Courtney Love, puppets and Korean identity at NY opera fest

NEW YORK, US, Shaun Tandon- A dreamy video performance that explores Korean identity and an opera that dramatizes a disabled boy's plight through puppets are premiering in New York as part of the latest Prototype festival.
Prototype, launched in 2013 to showcase experimental opera and other new theater, opened Thursday with a star provocatrice -- grunge rock icon Courtney Love.

The Hole singer, who has played in films for the past 30 years, made her theatrical debut in a production of Todd Almond's "Kansas City Choir Boy," a musical tale of two lovers in search of each other in the American Midwest.
Here are profiles of the two world premieres at Prototype, which runs through January 17:
- 'Sunken Cathedral' -
Cathedrals are often said to symbolize the human body in their architecture. In "Sunken Cathedral," soprano and composer Bora Yoon takes the metaphor to another level, exploring each room of the cathedral as if it were part of the human body.
"It's like you know there's an uncomfortable room with all those locked things. Do you really want to go down to the basement?" Yoon told AFP.
The performance is based on Yoon’s album by the same title and is adapted to the stage with a dream-like video projection, designed by Adam Larsen, which starts with images of cathedrals but turns them inside-out to blur the distinction between real-life and a hazy subconscious.
"I wanted to create a show that really tapped into that vertical space of right when you wake up, and when you dream – that powerful language of your subconscious," said Yoon, who regularly jots down recollections from her dreams.
"Sunken Cathedral" -- the title is an allusion to French composer Claude Debussy -- plays on Christian architecture, but the concept of training the mind to block out resistance is central to Buddhist philosophy.
Yoon, who was raised in the Chicago area, in her earlier work used mobile telephones and other everyday objects to create music. She recently began to research more thoroughly the ancient musical traditions in her parents' native Korea and, for the live version of "Sunken Cathedral," incorporated Korean drums.
She was startled to notice similarities between the Korean traditional music and her own modern work, sparking her interest in epigenetics -- the field of seeing how certain traits can be passed along through generations.
Yoon had earlier fought not to be pigeon-holed as a Korean American composer but discovered that, "without even realizing it, your blood could speak louder than your will."
Hence she believes that the binaries about Korea -- the clash between the modern and the ancient, or even the North-South divide -- became another subtext in "Sunken Cathedral."
"I thought this was just going to be a whimsical, surrealist show combining art, design and music. Instead, it's almost like the Korean identity play I never set out to make,” she said with a laugh.
- 'The Scarlet Ibis' -
As they set out to write a new opera, composer Stefan Weisman and librettist David Cote remembered reading "The Scarlet Ibis," the 1960 short story by James Hurst about a boy with a disability in the American South who struggles to handle a domineering, macho brother.
"I read it when I was a teenager, and it stuck with me. I think it was probably the first piece of art that made me cry," Weisman told AFP. "For me, what makes opera work is that it's so good at bringing out emotions."
Presenting both a challenge and an opportunity, the short story -- which frequently appears in literary anthologies for US schools -- leaves many details undefined, including the exact nature of the disability of the tragic lead character, Doodle, who is belittled by his brother as a "sissy."
In the opera, Doodle stands singularly apart from the rest -- he appears as a puppet. He is sung by Eric Brenner, a countertenor, in the operatic tradition of using men with high ranges for dramatic effect.
"I wanted him to be ethereal," Weisman said of Doodle.
When they began to work on the opera, Weisman and Cote reached out to Hurst. They discovered that the author, living in North Carolina in relative obscurity, had aspired to be an opera singer and was exhilarated that his story would go on stage.
"I spoke to him a couple of times, and he was such a character. It felt like talking to Tennessee Williams or Truman Capote -- a Southern gentleman with a dry sense of humor," Cote said.
"He talked about how the story was inspired by his childhood sadness -- he had a fraught relationship with his brother,” he said.
Weisman shared the music with the author by CD before Hurst died in October 2013 at age 91.
"The one regret I have is the time that we took," Weisman said.
“I just wish we could have finished it one year sooner, but we certainly know he was excited and supportive."

Sunday, January 11th 2015
Shaun Tandon

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