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INTERVIEW: NYC’s PROTOTYPE Festival Leaders Talk New Opera and Music-Theatre

A promotional image for The Infinite Hotel at the NYC PROTOTYPE Festival of new operas. Artwork based on photos by Matthew Soltesz and Rachel Shane.

Minnesota has long had a tradition of artistic leadership, influence, and practice beyond its borders. Whether in choral or popular music (or the odd Grammy-nominated orchestra or two), theatre, or museum administration, the state’s artists have a history of showing up when work needs to be done. It thus comes as no surprise that New York City’s PROTOTYPE Festival of new operas, which runs January 5-13, includes a quartet of Minnesotans working behind the scenes.

How big a deal is PROTOTYPE? The annual festival – officially PROTOTYPE – OPERA l THEATRE l NOW – is one of the largest showcases of new operas in the country, and presented 39 works in its first six years. In its latest incarnation, the festival brings an astounding 13 new music-theatre works to venues across New York City.

Staffing this expansive undertaking requires grabbing the best talent available, to the tune of 150 collaborators and a seeming army of credits, drawn not just from New York City but across the country. Minnesotans Emily Anderson, Deb Ervin, Ian Knodel, and Scotty Reynolds are all working in the trenches on The Infinite Hotel, a genre-defying work grounded in rock music and live film-making. Attached to the project are names like Amanda Palmer and Theatre de la Jeune Lune veteran Jon Morris, as well as multimedia and camera work staffed with more people than many operas’ choruses.

So what goes into making this Herculean endeavor happen each year? The ambitious festival is jointly administered by Beth Morrison Projects and HERE, which field a combined, collaborative leadership team to plan the festival and keep the trains running. The Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine spoke with Kim Whitener of HERE and Jecca Barry of Beth Morrison Projects about making the magic happen.

L-R: PROTOTYPE Festival co-directors Beth Morrison, Jecca Barry, Kim Whitener, and Kristin Marting.

What was the process like for selecting works for this year’s festival?

Jecca Barry: Our process for selecting the works for this or any festival is one long, multi-year conversation that often will run up to the very last minute! Both BMP and HERE have opera-theatre and music-theatre projects in development at all times, and as those are coming along we pinpoint a festival in the future for which we think they will be ready. For other artists and projects that we’re each watching or receiving information about, we maintain a robust programming mechanism where we all contribute ideas year-round, and regularly have programming meetings for their review.

This year became as large as it is due to a confluence of opportunities that made it impossible to say no!

Kim Whitener: Some specifics… Regarding p r i s m, Ellen Reid was commissioned to write an opera for PROTOTYPE about four years ago; we were incredibly excited about her music and felt she fit squarely into our programming aesthetic. We did a workshop of a piece she composed with a different librettist, and then circumstances prevailed that a new librettist was engaged; p r i s m is the result of that process.

We had a similarly long development process with Leah Coloff’s ThisTree. Pancho Villa from a Safe Distance had been on our radar screen for a while as a Creative Capital project, and we went to see it and made a commitment to bring it to PROTOTYPE about a year ago. We absolutely fell in love with 4.48 Psychosis and had to bring it, which entailed very complex partnerships to be able to make it happen at all – and it came together just in the last eight months!

A promotional photo for p r i s m, one of the operatic works appearing at this year’s PROTOTYPE Festival in New York City. Photo by Gregory Crewdson.

This year’s production of p r i s m is described as a rolling world premiere, which is a relatively new conception of conceiving and packaging the launch of a new work in multiple productions. Is there a story or negotiation behind this?

JB: It’s still relatively unusual in the opera world to have a production with back-to-back engagements at the time of premiere. p r i s m had been scheduled to premiere at PROTOTYPE for a few years now, then an opportunity arose for an engagement in Los Angeles through BMP’s partnership with LA Opera. It’s always our goal to give the works we develop both East and West Coast premieres, so we all agreed to seize the opportunity, turning the back-to-back engagements into a rolling world premiere.

What are some of your favorite aspects of the festival?

JB: So many people work on PROTOTYPE each year. There is the festival team, the staff of each of our organizations, an army of interns, and of course the artist and production teams for each of our 13 shows. Throughout December you feel an energy build up, as each production goes into rehearsals, then into tech. By the time the festival [actually] begins on January 5, every one of these extraordinary people is working very long days to bring incredible works to our audiences.

The energy of that moment is always my favorite thing. It’s overwhelming (and exhausting), [but] incredibly exciting to see all the work pay off.

A performance photo from Pancho Villa from a Safe Distance. Photo by Alex Marks.

KW: I absolutely love the mix that occurs with PROTOTYPE – artists, works, and audiences! The mix of works reflects the encompassing spectrum of more “traditional” opera-theatre (though nothing we do is really traditional!) to very experimental music-theatre, and everything in-between. Our more adventurous audience members like to jump in and experience it all, but there’s something for everyone, and always something to push one’s boundaries, which is what we’re about.

Ultimately, in each we are championing an incredible group of lead artists and their collaborators who reflect the world the way it is – at least 50% women, and diverse in ethnicity and in their forms of story-telling with music. The festival is an intense 10-12 days of intimately experiencing this mix.

There is a tremendous amount of new opera and music-theatre in this year’s festival. Both of you have substantial commitments beyond the festival itself – when do you start working on each year’s festival, and when does it start consuming much of your life?

JB: We’re already deep in planning for PROTOTYPE 2020! (We’re almost fully programmed, and have been meeting with venue partners already.) That said, the full-on planning starts in February, after a moment to rest, when we can come together as a group to look at the recently finished festival, see what worked, what didn’t, and jump back into planning.

Because we all have some many other commitments, it’s important for us to start early, and find those moments when we can all be in the same place at the same time.

Joseph Keckler in a promotional photo for Train with No Midnight, another work at this year’s PROTOTYPE Festival. Photo by John Anderson Beavers.

KW: PROTOTYPE is never off of our radars or our computer screens. It’s always there: going to see work, invitations to festivals and seminars, making connections with potential partners, fundraising, having programming meetings… There’s a constant process of reviewing submitted works and meeting with artists interspersed within our daily schedules.

No festival really stands alone – we are working now on 2020, 2021, 2022, even 2023:

  • In the early summer, we have to lock the festival program, so there’s and intensive burst of work.
  • The fall rolls out as our amazing PROTOTYPE team works on all the producing and marketing (we now have a full-time Producer, as well as a Development Director, and we hire a whole group of festival staff in the fall).
  • December is quite full-on as most of the projects go into rehearsal.

The festival itself is 24/7, but we all love the intensity and the way PROTOTYPE is woven into all the work we do.

Kim, you’re one of the co-founding directors of PROTOTYPE. How did your engagement with this festival begin? What are some of the ways that the festival has evolved as it’s grown?

KW: I’m deeply proud of PROTOTYPE and of my role in making it happen. In 2011, I had been at HERE as Producing Director for about four or five years, and I became aware of Beth Morrison and her work. Over a glass of wine at a bar one evening, we shared stories of being independent creative producers, as I’d been one in the six years prior to joining HERE.

I shared that I’d started my career producing opera-theatre and music-theatre, and stated that I’d love to find a way for BMP and HERE to work together. The rest is history, where Beth, Kristin, and I came together to found a festival as an important opportunity (and Beth’s dearest wish!) to showcase the work of 21st-century composers and their collaborators with the intention of its going on to have further life on tour.

That PROTOTYPE has taken on the size and scope that it has is constantly amazing to us. While it certainly is larger than it was when we launched it in 2013, it is still an intimate experience in terms of being about chamber-sized work. We are a bit less rigid in determining the “slots” (i.e., the mix of works that reflect all the genres on the spectrum mentioned above). We now have a confidence that we will hit all the marks we care about over the wide stretch of festivals and years.

Nature abhors a vacuum. Kim, after transitioning from your leadership roles with HERE Productions, does your work with KiWi Productions leave you any more time for different projects (or, horrors, free time to relax)?

KW: I’m totally absorbed right now with opera-theatre and music-theatre work as a focus in going back to independent creative producing with my company, KiWi Productions. That work is my first love.

I will say that I absolutely love creating my own schedule, having the flexibility to do more traveling for both work and leisure, to work remotely from other great places, and to be creating new partnerships. I’m not so good at relaxing per se, but I am an avid hiker and find nature to be soul-filling. And I’m working on a writing project, and would love to get a residency somewhere – ideally in the mountains of Italy.

Jecca, you’re the Executive Director of Beth Morrison Projects and were previously the General Manager. What doesn’t fall in your lap?

JB: My position touches all areas of BMP, which I love because it never gets boring. Beth and I have a great partnership: we are constantly planning future projects, seasons, and collaborations; then we work with our team to execute those plans.

It can be overwhelming, because BMP is doing so much work in so many places in the world… I’ve been on four continents with productions in the last four months. But I’m also very lucky to have a dedicated team who work incredibly hard to bring these new works to the stage. My job would be a whole lot harder without them.

Do you still pick up your flute, Jecca?

JB: Rarely. I’d love to say I keep it up, but at the moment I’m just too busy. But it will be there when I do have the time. It’s still a very important part of who I am.

Basil Considine

Basil Considine is the Performing Arts Editor and Senior Classical Music and Drama Critic at the Twin Cities Arts Reader. He was previously the Resident Classical Music and Drama Critic at the Twin Cities Daily Planet and remains an occasional contributing writer for The Boston Musical Intelligencer and The Chattanoogan. He holds a PhD in Music and Drama from Boston University, an MTS in Sacred Music from the BU School of Theology, and a BA in Music and Theatre from the University of San Diego.

Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.

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