Ellen Reid’s piercing new opera, prism, makes its New York debut as part of a rolling world premiere in the 2019 PROTOTYPE festival, and with it, Reid announces herself as a compositional force to be reckoned with. In examining the physical, emotional, and mental damage wrought by an instance of sexual abuse on a young girl, Reid and librettist Roxie Perkins have created a piece of opera-theatre that expands the boundaries of the form.
In three brief acts that serve as refractions of the same maternal-filial relationship, Perkins uses language to evoke the ways that trauma can alter the mind, affect speech, and debilitate the body. Reid’s music begins with a fairy-tale romanticism and, as the relationship is bent, broken, and shattered, so follows the music. Motifs are perverted, club beats are thrown under lyrical passages, and, in one crucial moment, silence is exploited to harrowing effect. Though there are only two named characters, Reid and Perkins make use of offstage choral voices that represent everything invisible beyond the two central women.
As Lumee, the mother-figure, Rebecca Jo Loeb successfully navigates between the three drastically different versions of her character from act to act. There is a sinister something boiling under her façade, even as she serves as a caretaker in the first act. This subtext unsettles her daughter and hints at the repression of what’s occurred. Loeb’s voice is rich and authoritative, bringing Reid’s musical lines forward in a commanding vocal performance. Her confidence is key to the trust her daughter places in her, even as she leads her astray.
As Bibi, the daughter-figure, Anna Schubert plays on the ingénue archetype, shading her innocence in knowledge she’d give anything to forget. Schubert’s soprano takes wing on Reid’s melodies, constantly tempering the insouciance of girlhood with the bitter reality of womanhood. Her voice is alternately beautiful and terrifying and she uses it as a direct connection to the empathetic parts of the listener. Bibi’s tragedies are legion, a victim of assault, of parental selfishness, and of the harshness of forces outside her “sanctuary” that would have her youth brutally matured.
In James Darrah’s production, a physical world is created that matches the complicated shadows of Reid’s score. Darrah places a focus on the performers’ acting that grounds the singing in the dramatic moment and allows both the vocalists and the writing to reach their full potential. Coupling the direction with work from scenic designer Adam Rigg and lighting designer Pablo Santiago, the three acts transmute between worlds in a way that is theatrically and emotionally devastating. It also shouldn’t be described, because the pulled-the-rug aesthetic of the shifts is affecting in its surprise and in how the designers and Darrah adjust for each of the new realities.
prism does not guard itself against the truth of what it’s portraying, it places the story firmly in the perspective of its victim. It rightly keeps the perpetrator invisible – it’s not about him – but that doesn’t change how difficult a story it is to tell. In many ways, the lack of a face increases the possibility that what happened to Bibi could happen to anyone and the resulting horror grows. Reid and Perkins are unflinchingly truthful as they search into Bibi’s experience, looking at what happened, but also at how she got there and how she can move forward. The piece is only ninety minutes long, but each one is packed full. The seconds pile up steadily and when the third act ends, they result in a weight that sits on the audience, in the brain and in the spirit, and cannot be shaken.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this review incorrectly stated that the offstage voices were prerecorded.