I watched *Modulation* online on January 22, 2021 (it had premiered a few weeks before). It was a new opera commissioned by Prototype Opera. Prototype commissioned 13 composers to respond to 2020 and this is what they came up with!
It had a spooky sci-fi start, with an image of three neon-framed portals embedded in undulating red desert hills. As if David Lynch decided to remake *Dune.* I hovered the cursor over those three portals and saw that they were labeled Fear, Isolation, and Identity. Where to start?
I decided to take them in alphabetical order. Each opera was somewhere between four and six minutes long.
The Fear portal led to three more portals. Ted Thompson wrote an a cappella piece for three female singers, mostly film of three singers but with a few inserted clips of Black Lives Matter protests. Lovely writing for the voices, though I couldn’t understand many of the words.
Thank you, Molly Joyce, for including subtitles to your opera, that was appreciated. The vocals had a garage band rock feel, the guy sounded suspiciously like the lead singer of the Violent Femmes. The harmonic grounding was provided by what sounded like a small, wheezing organ. The video was more spooky business, filmed in an empty attic. Empty except for an empty cardboard box, a nude dress form, and a flashing fluorescent light. Talk about fear! You nailed it, honey.
Yvette Janine Jackson’s opera started with a bassoon solo and a pulsating, pixelated abstract animation. A solo soprano came in, sounding a bit wooly, with a muddy keyboard of some kind under her and the bassoon making intermittent commentary. The animation continued, sometimes becoming less abstract, to chilling effect. The image I remember best was a cluster of lines unwinding to depict a boot pressing down on something (or someone). I understood even fewer words than I did in the Thompson opera. Which might not be a criticism, it might just be an observation.
Jojo Abot’s opera opened with a woman in five panels speaking, overlapping with herself, with black and white face painting and an elaborate hair situation or headdress. Next a young woman in a more mundane outfit (a black and white shirt that said LIFE FORCE) singing alone, again overlapping with herself. Then we went out into the desert and saw a tall, slim woman wearing nothing but neon-colored tape masking her more private bits. She danced around with a fan and made designs in the sand. The music was atmospheric, folky. Bits of harp at the end, and you know how I love bits of harp. This was the first opera that seemed to go by very quickly.
Angélica Negrón’s opera was the score to a fascinating hand-drawn animated film. The singing was in Spanish (with titles in English, thank you). The singing style was poppish and the instrumentation was spare, sparkly, and tasty. The film opened with a woman picking up a coffee in a coffee shop, which of course I never realized was such a hotbed of racism!
Young woman: Mariéla.
Coffee guy: Maniana?
Young woman: Mariéla.
Coffee guy: Mariah?
Young woman: Mariéla.
Coffee guy: Mariana?
Young woman: Mariéla.
Coffee guy: Maria.
Juhi Bansal’s opera opened with a cello solo and a single female voice woven together in a dreamy way, with film of a woman surfing. Other voices and other string parts came in later, gradually becoming rhythmic and exciting. This was the first piece where I really felt like the music was headed somewhere. I understood none of the words but wasn’t bothered. Maybe it was in another language? This was one of my favorite pieces. This one and the Negrón which preceded it.
Paul Pinto’s opera opened with a man alone on a stage, though he was quickly placed in an abstract film setting. This film also had a focus on racism.
Male voice: Where are you from?
Man on stage: Queens…?
Male voice: No, where are you REALLY from?
Man on stage: I can’t be from Queens?
This opera had a whimsical mood, both in the music and the video, which was a nice change of pace from the seriousness of the pieces surrounding it. Whimsy with strong and biting social commentary. It featured multiple versions of that one man’s face (was it Pinto himself?) floating in the white void and at the end the screen was filled with many floating, singing heads, maybe a hundred of them. It was breathtaking.
Raven Chacon’s opera seemed like a Latino version of Meredith Monk’s *Book of Days.* I adore Monk and that film, so I was thrilled to see something similar. The music featured a woman singing with just a handful of instruments accompanying her, maybe just a guitar and one or two strings? This film felt like it could effectively be developed into something longer.
Daniel Bernard Roumain’s opera showed a woman singing on the fire escape along the back of a small building. It looked like Sunnyside, Queens. She was looking down on someone dancing below while hanging up the laundry (as one does). The dancer moved out into other locations but the singer remained on the fire escape. A piano accompanied her singing, it had a 1990s indie new wave pop feel, like if 10,000 Maniacs decided to write an opera set in Sunnyside, Queens. Which I would love to see. Plus I understood almost every word. This film was especially poignant and memorable.
Jimmy López Bellido’s opera was about the very act of performing music. The film showed people in a cityscape, all of them wearing fabric masks (the only film that showed people wearing masks). It was scored for an operatic mezzo soprano (the wonderful Sasha Cooke) and a pianist. The music had a sense of grandeur, it felt like a piece that could be performed many times and always make an impact.
Sahba Aminikia’s opera used blurry music and blurry images in the film. Pretty quickly the blurry piano and blurry vocals were joined by a resolutely UN-blurry Jew’s harp. Jeez, if ever I craved a little blurriness, it was then. That Jew’s harp went directly into my dental work (not in a good way). This video was unsettling and I was eager for it to be over. Which might have been what the composer and filmmaker was/were after. Thankfully it was under four minutes long.
I saved Bora Yoon for last, since she’s the only composer I was familiar with. I’ve heard her sing with Voices of Ascension many times and heard a few of her pieces, including a piece at the Park Avenue Armory years ago. She’s a singular artist, I was so pleased to see she was one of the artists included in this project. The music was a beguiling combination of a single female voice (Bora’s own voice), quiet chimes, quietly howling wind, sporadic speaking, and lapping water. The video was lush films of nature, mostly in vivid color but occasionally in black and white. About halfway through a fire was lit and we heard someone coughing (it sounded like a child) and a crowd of people chanting. Eventually I realized they were changing “I can’t breathe.” Maybe it’s because it was the last piece I saw, or maybe it’s because I know and admire Bora, but this piece seemed more ambitious than the others.
Here's a recent piece by Yoon, *Casual Miracles*: