Ellen Reid: p r i s m

Ellen Reid: p r i s m

Ellen Reid’s Pulitzer Prize-winning chamber opera is a searing story of a woman’s experience of a traumatic sexual assault and her attempt to recover and move on. Told through allegory and vivid suggestion, p r i s m is imaginatively scored, bringing Roxie Perkins’ devastating libretto to life. Conceived before the #MeToo movement had gathered pace, p r i s m is a masterpiece absolutely of our times. “We feel that sexual abuse happens to so many people, and that was something we were interested in exploring through the opera,” says Reid. “We wanted to dive into the psychology of what that feels like.” And it succeeds, no small thanks to the performances here–Anna Schubert as Bibi and Rebecca Jo Loeb as Lumee inhabit brilliantly their nightmarish roles alongside a phenomenal choir; the result is a recording that recreates all the claustrophobia and tense atmosphere of the stage production. Act I “Calming Prayer” “The opening track sets the scene for our two main characters, Bibi and her mother Lumee. Bibi is a sick young child who is tormented by this creepy sound that’s coming from outside the door. The music is claustrophobic, a mood helped by the use of a waterphone—an instrument that bends the pitch—plus a lot of metallic percussion. It all creates a feeling of dizziness. We also get the first ‘Barabi’ incantation, a chant that Bibi and Lumee use to ward off the forces from outside. It comes back throughout the piece.” “Medicine” “Bibi needs to take her medicine to get well–if she doesn’t, she’ll turn into dust and get sucked out of their sanctuary into the looming forces outside their door. Lumee tries to give Bibi her medicine, but the medicine smells horrible and she spits it out. Here we have the first introduction of the incredible Choir of Trinity Wall Street–they illuminate the grossness of the medicine and Bibi’s wooziness as she tries to take it.” “Rescue Game” “This is a moment when Bibi and Lumee do something they love together: playing a game and having a good time. Anna Schubert (Bibi) and Rebecca Jo Loeb (Lumee) really conjure up sweetness in this scene. The music is driven by a harp, which gives it a lyrical quality. It’s a moment in the piece where we come back to remember what it felt like when the characters were in a good place.” “Bedtime Prayer” “‘Bedtime Prayer’ is related to the first track where we hear the ‘Barabi’ incantation again, but this time it’s set differently–it’s darker, a little more guilty and strained. Bibi has disappointed Lumee, and so Lumee goes to sleep, leaving Bibi alone. You can hear the solitude and the depth of that solitude when the orchestra takes over and tumbles down into this still, low tone.” “Bibi’s Wish / Lumee’s Nightmare” “This is the first time that we hear Bibi from her point of view–Anna Schubert is absolutely amazing here. At this point in the opera, Bibi can’t walk, and so Anna is singing and dragging herself around the stage on her two arms. Lumee wakes up and stirs from a dream, and sings this mysterious text that comes back a few more times in the piece. The music goes from the real directness of Bibi’s inner drive to a distant, more mysterious sound that accompanies Lumee’s nightmare.” “Blue’s Invitation” “There’s something so sensual and hypnotic about the way the choir sounds here–they’re embodying the strange, frightening force outside the door. But there’s something that’s so alluring about the sound that comes out through the amazing voices of the choir. We used a little bit of reverb, but otherwise, it’s just their voices.” “Bibi’s Shame” “Here, the music collapses and turns into something that’s more dry-sounding. Bibi has been caught trying to communicate with the force outside the door and Lumee won’t have it. Later in the track she tries to get Bibi to take the medicine again, and Bibi is torn between the sensual allure of that force outside the door and how gross her medicine is.” “Medicine / Blue Returns” “Bibi gets told that she is so sick that she’s going to be turned to pure dust and be sucked out into the blue, out of their sanctuary. Lumee has to separate herself from Bibi to stay well, which leaves Bibi totally alone and in a state of shock and devastation. The music is uneasy. The rhythms don’t stay regular, and it builds to this kind of frenzied repetitive pattern. After Lumee goes asleep, it falls away, similarly to how we’ve heard it fall away before when illustrating the sinking feeling in the pit of Bibi’s stomach.” “Bibi’s Desire” “Bibi here is determined to turn herself to dust and to get herself sucked out to get back at Lumee, because she’s so hurt. You hear the intensity of the scene in the French horns and the charged rhythm in the orchestra, and you can sense Bibi’s rage in her singing and through the language that the opera’s librettist Roxie Perkins chose to use.” “Lost in the Blue” “This is one of my favorite moments in the opera. It’s a moment of ecstasy, which is something that we really need at this point in the piece. It’s a moment of release and a moment of pleasure. The force outside the door and Bibi are having an exchange, and as part of it, Bibi stands. She’s able to stand, which is something that feels unknown to us at that point. There’s something about the force that’s giving her strength. The music is driven by the choir and weaves with the orchestra to create waves of ecstasy.” “SUCK SLURP BITE” “This is a track of high drama. Around 30 seconds in, Lumee sees Bibi communing with the force outside the door and runs to stop her. She doesn’t know what to do. Bibi collapses, to the sound of the choir, and dancers open the door and lift Bibi out. The choir’s sound becomes really dissonant while the dancers flip Bibi over, suck her out the door, and slam it, leaving Lumee alone.” Act II “bitch, i’ll eat you.” “At the start of Act II, we hear a monologue delivered by Lumee that’s quite upsetting. The music is like a very heightened club beat–it’s supposed to be a club from a nightmare, so a memory of a really bad club experience that’s loud and repetitive and faster than normal.” “alone on the dance floor” “Now we’re introduced to the idea that there’s somebody encroaching on Bibi’s personal space. The music was hard to write, and I kept coming up with different versions. Nothing was quite enough of a song for this moment, but it came to me quite late, while I was on a subway. The sound of the accompanying choir and orchestra were run through a synthesizer module so that it all sounded like a synth.” “jasmine breeze body spray (nightclub prayer)” “This is a big orchestral moment, and onstage is illuminated by twinkling disco balls, which is so beautiful. Bibi and Lumee are enjoying the beauty of the dance floor and the club, and Lumee is telling Bibi what she loves about being there at night. The music is very beautiful–there’s a sweetness between the characters.” “lumee’s dream” “Everything freezes, and we hear what Lumee is thinking. Roxie Perkins’ text is so lyrical that the melody almost wrote itself. Rebecca Jo Loeb’s performance is just so heartbreaking and vulnerable. It’s an aria–the only aria, really, in the whole piece. It’s quite folky, and starts with harp and tam-tam, which has a dark and ethereal quality to it: metallic but also really resonant. There are bursts of melody and orchestra and it keeps shifting, leaving the listener wondering what they’re hearing.” “mom come back” “And then this awful solitude. This is where we discover the origins of the ‘Barabi’ incantation, and we hear the twisted genius of librettist Roxie Perkins. Bibi is left alone at the club, and she’s trying to comfort herself by reminding herself about the joy that she and her mom had in track 14. But because she’s upset, she can’t quite remember it. The music features a lot of tapping, which gives it an unsettling, threatening feeling.” “orange blinding burning blue” “Bibi here is remembering the assault, and what she was thinking as the assault was happening. Onstage you don’t see the assault played out–it’s just her moving alone. Again, the choir is so powerful in this track. I wanted it to be really searing and to move glacially with these huge fractures. Then there’s just a little bit of whispering from the choir and breathing–everything else is this very light club pulse coming from outside the bathroom door.” “flickering light” “So this is the transition between Act II and Act III, and we’re moving back to what we knew before as the sanctuary, the room, but now it’s gross; it’s covered in trash, and it’s decrepit. We see it all coming into focus, and I think of these kind of bursts of rage within Bibi, because she now knows what’s happened in her life. The music becomes quite atonal and moves beyond melody and beyond harmony. Something noisier and more guttural and raw.” Act III “A New Medicine” “Bibi and Lumee confront each other and it’s painful and raw. You can hear how committed the singers’ performances are. They’re extraordinary. They fight physically during this song, and there is just a really simple low bassline–at that point we’ve been through so much that it just feels like we’re so dead inside. Lumee has a freak-out and starts saying to Bibi, ‘Say it! Say it! Say it! Say it! Say it!’ You see how desperate Lumee is to repeat what she and Bibi have been living.” “RUN” “It was really important to me and Roxie Perkins that Bibi chooses to take her life back. Yes, she has to go into a world totally unequipped, and she has to deal with what’s happened to her. But she does it. She has the strength to open the door and leave. It feels so powerful. I wanted to illustrate the heroism and the heartbreak of this moment through the music, and the choir is encouraging her to take the leap and claim her life back. The music’s open intervals are harsh but also heroic at the same time.”

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