Are there trends in this kind of work that you’ve seen evolve or change over the last five years in the festival, that are coming from the artists?
MARTING: I feel like there’s an interesting exploration of chorus that we’ve had in a few of the different iterations of Prototype, the way the choral voice is being examined. I wasn’t seeing as much of that before, and I feel like there’s a lot of it happening beyond what we’re doing. But that’s been kind of interesting. The monodrama I feel like is a newer thing…
MORRISON: Monodramas have existed for a long time, but it does feel like something that people are interested in that form right now.
WHITENER: Part of that, I think – which we see in theater, too – has to do with the cost of making work, and sometimes doing smaller work with a small ensemble and a single singer, but I think there’s a whole black-box theater phenomenon. Obviously with our ambitions, and the ambitions of the artists we’re interested in working with, the scale has grown; we’re still limited in money, but we are doing as much as we can through partnerships and other kinds of co-producing relationships to really be able to take on the larger works, and to be able to expand outside of the black box. But the black box is still important to us, because we love that intimate almost salon/chamber experience, and that was something we got a lot of kudos about during the first couple of years: that sense of really being right on top of the singers and ensemble.
MORRISON: I feel like the artists that we have showcased, the voices are really singular. I think of trends as being “lets get on the bandwagon and do it this way,” and I just don’t think we’re attracted to artists like that. The trend, maybe, is that rules aren’t really required anymore. So with [Du Yun’s] Angel’s Bone last year having 15th-century-style music next to techno, and next to bel canto singing, that’s fine. That’s what she’s writing. And with Mata Hari this year, with these different musical styles. There aren’t any rules, and if there’s any trend, to me that’s it.
MARTING: The uniqueness and passion of the vision of the artist is what we’re getting behind.
WHITENER: And again, as curators we’re seeking that out, so it’s self-selective; we’ve kind of created that.
MORRISON: I do think what you said about the choral voice, though, is actually really interesting, because you think about [Carmina Slovenica’s] Toxic Psalms and what they’re doing, and obviously Have a Good Day! So I feel like there is a choral-theater thing that we are interested in, and that we are seeing in little, tiny ways.
WHITENER: Coming out of Eastern European tradition. In fact, a project that we’re looking at for next year evokes that as well, from the Ukraine.
MORRISON: I want to ask you that question. Do you see any trends over the last five years?
Well, it’s funny, because it’s a system that feeds itself. So even for someone like me, seeing [David T. Little’s] Dog Days had a big impact on Breaking the Waves, in practical and also sort of more cosmic, subconscious ways – you know, just seeing the way the set was, where the ensemble was on the set, and seeing the way that the scenes shift between each other. And also just the subject matter – it was this gutsy thing like I’ve never seen before. That kind of set me free and made me feel more comfortable about taking on a piece like Breaking the Waves. I think we’ll see that it’s like everyone being influenced by each other. But you’re right, it’s not like we’re seeing: “Oh, now we’re all going to write pieces about Donald Trump.”
I do want to ask you about that: Everything post-election feels so raw, and my conversations with my artistic colleagues has changed. The conversation has shifted to one of responsibility and an attempt to see our art in a broader context to make it useful, to reach an audience outside of the people who usually come to a show, just as we’re seeing the world in a sort of broader context and trying to reach out to people who we haven’t before. Do we have a responsibility to respond to what’s going on in the world, or to educate people? Do you feel that as curators?
WHITENER: I don’t know if we’d all say the same thing. I don’t think we’ve really talked about it.
MORRISON: Honestly, for me, I’m sorry to sound like a broken record, but we respond to what the creators are going to give us, so when the artists start writing about this and their experiences, that’s when we’re going to start programming it. Because of course we’re interested in that; of course we’re interested in connecting into what’s happening in our society. That’s what our work does.
WHITENER: We think it does that, anyway. And for me to actually apply a curatorial filter that way would not be comfortable. It would have to come from the artists.
MARTING: It’s context. It’s like David [Lang] just said upstairs to the [anatomy theater] cast, because we did the meet-and-greet before this, how he sees the work in a new light after the election, and the idea of the evil that’s in the piece has a different meaning for him right now than it had when he wrote it, and that he thinks the audience will be applying to it as they see it. For Silent Voices, our piece dealing with racism toward people of color and immigrants, the subjects that we’re dealing with feel even more important to be talking about right now: It’s a piece about people being silenced and not heard. Hilton Als is our scriptwriter and Helga Davis is our host, and we’ve been going through, re-contextualizing the script for the show because of the election.
WHITENER: I would be really interested in hearing you answer that question, because my worry is that we are not really reaching the people who need to hear and see these messages. We have a little bit of the preaching to the converted.
I definitely feel that frustration, but it’s motivation to get out there and expand that. My activism is often separate from my work, but there’s parts where it overlaps, like this Luna Lab female composers lab is a way to start lurching in that direction in some way. But I’m still figuring it out, and there’s been no grand conclusion: “We have to all do this.” I think things will change, and I think they’ll change for the better in a lot of ways. But our discussion around Breaking the Waves has also changed post-election, inevitably. We’ve just sung through the piece last Monday, and these arias like “My Body Is a Map of My Love” and “No Woman Speaks Here” just take on this visceral, biting tone in the wake of the election – which is really fascinating and kind of beautiful.
MARTING: People hear it differently now.
Has there ever been anything that you’ve been afraid to program?
MORRISON: Only for cost. [laughs]
But never a subject matter that you’ve been afraid to talk about?
MORRISON: I think we’re the festival that doesn’t shy away from stuff like that. We’re the producers who are open to the thing that other people won’t do.
MARTING: We have a mission of low ticket prices; the box office is not going to make or break us. So we’re going to do the work that we feel passionately about.
WHITENER: And we haven’t talked about Secondary Dominance – Secondary Dominance is going to be kind of a world premiere, and Sarah Small does this stuff that’s tableau, often using naked people. We’re really kind of interested to see what’s going to come out of that one. We don’t know what it’s going to be. But we have no qualms. Again, if the artists are concerned about something, then we’ll be concerned about it.
MORRISON: We just try to give the platform, and then make sure that it’s messaged appropriately so that audiences aren’t blindsided: if there’s nudity, then they know that coming in, and if there’s excessive profanity that they know that going in. We try to at least give advance warning, so that somebody doesn’t show up to something that they aren’t going to want to see.
MARTING: We try with the trailers to give people a sense of what the creators are thinking in their creation of the work, and so give people a little eye into that as an orientation, as opposed to just a commercial trailer.
MORRISON: I don’t think we’re trying to hit the audience over the head with anything. We want people to have an opportunity to experience lots of different kinds of work, but if something’s not for them, we are messaging it in different ways for them to understand that that’s probably not the show for them.
How do you discover news artists who may not have written opera before, but who have a dramatic impulse in their instrumental writing? Maybe it’s not obvious that they’re going to be the next avant-garde theater maker, but they have a sort of seed of that – how do you find very young artists?
WHITENER: We all have developmental programs. At HERE we have a residency program, through which we bring in artists and commission and develop and produce projects, and BMP obviously does the same. We have an open application process, and Beth serves on our panel. We like to work with mid-career artists: people who’ve been out of school for a while, but who’ve not really broken through in any way. So we’re kind of listening and looking all the time at that level.
MARTING: We all go out to see work in New York City, and we all travel to festivals around the country and the world to see work that is interesting and that might fit our festival’s voice and vision. We’re really curious and we’re really open. We don’t ask for submissions, but we receive submissions and we look at everything that comes in. We really are very hungry and open to seeing what’s out there that we might not know about.
MORRISON: But Missy asked about identifying people who have never written vocal music. Both for BMP and for Prototype, we would need to see some demonstration that there is some talent for theatrical vocal writing. For BMP, we’re going to launch something next year, a discovery series, which is meant to go into schools. It’ll be submission-based, and we’ll be asking for five-minute excerpts. Our hope, then, is that if there are people who have only written instrumental music but want to write for the voice, this will be their entryway. And then we’ll be able to say, this person has talent; let’s showcase them on a concert. And then from there, we can decide, O.K., out of these 10 people that we’ve chosen, who shines through as the one who really understands theater and drama and voice, to then maybe take on to another step and cultivate them and develop them.
That’s great, because opera’s so daunting – even to write one scene requires a whole team of people, and so I think it’s hard for a lot of students and younger composers to break into that.
MORRISON: And they don’t get it at the conservatory, which is a huge problem. It’s crazy that they don’t get this training.
WHITENER: But we have chosen a couple of artists… I’m thinking of Mikael Karlsson, who’s done a lot of instrumental writing, and we’re working with him on an opera that will premiere next year. I wouldn’t say that he had written really any kind of definitive vocal music; he’s very known for ballet and his orchestral music. We’re interested so much in his music that we wanted to work with him, and we have elongated the process as he’s written.
MARTING: To give him enough developmental time.
WHITENER: There’ve been some workshops, and then he’s gone back to the drawing board and worked again.
MORRISON: It’s a monodrama, and he wrote it in a tessitura that is actually not sustainable for an hour, for either the audience or the performer. So then it was like, Oh, maybe this needs to be a mezzo.
MARTING: And that’s our 2018 world premiere in the festival.
WHITENER: That’s really a developmental process that we feel good about. But we felt that he was established enough in his music.
Last question: without giving anything away, is there anything that will really surprise audiences this year? Any moment, any particular show?
MARTING: All of it.
WHITENER: I think there’s probably an element in each piece that’s going to be surprising.
MORRISON: There’s been so much written about Breaking the Waves, I wonder how much surprise there will be. I think people will show up and will be pleasantly surprised that it lives up to its hype, but it’s not like they’re going to go, “Oh my god, who knew?”
WHITENER: Although on that front, some of the conversations I’ve had with people who have strong feelings one way or another about the movie… the surprise will be how different this is, and how amazingly embodying of the story in and of itself it is, separate from the movie. But every other piece, I think, has its element of surprise. anatomy [theater] has a big element of surprise. And people are going to be wondering what the hell’s happening with Funeral Doom Spiritual.
Interview transcribed, condensed, and edited by Steve Smith. Prototype runs through January 15 at HERE Arts Center, NYU Skirball Center, National Sawdust, and other locations; www.prototypefestival.org