“Searing… An appallingly good work…Ms. Du’s music obeys only her own omnivorous tastes and assured dramatic instincts.”
– Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, The New York Times
Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music, Angel’s Bone is a new work of opera-theatre that follows the plight of two angels whose nostalgia for earthly delights has, mysteriously, brought them back to our world. They are found battered and bruised from their long journey by a man and his wife. Mr. and Mrs. X.E. set out to nurse the wounded angels back to health: they bathe them, wash the dirt from their nails…then lock them in a room and decide to exploit these magical beings for wealth and personal gains. Angel’s Bone melds chamber music, theatre, punk rock, opera, cabaret, and electronics, exploring the dark effects and motivations behind modern-day slavery and the trafficking industry.
Originally commissioned by the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia. Completion co-commissioned by Beth Morrison Projects and HERE. World Premiere co-produced by Beth Morrison Projects, HERE, and Trinity Wall Street. The world premiere was supported, in part, by public funds from The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.
First Performance: January 6, 2016 at 3LD Center for Art and Technology, New York
Music Director: Julian Wachner. Featuring the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and NOVUS NY
From the 2018 staging at the Hong Kong New Vision Arts Festival:
Angel’s Bone World Premiere Recording
Release Date: August 2017. National Sawdust Tracks.
Premiere Cast recording, featuring the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and NOVUS NY. Music Director: Julian Wachner
Audacious and searing… an appalling good work… Ms. Du’s music obeys only her own omnivorous tastes and assured dramatic instincts… Courageous and memorable performances from all.
Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, The New York Times
“Enthralling and always absorbing…. When so much contemporary opera consists of anodyne treatments of established literary texts, it’s bracing to encounter a work as adventurous and thoroughly original as Angel’s Bone.”
Fred Cohen, Opera America
a remarkably potent score… pathbreaking
Thomas May, Classical Voice America
Named the No.1 Best International Show in Hong Kong in 2018
Smaller, louder and unmistakably of the moment: That seems to be the punchy vision of opera that drives the Prototype Festival, which opened its fourth season on Wednesday with Du Yun’s audacious and searing “Angel’s Bone.” It’s an appallingly good work when you consider that it takes on the subject of child trafficking and mixes in elements of magic realism and a musical cocktail of Renaissance polyphony, electronica, Modernism, punk rock and cabaret.
Audience members arriving at the 3LD Art & Technology Center in Lower Manhattan were warned of strobe lighting effects, but it was the scenes of graphic violence that made some want to avert their eyes. Most disturbing of all, perhaps, Ms. Du and her brilliant librettist, Royce Vavrek, refuse to moralize. Their tale of two angels who crash-land in a suburban backyard and come to be maimed, exploited and brutally violated by hitherto unremarkable residents is presented as a parable without take-away lessons.
The story unfolds in the home of Mr. and Mrs. X.E., who are struggling financially until the two angels tumble into their yard. Something lights up in Mrs. X.E.: “We need this,” she tells her husband, and urges him to prune their wings and keep them captive. The angels’ feathers have intoxicating powers and draw the curiosity and envy of the neighbors, who soon come to pay for time spent with the “innocent creatures.”
The cast (all amplified) was led by the incisive soprano Abigail Fischer as Mrs. X.E., who compares herself to the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation even as she conducts business deals with prospective clients. As her husband, the baritone Kyle Pfortmiller was powerfully effective, capable of glib smoothness in the cabaret-style number “They Will Love You” and of summoning terrifying pathos in a climactic scene in which he falls victim to the violence he has wielded.
The Boy Angel was sung by Kyle Bielfield, who perfectly projected the vocal and physical innocence — and occasional heartbreaking hopefulness — required by his character. Jennifer Charles, a vocalist known for her work with the art rock band Elysian Fields, has only one solo, about her martyrdom at the hands of men who “like it rough.” Singing in a bloodcurdling wail of raw despair, she made a singular case for opening opera’s doors to untrained and untamed voices. The director, Michael McQuilken, drew courageous and memorable performances from all.
Ms. Du’s music obeys only her own omnivorous tastes and assured dramatic instincts. The Choir of Trinity Wall Street, functioning both as dark-robed commentators and modern-dress neighbors and customers, negotiated the transitions through different musical styles with wondrous ease. So did the small but potent ensemble Novus NY under the direction of Julian Wachner. And amid the flickering changes in styles, which were echoed by the adaptable sets by Matt Saunders with evocative video projections by Hannah Wasileski, there were little details binding the score together.
Ms. Fischer often sang with a light shudder in her voice that resembled a blend between Baroque ornamentation and a speech impediment. Certain instruments picked it up in turn: a fast-tongued trumpet, the tremolo of a violin. In Ms. Charles’s blazing solo, these unstable tremors came to be amplified into the violent, shuddering sobs of a terrified being.
If anything, “Angel’s Bone,” by Du Yun and Mr. Vavrek, which is having its world premiere at 3LD Art & Technology Center, is even more savage and uncompromising. An 80-minute descent into extreme cruelty, the score is a genre stew in which operatic and pop singing, faux-Renaissance polyphony that slides into dissonance, jazz riffs and electronic howls are deftly welded into a lean, propulsive dramatic arc that leaves the listener shocked and drained. The story is an allegory about contemporary slave trafficking: A suburban couple finds two angels in their garden. Seeing a business opportunity, the captors chop off their prisoners’ wings and pimp them out to a succession of increasingly abusive customers. The process finally takes its brutal toll on the husband; the opera’s coda, in which the wife gleefully assumes a public mantle of victimhood, is less convincing than the ferocity that went before.
Mezzo Abigail Fischer’s wonderfully pitiless demeanor and chilly coloratura set up a Lady Macbeth-like Mrs. X.E.; Kyle Pfortmiller brought out the brutish insecurity of her husband, so easily persuaded to do her dirty work. Kyle Bielfield’s wide vocal range and sweetness embodied the heartbreaking innocence of the Boy Angel; as the Girl Angel, Jennifer Charles’s nonclassical voice scraped and howled against an electronic score, making her pain excruciatingly audible. Julian Wachner ably conducted the 11-member Novus NY and singers from the Choir of Trinity Wall Street. Michael McQuilken’s acute direction emphasized the trembling terror of the angels and the easy sadism of their captors; Matt Saunders’s scenic design, with its many moving screens, and Yi Zhao’s lighting felt chaotic. Kate Fry’s best costume was Mrs. X.E.’s white, stiff-collared Wicked Witch outfit.
Prototype Fest: Angel’s Bone Premieres, with a Notable Score By Daniel Stephen Johnson, MusicalAmerica.com January 11, 2016
Most striking of all is Du Yun’s score, which negotiates between, on the one hand, the ancient realm of the divine, and on the other, the crass and vulgar modern world. At one end of this spectrum, the chorus—nine singers from the stellar Choir of Trinity Wall Street—sings music inspired by chant and sacred polyphony, the harmonies warped by a distinctly contemporary sensibility; at the other end, in the opera’s most intense moments, the music is taken over by brutal electronic pounding—Du’s dark interpretation of the most assaultive genres of popular music. Somewhere in between is the highly unusual, 11piece pit band (from Trinity’s new music ensemble, NOVUS NY), which includes tuba, lute, and bass flute in addition to more conventional instruments, and which is capable of sliding among different harmonic worlds, and then into pure color.
From Cutting-Edge To Baroque, China Fest Is Innovative
A highlight of the Beijing Music Festival’s 22nd edition was the mainland China premiere of a timely parable of human trafficking: Du Yun’s opera ‘Angel’s Bone,’ winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize. (Photos: Beijing Music Festival)
By Thomas May
BEIJING — “Golden Week” is the name for the national holiday period held in the People’s Republic of China at the beginning of October. This year, it also signaled an earlier-than-usual start to the annual Beijing Music Festival (BMF) — the country’s largest and most extensive festival devoted to classical music.
That of course entails considerable risk-taking of a sort not usually associated with a major government-subsidized festival. Perhaps the biggest risk this year was the mainland China premiere of Angel’s Bone (which was presented last year for the first time in Asia at the Hong Kong Arts Festival), given two performances at BMF. Du Yun’s opera, which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prizer for music, sets a libretto by Royce Vavrek that involves the topical issue of human trafficking. A dark parable of injured angels who are abused by their human “caretakers,” Angel’s Bone inspired Du Yun to write a remarkably potent score that felt more pathbreaking than ever on the large Poly Theatre stage. The production, staged by Michael McQuilken with Julian Wachner as music director, was riveting from start to finish — indeed an emotionally shattering experience that likely caught quite a few audience members off-guard.
“The members of the new generation being nurtured abroad are looking for a voice within themselves,” Shuang Zou remarks. “I don’t think of artists like Du Yun as American or Chinese, though she is very Chinese at heart. We are now past that generation where we need to speak about our identity all the time.”
Opera Fuoco, led by founder Michael Stern: The Western Baroque is still novel in China.
Still, there was considerable pride that the opera had earned a Pulitzer and that the Shanghai-born Du Yun, who is based in New York, has come back to China to share the experience. (BMF had co-commissioned the fairy-tale opera Madame White Snake in 2010 from Zhou Long, who became the first China-born composer to win the Pulitzer.)
This year’s most memorable stage productions came mostly from overseas, with Angel’s Bone, a contemporary opera presented by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department as part of its New Vision Arts Festival, topping the list.
Composed by Shanghai-born and New York-based Du Yun, the Pulitzer-winning piece is a hard-hitting commentary on human trafficking and a gritty portrayal of human vulnerability and greed. A cash-strapped couple find a pair of angels that have fallen into their backyard, but instead of helping them they turn the heavenly creatures into tools to make money.
Some scenes were brutal and made for uncomfortable viewing, but given the subject matter, such honest treatment makes the work more powerful. Du’s haunting music matches the dark tone of the piece to a tee, while the singing from the cast was phenomenal.
The multimedia elements, such as the video projection in the background, added to the dramatic tension of the performance.
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 Bone
Moving 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.)