An image from Modulation, which premieres at this year's Prototype Festival

The Prototype Festival in New York is usually only available to West Coasters by report and it’s one of those events that those of us interested in new opera/musical/vocal theater feel terrible for missing. But this year, like so many great artistic projects and experiences, the festival is coming to an isolated screen in your home from Jan. 9 to Jan. 16.

Even while cursing the pandemic, we are lifted by the resourcefulness of organizations that have managed to reconceive what they do so that their work speaks to our experiences of this past year and also melds with the world of video and the small screen.

Opera and musical theater, of course, take a long time to develop, so you might have expected Prototype, a collaboration of HERE Arts Center and Beth Morrison Projects (BMP), to rest on its laurels, but they actually turned on a dime and are presenting three works this coming week, in video format, one of which, Modulation, produced in collaboration with LA Opera, was conceived six months ago.

Kristin Marting

Kristin Marting, the founding director of HERE and a co-producer and co-director of Prototype makes the point that you can’t ask a composer/librettist team for a 75-minute piece in that time. “Our work takes two-to-five years to develop. and we had a bunch of things planned [for 2021] that we pushed back because they weren’t designed for virtual space and we didn’t think the work would be best served in virtual space. So we cleared our slate and started over. And we came up with a way to create a work on a time frame that was realistic. Modulation is a collaboration with 13 composers each creating three to five minutes — that was very doable in a six-month time frame.”

Jecca Barry, Beth Morrison Projects’ executive director and a co-director of Prototype explains the idea behind Modulation:

Beth, Kristen, and I determined three themes that we thought reflected 2020 — fear, isolation, and identity. And then we presented those three themes to the composers and asked them which they were most interested in working within. And so, we had 12 composers in those themes, and then commissioned a 13th composer who wrote the interstitial music, which you hear whenever you’re not within one of the videos and that was on the theme of “breath.”

I was the lead producer for “Isolation” and so I then had two collective meetings with all of those composers where they presented their ideas to one another and were able to engage and I think they were influenced by each other; there was some wonderful conversations that came out of those discussions. And then we asked the composers to assemble their own teams. So they chose their own texts, their own creative teams, who were going to be creating the video with them, and then we were there as sounding boards for them. If they didn’t know names, if they wanted an animator and didn’t know one, we were there to help them, but we wanted them to be autonomous.”

Modulation will exist on a specially designed site where audience members choose their own path through the piece. As Marting describes it, you’re initially presented with doors, one for each of the main themes. Once you pass through a door, you may choose one of the four teams that created a video on that theme. You can exit and come back and play the videos in any sequence.

As always, the minds behind Prototype are interested in “interrogating” concepts of what constitutes opera/musical theater and in offering continuous new perspectives on what those things might be. Barry explained that “For Modulation, we just picked composers, not librettists. And we were looking for a wide array of compositional voices that mix more traditional work with more experimental work. We were trying to pick composers who were across that spectrum, some who we had worked with in the past and there were a number of composers who we had never worked with who we were interested in, and almost all of the composers are composers of color — that was important to us.”

Alongside Modulation are other works coming from different angles: Marting is producing Ocean Body: “It’s a piece about the long friendship between Shara Nova and Helga Davis, two wonderful performer/composers who’ve been thinking deeply about their friendship, as a white woman and a black woman, especially in 2020. This is a piece that they were working on before COVID, but has definitely gone in new directions because of this time. And they got really interested in making an installation version of this. And so we were really excited about an in-person performance that would be safe with no live performers, only a few audience members at a time.”

Jecca Barry

Barry says that they brought together theater artist Jeff Sobel and composer/ performer Pamela Z to create Times3 (Times x Times x Times), an investigation of Times Square for BMP’s Out of Bounds series of site-specific works. Sobel is interested in “finding beauty in the mundane” and has done several soundwalks in the city, while Pamela Z has, of course, gravitated to using interviews as a prime source for her musical inspiration. “What they’ve done is really looking at the long past, the present, and the imagined future of Times Square. What was it like before there were people in Times Square, before there were theaters in Times Square, and what is it like now when everything is shut down? What will it look like when people are gone and there’s just this concrete space? They did interviews with a number of different people with different expertise and are using those interviews to then create this sonic collage as you walk around Times Square or as you sit on your couch and imagine Times Square.”

What’s really remarkable about Beth Morrison Projects and HERE, reflected in Prototype, is just that they know the artists and scene in a much deeper way than anyone comparable. BMP’s NextGen composer competition had 117 applications this year, while HERE’s artist residency program is also vibrant with talent. Marting says, “We’re also constantly going to see work (when we’re not in COVID), we’re constantly looking for new voices and asking colleagues about people they’ve heard about, and having meetings with people — we make ourselves really accessible and open to artists so that we can keep our finger on the pulse of what’s new and fresh and exciting.”

Beth Morrison, president and creative producer of Beth Morrison Projects | Credit: Michael Nagle

No wonder that both these leaders are bullish on the post-lockdown future. “I’m a Pollyanna,” volunteers Marting. Barry follows with “I have definitely had those moments in my life when I have wondered whether there’s some greater purpose. But I doubled down this year on the arts. Art is a way that we process what’s happening, and that allows us to connect to emotions that we didn’t know we had. That was really at the core of what we were trying to do in Prototype this year: to give the artists and the audiences the space to do some of that work with us and to say, “fingers crossed this year will be better than the last, but we also have to reckon with the last year individually and collectively.”