Ellen Reid: p r i s m
Anna Schubert (Bibi), Rebecca Jo Loeb (Lumee), Choir of Trinity Wall Street, NOVUS NY, Julian Wachner (conductor)
Recording: La MaMa Experimental Theater Club, New York City, New York (January 2019) – 70’
Decca Gold 481 8661 – Booklet in English
Recordings as important as this stunning world premiere come along very rarely. Ellen Reid’s p r i s m is a new type of opera, with music and thematic elements that are thoroughly modern. The four-year gestation of the work has resulted in a uniquely powerful musical and theatrical experience that confronts the audience with extraordinarily difficult subject matter. Working with a poetically ingenious libretto by Roxie Perkins, Reid conjures an incredible world of sound that shows a masterful understanding of all musics. A video preview of the opera shows the one thing missing from this incredible disc: the otherworldly visual production by James Darrah and Adam Rigg.
Two main characters, Bibi and her mother Lumee, are sung by soprano Anna Schubert and alto Rebecca Jo Loeb, both incredible voices and actors. They are augmented by Chroma, a chorus figure made up of 12 singers from the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, one of New York City’s vocal jewels. NOVUS NY provides the 14-piece instrumental complement, augmented further by electronic sampling. Julian Wachner coordinates all the moving parts expertly. From fantastically cinematic music in the first act, laden with generous harp glissandos and soaring horn lines, to gritty gestures from the forefront of the avant-garde in the second and third acts, the chamber orchestra performs expertly. Similarly, the Choir of Trinity Wall Street manages speaking and shouting as expertly as they do straightforward choral singing of utmost tonal blend and musicality.
Sexual assault is the subject matter, autobiographical to both composer and librettist, and it is treated with utmost sensitivity and intensiveness. The opera’s three concise acts progress from fantastical idealism through tortured memory to conflicted reality. The assault itself happens near the end of Act II, heard but not seen in a frightening nightclub scene. Here, Reid’s ability to morph in and out of sampled techno beats, enveloping them into the whole opera’s musical language, boggles the mind. Such synthesis has been tried before (Thomas Adès’ Asyla comes to mind), but never accomplished with such seamless organicism and thematic purpose.
The incorporation of curse words and bodily sounds into the libretto’s text could be awkward or clumsy, but Perkins ensures each word is there for a reason. The enigmatic refrain of the opening act, set in a utopian sanctuary fabricated by Lumee, reveals itself to be descriptive memory of the assault of the second act. The ending, where Bibi finally escapes having regained the use of legs paralyzed by post-traumatic stress, feels not like resolution, but like evolution. It is all incredibly unsettling, memorable and effective. We as an audience have been confronted, challenged and enriched.
p r i s m was awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Music, an important accolade and reflective of that organization’s important shift toward recognizing diversity in the music world. That accolade was not needed to make the piece essential, but the recognition is deserved and helps increase the profile of an important work of art. Reading more about Reid’s work as an advocate (especially her involvement with the Luna Composition Lab) and getting to know more of her music, it is clear this is an incredibly important voice that the world needs at this moment.
Marcus Karl Maroney