Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music, Angel’s Bone is a new work of opera-theatre by composer Du Yun and librettist Royce Vavrek that follows the plight of two angels whose nostalgia for earthly delights has, mysteriously, brought them back to our world.
In September 2014, the composer Paola Prestini announced a new record label, VIA, as an offshoot of her Vision Into Art production company. It was meant to produce mostly new-music recordings, and its first releases included Anna Clyne’s The Violin, Prestini’s first opera, Oceanic Verses, and a new-music recital by Jeffrey Zeigler, the Kronos Quartet’s cellist from 2005 through 2013 (and also Prestini’s husband). Since then, VIA has released a small but varied catalogue, with entries from Sxip Shirey and Oracle Hysterical, Maya Beiser, Tim Fain, Cornelius Dufallo, and Ian David Rosenbaum, as well as an early music soundtrack disc (Tudor music from a PBS production, Wolf Hall).
A year after she launched VIA, Prestini opened National Sawdust, a Brooklyn multimedia arts center that has become an increasingly important part of the new-music landscape. Among the center’s facilities is a recording studio, and while VIA remained the house label, it seemed only natural to rebrand it, making the link to National Sawdust clearer. So at the start of April, National Sawdust Tracks was launched, with Zeigler as its director, and the VIA recordings as its instant back catalogue.
Among other things, Angel’s Bone offers a logical, if unsettling response to a perennial question, heard nonstop among those who either love or hate classical music and opera: Can classical music be relevant to today’s world? With Angel’s Bone, Du shows that it can — all composers need to do is write works that examine some of the real world’s grittier problems. Her own choice of subject here is human trafficking and sexual slavery, particularly among children — problems that we may prefer to associate with parts of the developing world, but which, Du notes, are commonplace, if better hidden, in the West, including the United States.
Du and Vavrek make that point with a blend of the exotic and the commonplace, reflected equally in the libretto and the score. The opera presents the subject unsparingly, through only the thinnest scrim of fantasy. A suburban couple, Mr. and Mrs. X. E., bored and unhappy with their lives and each other, discover Boy Angel and Girl Angel, who had fallen out of the heavens and crashed into their backyard.
Poster for Angel’s BoneMoving quickly from an odd sort of religious delusion — Mr. X.E. proposes that the angels are God’s reward for the couple’s years of struggle; Mrs. X.E. likens herself to the Virgin at the Annunciation — to outright opportunism, Mrs. X.E. sees the angels as the answer to her problems. Keeping them captive in a clawfoot bathtub, she goads her husband into pruning their feathers, and begins pimping them out to the neighbors.
Mr. X.E. eventually thinks better of this, and liberates the angels and begs their forgiveness, before stabbing himself in the heart. Mrs. X.E., however, is thoroughly unreconstructed. Pregnant with Boy Angel’s child, she reinvents herself as a victim (her husband forced her to do it, she says) and becomes a media celebrity.
Du, who was born in Shanghai and is now based in New York, where she is artistic director of the MATA Festival, is an omnivorously eclectic composer who sees little point in genre boundaries. My first encounter with her work, about a decade ago, was hearing the Juilliard Ensemble play Vicissitudes No. 3 (2003), an overtly modernist scored inspired by the poetry of Wang Dan, a leader of the protest movement at Tiananmen Square. But just a few days later, I heard her leading a jazz-rock band, performing her scores for a handful of turn-of-the-(20th)-century silent films by Alice Guy Blaché. In subsequent concerts, she presented works in which she sang, played keyboards and percussion, and coaxed electronic sounds from a laptop and other devices.
With a composer as freewheeling as Du, you never know exactly what to expect, even in broad terms, but there is always a firm link between the sounds she chooses and the subjects she addresses.
In Angel’s Bone, Du’s style choices and juxtapositions give real emotional substance to both the surfaces and undercurrents of Vavrek’s text. She begins the work, for example, with a Renaissance liturgical sound that evokes the work’s fantasy element — we’re talking about angels here (or are we?) — and foreshadows the religious spin the X.E.s put on their find. That neo-Renaissance pastiche returns in later scenes, where it is mixed with a more nebulous, electronic timbre, in a blend that suggests otherworldliness and mystery, without rooting that atmosphere in any specific aural imagery.
Elsewhere in the score, the sound world is light years away from this serenity. Brisk, busy, and at times chaotic jazz-tinged figures weave a fabric that sounds like an amalgam of Frank Zappa at his most experimental and the jazz avant-gardist Sun Ra. Percussion writing with a ritualistic tinge plays a crucial role as well.
The Choir of Trinity Wall Street and the new-music chamber orchestra Novus NY, move expertly through these disparate levels, under Julian Wachner’s baton. So do the cast’s four singers, whose roles are partly spoken, partly sung. Abigail Fischer does a superb job of creating Mrs. X.E.’s path from bitterness, boredom and disappointment to celebratory self-justification, and Kyle Pfortmiller captures Mr. X.E.’s disappointment and marital alienation, his attempt to be the more reasonable of the pair in his dealings with the angels (he’s the good pimp), and his eventual qualms and guilt.
As the angels, Kyle Bielfield and Jennifer Charles project a confused innocence at first, but that quickly unravels as the score moves toward its harrowing centerpiece, Girl Angel’s tortured “Brick J.” – a wrenching, graphic Sprechtstimme aria about a client who “likes it rough.” And what follows this chilling scene? Another neo-Renaissance choral section.
Angel’s Bone is, obviously, not an easy work to grapple with, and you probably want to put some space between hearings. But as Du’s Pulitzer recognition acknowledged, it’s an important and provocative statement that should be heard — as well as a good introduction to Du’s work. (For another side of her composing persona, check out Shark In You, her 2011 debut disc, on the New Focus label.)
Du Yun’s Pulitzer Prize Winning Angel’s Bone on VIA Records
Angel’s Bone, awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music, was premiered at the 2016 PROTOTYPE festival and co-produced by Beth Morrison Projects, HERE, and Trinity Wall Street. The work is a momentous accomplishment for intrepid composer Du Yun and librettist Royce Vavrek, and it serves as a bold example of the continued relevance of the operatic genre. The recent CD release of Angel’s Bone (conducted by Julian Wachner for the VIA Records label), is a profoundly important testament to the work’s emotional and artistic impact. Unifying traditional forms with modern musical expression and unapologetically graphic and relevant subject matter, Angel’s Bone is a work that deserves to be heard everywhere.
The opera opens with solemn procession, setting the mood but revealing little of the impending drama. The Chorus sings “A Prism, A Video, A Flurry,” with exquisite purity of tone. The voices bring the words to life, unfolding across dissonances, navigating meandering tonalities, and finally, unraveling into the next scene. We meet the scorned wife, Mrs. X.E., (rich-voiced mezzo-soprano, Abigail Fischer) and Mr. X.E., who rushes in bearing two beings with bloodied faces. They are not runaway children, but in fact, angels. The angels, badly wounded, are deposited into the bathtub, wings askew, shaking in agony and fear. Cut and bleeding, they still have hope, singing, “People are naturally generous…good, helpful, kind, welcoming…They would never hurt us.”
As the Boy Angel, Kyle Bielfield’s bright, youthful tenor encourages the weary Girl Angel (Jennifer Charles), who bravely musters the strength to produce languid, melismatic sighs and shaking exclamations. Lest these valuable treasures fly away, Mrs. X.E. coldly commands her husband to, “Prune them.” Desperate to please, Mr. X.E. does this against a violent cacophony of gasps, screams, and shrill punctuations from the orchestra. Already bloodied and weak, the angels are completely defeathered by sharp pruning shears. One does not need a set and actors before them to visualize the terrible brutality and horror of the scene. In the end, the angels are left gasping and mutilated, and listeners cannot help feeling overwhelmed by this stunning violation. Who could brutalize an angel, and with such violence? Mrs. X.E., bursting with narcissistic self-pity, compares herself to the Virgin Mary, recalling her past financial struggles, and proudly displaying the angels’ feathers now adorning her body.
Some of the most poignant and beautiful moments in the opera come from the Choir of Trinity Wall Street—virtually unmatched for their exquisitely pure sound and perfect blend. The profound movement, “Feathers are Prickly Things,” has a homophonic, hymn-like feel, a strong contrast to the harsh sounds of earlier scenes. As the voices swell, first the lower ones, and then the higher ones, the message becomes clear: “Feathers are prickly things in the wrong hands.”
Meanwhile, the angels languish, and the Boy Angel comforts the Girl Angel who is “cut up, marked…from head to toe.” One could guess at how their injuries came to be, and that might be good enough. In fact, some might consider these images too vivid, too disturbing. But Du and Vavrek do not let their audience off the hook. In the next scene, “Taking Orders,” we are forced to witness, in graphic detail, the horrific abuse, torture, and rape of these poor and helpless creatures. “They are at your service!” says Mrs. X.E. to her clients, who arrive to be serviced as they wish. The Female Customer (Melanie Russell)’s sweet soprano belies her repulsive intent as she chokes and kicks the Boy Angel in a fit of rage. Beaten and bruised, he is then raped by Mrs. X.E. to a feverish orchestral accompaniment.
The Girl Angel fares no better. In “Brick J,” a spoken tour-de-force, she cries over the pulsing orchestra, recounting that her client “likes it rough…I’m wailing. He’s devouring.” She is so broken, that she can no longer sing. She must speak, and sigh, and howl, and moan as she tells her story, and even this cannot truly convey her horror. The Boy Angel cries “I am a wound, gaping, gushing.” They know that they must run away. Still, confused and broken, the Girl Angel hesitates, as many victims do, “But [Mr. X.E.] loves me.”
The X.E.’s grand scheme falls apart, however, as Mrs. X.E. reveals that she is pregnant with the Boy Angel’s child. Mr. X.E. throws a bag of feathers at the angels, yelling, “Restore your wings and fly away! Remove your shackles and fly away!” before remorsefully stabbing himself in the heart. Mrs. X.E. unrepentantly hatches a plan to escape justice for her crimes and to turn her transgressions into a source of pity. “My story, a television spectacle…forced to sell the spiritual, the sexual, by a deranged spouse.”
Whatever happens to those beautiful, broken, and tormented angels? We will never know, just as the fates of the most vulnerable victims of abuse are far too often unknown. Unlike so many operas before it, there is no tidy resolution, no happy ending, and no justice. Not even a weak apology can be mustered up for the victims. They are the forgotten ones in this drama. For them, there is only tremendous pain, unspeakable horror, and then, silence.
Angel’s Bone is a truly groundbreaking work, both in its deft integration of various, sometimes unexpected, musical styles and expressions into a unified whole, and for a libretto that is poetic and beautiful without ever glossing over the ugliness, violence, and horror of the story it depicts. This work serves as mirror, illuminated by bright fluorescents, inviting us to lay bare our own complicity in—or indifference to—these heinous, crimes. Bravo to Julian Wachner for leading a first-class roster of musicians through a complex score with equal parts precision and passion. It is my hope that Angel’s Bone will have a run in every major city and inspire a new generation of composers and librettists to challenge the idea of what is acceptable or desirable subject matter for opera in the twenty-first century, to explore and expose in great detail, the most painful and disturbing taboos, to give a voice to the voiceless, and to elevate the disturbing scenes from the world around them into a bold and engaging artistic creation that demands our full attention—even when we so desperately want to look away.