The PROTOTYPE festival has produced intimate 'black box' operas for 10 years : Deceptive Cadence The PROTOTYPE festival, now in its 10th year, presents new operas and music-theater works in smaller settings. "We were trying to create a black box opera movement," says co-founder Beth Morrison.

Who says opera needs a grand stage? This festival is all about intimate productions

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This January marks the delayed 10th anniversary of the PROTOTYPE Festival in New York. Last year's festival was canceled because of omicron. The annual event presents new operas and music theater works in intimate settings. And in its short history, PROTOTYPE has produced two works that won the Pulitzer Prize. And many more have had substantial lives beyond the festival. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Until a few years ago, Irish composer Emma O'Halloran hadn't even considered writing an opera.

EMMA O'HALLORAN: Because it seemed so grand and fancy. And I didn't really feel like I would be a person who would be able to do something like that.

LUNDEN: But she tried her hand at a short opera, which won an award. Because of that, PROTOTYPE cofounder Beth Morrison commissioned her to write a new piece called "Trade," which will debut in this year's festival.


UNIDENTIFIED OPERA SINGER #1: (As character, singing) There was a man in school with me. Ahead of me he was.

LUNDEN: Beth Morrison, says PROTOTYPE was founded to produce operas that weren't fancy and presented in grand theaters.

BETH MORRISON: We were trying to create a black box opera movement. And so we were really invested in the possibilities of what intimate opera and music theater could be.

LUNDEN: Another co-founder, Kristin Marting, runs HERE, a downtown New York arts center. It has two flexible small spaces, black boxes where many PROTOTYPE shows have premiered.

KRISTIN MARTING: We saw this potential to have these large voices in this intimate context and to also have these phenomenal musicians that are so close to you. And you can have the sound really embody you, envelop you and wash over you in a completely different way.


UNIDENTIFIED OPERA SINGERS: (As characters, singing inaudibly).

LUNDEN: In the 10 years the festival has been around, it's produced dozens of adventurous, genre-busting new works, among them "Angel's Bone," an allegorical piece about two fallen angels who get abused and trafficked by a suburban couple. With a libretto by Royce Vavrek and a score by Chinese-born composer Du Yun, it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017. Some of the music evokes the Renaissance. Some is pure punk.


UNIDENTIFIED OPERA SINGER #2: (As character) He likes it rough. He can't get enough.

LUNDEN: PROTOTYPE workshopped "Angel's Bone" before presenting the final production, which helped its creators hone the piece. Du Yun says she not only appreciates the support but being part of something bigger.

DU YUN: It's incredibly powerful and empowering to be feeling like a part of a movement, if you will. And I think PROTOTYPE gives me a sense of community.

LUNDEN: Du Yun has a new piece premiering this year. PROTOTYPE nurtured another Pulitzer winner when it presented "Prism," an opera with text by Roxie Perkins and score by Ellen Reid.


UNIDENTIFIED OPERA SINGER #3: (As character, singing) I am in sanctuary without you, twirling.

LUNDEN: It's another piece that deals with a difficult subject. Composer Ellen Reid.

ELLEN REID: It was a many-year journey to discover how to deal with something as sensitive and reactive as the trauma after a sexual assault in a way that was also pleasing and big enough for the stage. So it took us a while to figure out how to navigate all of that in a narrative and make it work in the medium of opera.


UNIDENTIFIED OPERA SINGERS: (As characters, singing inaudibly).

LUNDEN: Like "Angel's Bone," "Prism" received the support from PROTOTYPE to develop the opera in workshops. Producer Beth Morrison says the festival welcomes intense work.

MORRISON: We really like drama, and we think that opera theater and music theater has the tools to take those kinds of stories - I mean, there are incredible, great, dark, dramatic, whatever you want to say - stories all through the opera canon. And I think we feel like we're just adding to that.

LUNDEN: She hopes that "Trade," which Emma O'Halloran created with her uncle, Irish playwright Mark O'Halloran, will be part of the canon, as well. The opera is about two straight married men who meet for a sexual encounter.


UNIDENTIFIED OPERA SINGER #4: (As character, singing) I’ve been worried about you, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED OPERA SINGER #5: (As character, singing) Why?

UNIDENTIFIED OPERA SINGER #4: (As character, singing) I couldn’t stop. Not since the last time, not since then.

LUNDEN: For her part, O'Halloran says she's thrilled to be a member of the PROTOTYPE community.

O'HALLORAN: I've definitely talked with past composers, and I'm just like a sponge. I absorb everything they say. Or like when someone's got a tip about like, oh, you really should write this way for this particular voice, I'm making notes and all of that sort of stuff. So you'll see all of the previous composers attending all the shows. And it's just lovely. It's really wonderful.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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