I saw *Ocean Body* at Protoype Opera on Jan 9, 2021. I saw four operas at Prototype last winter (*Blood Moon,* *Magdalene,* *Rev 23,* and *Ellen West*) and while they weren’t all great, they all had something extraordinary in them and of course I feel I have to support a company that’s producing new opera. Their 2021 season is almost entirely happening online because of COVID-19, but one opera in their season was being presented in an actual theater. I didn’t know what the conditions were of this performance and chose not to learn anything about it, but just show up ignorant.
It was done in a small theater downtown, in SoHo, the HERE Arts Center off Spring Street. I’d seen many performances there, which made me curious to see how they’d be using the space. I remembered that I had a choice of the time, with many choices back-to-back, so I assumed it would be some sort of screening, rather than a live performance. With a small audience, probably? I showed up about a half hour early and walked up to the desk and spoke to the young woman working there:
ME: Hello, I’m here for the 2:00 performance.
ME: Um, yes!
A small audience indeed, I was one of two people for the 2:00 performance. The other person had already arrived, so it was easy for to figure out my name. She scanned my temperature, asked me to fill out a COVID-19 questionnaire, and told me I could either hang out in the lobby or come back just before 2:00. I chose to go for a walk.
I got back to the theater, checked back in, and stood over in the corner watching a couple of videos, one with a white woman and one with a Black woman. The sequence ended with the Black woman speaking. I turned around to see that woman standing in front of me! She was wearing a mask, of course, but I could tell she was smiling.
ME: Hello! Is that you I was just watching?
HELGA: Yes, it is.
ME: Well what a treat! Are you in the performance?
HELGA: Yes, this is my show. My name is Helga Davis.
ME: Nice to meet you, Helga, my name is Chris Ryan.
I held my elbow out and we bumped elbows.
HELGA: Chris, this is Mark, he’s our director.
ME: Nice to meet you, Mark.
MARK: Nice to meet you.
We bumped elbows.
ME: I have no idea what this is, I have no idea what to expect.
HELGA: Oh we love that! That’s the perfect way to approach the experience.
ME: Are you a singer or an actor? Or both?
ME: Great, are you based here in New York?
HELGA: Yes, I’m a native New Yorker.
ME: Have I seen you in anything else?
HELGA: Did you see *Einstein on the Beach* at BAM a few years ago?
ME: Oh my God! Was that you in the scene with Greg Purnhagen? You pointed a gun at him at the end of the scene?
HELGA: [laughs] Yes, that was me.
ME: That was so incredible. I never thought I’d get to see that show onstage, it was such a thrill.
And we talked for another few minutes about *Einstein* and the other people I know in the cast. I told her and Mark about my website and gave them my card.
The other audience member and I were invited to enter the theater. There was no seating. The performance was only 20 minutes long, so this wasn’t a problem (at least not for me). The theater was empty, with a tall, narrow video screen on the left, two long, narrow video screens in the center, and another tall, narrow video screen on the right. There were speakers at the back of the room.
*Ocean Body* was written by Davis and Shara Nova, the other performer in the piece. There was no credit given to a librettist, so I assume they wrote the text and the music. The theme was the two women having a connection to the ocean, and maybe through the ocean, a connection to each other. The director was Mark DeChiazza. The film alternated between scenes shot at the ocean and shot in a studio with a black background, beautiful images, thoughtfully put together for the four-screen format.
All of the music was beautiful, evocative, and wonderfully accessible. It sounded to me more like top-drawer, highbrow Broadway music than like contemporary opera, but that border between musical and opera (which was always rather tenuous) has become more and more blurred over the last 20-30 years. Kurt Weill, who wrote music in both arenas, said that we shouldn’t be so quick to classify pieces as one or the other - - we should just decide if it’s good or bad! I agree and say this piece was definitely GOOD.
My favorite scene had Davis dancing on the beach, her bare feet in the sand and jagged seashells. The score sounded like strings, drums, and harp (the names of the instrumentalists were credited but not what they were playing). She spoke rather than sang. The final scene featured the two women singing together from across the room, each on one of those tall, narrow screens. I had the tune of the final scene stuck in my head all the way home on the subway. I can’t remember that ever happening with a new opera.