISON It’s almost impossible right now to get opera programs at any of the venues in town. With Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Metropolitan Opera is doing new work, finally, but there’s a whole host of work that is being created for smaller stages and other kinds of stages that the big presenters aren’t doing here. And for a company like us, that doesn’t have a performing space, it’s freaking hard. Our stuff used to be at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and that’s completely shifted. Lincoln Center is not doing opera. The Shed’s not doing it. That means we can only get our stuff done in our festival when we self-present it, and I think that’s a real shame.
BARRY The creative impulses are there. I mean, it’s incredible how many young composers want to write their first opera right out of the gate.
KIM WHITENER They’re finding their niches elsewhere. I just think that we’re in a time of such great sea change; it’s really more that what we’re talking about with the loss of New York is the sense of a real footprint, you know, for opera theater in the way we used to have.
Thinking about the pandemic, changing audience habits and new ways of presenting opera, how has the festival adapted?
MORRISON We were really proud of what we did in ’21 with the commissions to composers to create work in a digital space, and making sure that we had a presence and an impact in our community’s lives at a time when we were all so locked down. Last year really sucked, though — to have the festival canceled a week before we opened was completely devastating. We lost a couple hundred thousand dollars because we paid all the artists. We managed to do three of the shows later in the year and then moved other things to this January. But I think that this year’s festival has come together really beautifully as a result.
What effect, if any, has the festival’s success with awards like the Pulitzer Prize had on how it operates?
MARTING I think we’re taking the same risks.
MORRISON What we’re committed to is letting the artists lead and sort of walking hand-in-hand and bringing their visions to the fore. That recognition’s incredible, and I think we’re all thrilled that we were able to produce and present that work.
BARRY But I think it’s also a testament to flexibility. So many companies that are developing new work, especially big institutions, are very rigid in their structures of what that looks like and what that timeline is, and that is not the way any producer on this screen works. Both of the pieces that won the Pulitzer took more time than we originally thought they were going to and got rescheduled and rescheduled.
There’s this wonderful point when an artist says, “Can I really do that?” And to be able to say, “Yes, you can try that idea,” and then, on the flip side, to have the audience come in and say, “I didn’t know you could do that with opera.” Being able to empower artists to take those risks and then being able to see the audience, it’s so satisfying.
MORRISON With “Dog Days” in particular, and with what Jecca just said — it reminds me of the phone call that I got from David T. Little when he was writing it, saying: “I don’t think the last 20 minutes has any words. Is that OK?” I love that phone call. That’s the best phone call ever, because they want the permission to go in a completely boundary-pushing direction, and that’s what we want.
WHITENER When you really trust the artist, they in turn trust you. They’re putting this really raw, alien thing in your hands and trusting you to see it through.
BARRY And from that, we then trust the audiences. We are putting that work out there and trusting audiences to come on that ride with us, and we certainly have no expectation that everybody who shows up to every Prototype show every year is going to love it all.
There are a lot of world premieres at the festival this year. But we’re still dealing with Covid and flu outbreaks. How confident are you that Prototype is truly back?
BARRY We have community agreements that we’re asking everyone to adhere to to keep themselves as safe as possible. We do daily testing. We do PCR weekly. Anyone who is not performing is masked in rehearsal. So, we take a lot of precautions. Our fingers are crossed that we’ll be able to offer all the performances that we want to offer audiences this January.
WHITENER The opening night kind of thing — the big gathering of all the artists, getting together and partying — that’s definitely not happening right now. As a field, we are missing that a lot. You hear everybody saying that: how much they miss the community.