Opera has no shortage of villains or miserably suffering human wretches. Composer Mikael Karlsson’s The Echo Drift, which had its world premiere in the PROTOTYPE festival of modern opera last week, is unusual for combining both in a single character. That person is Walker Loats, a woman serving a life-sentence for a double murder. When we meet her, she is watching the minutes pass in solitary confinement.
The expression is not metaphorical; she is literally counting off the seconds of her punishment with the help of a contraption she has built, she tells us, from spoons and springs she has spirited away from the guards, and which resembles a bulky metronome. For Walker, who has petitioned the governor repeatedly for an abbreviated sentence, time is, to paraphrase Tennessee Williams, the longest distance between cell 122 and the outside world.
As the prison rights movement works to remind us, the conditions of the penitentiary system are largely forgotten until a jailbreak makes the news, and rarely do prisoners enjoy our sympathy. Walker is therefore an unusual subject for any performance and all the more intriguing as a fully-formed opera character. The mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert keeps her a mystery for us; her low tonalities are well-suited to this hardened criminal who stalks her cell with a perpetual glower. Even when Walker is tempted to raise her gaze from the immediate confines of her prison (more about that in a moment), Gaissert keeps her emotions in check, delivering a 70 minute performance while remaining mostly immobile and expressionless.
The energy of this mono-opera resides instead in that possibility of transcending the physical world. The piece was conceived by Karlsson in tandem with the visual artist Elle Kunnos de Voss, who is credited here with the show’s “environment design.” They came together on the theme of “opposing extremes,” (confinement/freedom, finite/infinity); in response to Walker’s immobility, they offer a moth, drawn by De Voss and present on stage as a stop-motion projection that flutters on the walls of Walker’s cell.
The moth is not only her physical opposite. As voiced by the performance artist John Kelly with a mischievously dry humor, the insect offers an alternative emotional existence too, tempting the angry prisoner to let her mind leave her space/time and float on what he calls “the echo drift.” This invitation gives rise to a flashback revealing the reasons why Walker’s pleas for clemency have gone unheeded in the halls of power. Like the many opera villains who have proceeded Walker, she will not earn our sympathy, but it is rather more the nature of her punishment – stultifying confinement – that preoccupies Karlsson and De Voss. Opera is rarely political, but if the authors would like us to question the inhumanity of the penitentiary system, The Echo Drift is.
But its takeaway is formalistic above all, pointing the way to where opera, performance art and technology can meet. While we are concentrating on the dialogue between Walker and the Moth – a rather Kafkaesque conceit that demands our attention – there is a whole lot happening outside of our range of vision and even consciousness. In fact, its threads would have been difficult for me to unwind without the benefit of a post-show talkback. The moth’s movements are directed by Kelly through voice-activation software, and its stop-motion imagery, requiring 400 drawings by De Voss, is only surpassed by the 4,000 images she drew for the performance’s framing elements, depicting the prison and a shipyard where Walker murdered her victims (Simon Harding is the Projection Designer). The score is performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble on a bass-heavy mix of clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, saxophone, cello, harp and piano, to evoke the sounds of a street band and emphasize Walker’s gritty urban environment. The musical arrangements are shot through with live and pre-recorded electronic processing, and the conductor Nicholas DeMaison leads ICE through its paces while listening to a click track that allows him to synthesize the orchestra’s pacing with changes in lighting and the performers’ movements.
The libretto, by De Voss and Kathryn Walat, offers a spare psychological portrait of the unrepentant Walker, whose complexities are built out by the Obie-winning theater director Mallory Catlett. With a curiosity for form that led her to opera early in her career (in the big budget world of opera, the lane-change often comes after fame has conferred sufficient status on directors), she is the perfect choice to stage Karlsson and De Voss’s vision, keeping all these compositional elements working in harmony and with great sensitivity. The only false note for me was Walker’s metronome, a bizarre anomaly even in a world where moths can talk and the laws of physics can be stretched. This miniature, mechanical tower looks like it would be more at home in Sarastro’s temple than the Hersh Correctional Facility and weakens the problem of her solitary confinement (normally allowing no distractions of any kind). As beefs go, though, it’s a moth sized one that doesn’t resist the production’s combined visual and musical pull.
If this technologically sophisticated, creatively impertinent Echo Drift is any indication, drawing on musical composition, computer technology, visual art, video, performance art, theater, classical vocalization and instrumentation, modern opera may well be the breeding ground for innovation across the spectrum of performance genres.