top of page

Reviewing the 2024 PROTOTYPE Festival

Updated: Feb 20

By Alkis Karmpaliotis


New York’s annual Prototype Festival is one of the city’s most unique and exciting artistic events, presenting an array of music-theatre works, from experimental plays to chamber operas, in theaters across the city. Employing a dozen different theaters, the festival is known for its high-quality performances and diverse assortment of genres. Each piece presented in the Prototype Festival is groundbreaking and innovative, helping to push opera forward into the 21st Century.


I had the pleasure of covering the festival in partnership with UnisonMedia, who provided me access to two incredible shows: Mary Kouyoumdjian’s chamber opera, Adoration, and the Ukrainian experimental opera, Chornobyldorf.


The first show I saw was Adoration, a stage adaptation of Atom Egoyan’s 2008 film by the same name. With a masterful libretto by Royce Vavrek, the story follows Simon, an orphaned high schooler who, as part of a dramatic writing exercise, claims his father planted a bomb in his wife’s luggage before boarding a plane. As the story unfolds and Simon’s story goes viral, we are presented with both fictional and factual information about his parents. First, we hear from his maternal grandfather, a white man who is so blinded by racism and hysteria that he insists that Simon’s father, Sami, a brown man, was, indeed, a terrorist. Then, we hear from Simon’s teacher, Sabine, who originally encouraged Simon to make up the story, and was once in love with Sami. By the end of the opera, it is revealed that Simon’s parents died in a car crash, with Sami driving angrily after an intense argument stemming from his father-in-law’s prejudices. With a variety of messages and deeper meanings, Adoration is a heartbreaking story of hate, betrayal, and family strife.



The doors to the beautiful theater at The Sheen Center for Thought & Culture opened at 7:45, and the hall was buzzing with excitement for the opera’s premiere. Before the opera even began, I walked in to the sight of a young Simon, performed by Sammy Ivany, lying across the stage, journaling on a few pieces of paper and crafting a paper airplane. After a brief introduction by the festival’s founders and directors, the lights dimmed, and a backstage string quartet began to play an intense prelude. Suddenly, a seventeen-year-old Simon, played by tenor Omar Najmi, beautifully sang the words “Innocence is hard to describe / Like a scent / A thing that people carry,” before taking out a camera and filming himself telling the story about his father. His performance, both as an actor and singer, was thoroughly convincing throughout the evening.



The opera featured a substantial amount of technology, most notably Simon’s camera, which transmitted close-ups of the characters’ faces onto a large screen in the background. The video was projected onto a large structure, resting on a rotating platform similar to the one used in many of the Metropolitan Opera’s current productions, such as Rigoletto and Le Nozze di Figaro, that transformed itself as the opera progressed to create a screen, a table, and even the walls of a house.


The music, text, and direction were masterfully put together. The music by Kouyoumdjian was breathtaking, using a variety of motifs to represent feelings and events. The opera’s most beautiful passage came in Sabine’s aria, “I Was Married to Him,” sung gorgeously by soprano Miriam Khalil, the dramatic text of which added a whole new layer of complexity to an already thought-provoking opera. Vavrek’s libretto was practically flawless, cleverly jumping between the past and present, between falsehoods and truths, and incorporating Simon’s parents into a story that takes place after their deaths. The singers often oscillated between spoken and sung dialogue, which, due to the use of amplification, made it somewhat difficult to understand exactly what the performers were saying; however, the opera never lost its melodiousness and rich subtext.


Although Adoration is officially defined as an opera, I think it is best described as a music-theater work, since, as beautiful as the music was, it was the subject matter and script that maintained the audience's attention even after the performance was over. Whereas music and singing come first in any classical opera, the script and the acting are more prominent in music theater, with the music playing a more complimentary role. The atmosphere of Adoration fits more under the latter, although Kouyoumdjian's incredible music was unquestionably an essential contributor, if not the driving force, to present such a plot, it was Vavrek's libretto that stole the show for me.


Perhaps the most gut-wrenching part of the piece was the flashback scene to the fight between Sami and Simon’s grandfather, in which the latter spews a series of prejudiced arguments, including “What’s wrong is… his culture has brought nothing but hatred and violence.” The increasing conflict between the two hot-tempered men, acted out powerfully by tenor Karim Sulayman and Marc Kudisch, caused Simon’s mother, Rachel, to drink frantically, while her brother, Tom, attempted to shield a young Simon from the tension. Overall, Adoration was a powerful, timely, and artistically captivating piece. It left no doubt in my mind that the state of opera is alive and well.



The second show I saw was the action-packed play Chornobyldorf, presented in the historic black-box theater of the La Mama Experimental Theater Club, which channels Ukrainian rage and sorrow. Created by Ukrainian composers Roman Grigoriv and Ilia Razumeiko, and named after the Chornobyl exclusion zone in Ukraine and the village of Zwetendorf, which is home to Austria’s first nuclear power station, this opera takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, where a group of people, wandering around abandoned cities, attempt to recreate civilization through archaeological rituals and performances.


The story behind Chornobyldorf, which made its American premiere at this year’s festival, is nothing short of incredible. Bringing the large crew of 19 Ukrainian artists out of a war zone was a challenging feat, as they each had to obtain visa approval to enter the U.S. while avoiding being drafted to join the Ukranian defense. Because there is no U.S. embassy in Ukraine, the artists had to embark on a 10-hour long journey to Warsaw, where they were able to be stamped for entry to the U.S.. However, even in Warsaw, the stamping process was so turbulent that the group was held up for several days, while the Prototype team provided housing and per diems in the interim.


The obstacles did not end there. Chornobyldorf requires a large amount of equipment and numerous set pieces, which were supposed to be delivered to New York through an international shipping company. However, only a month prior to the opera’s premiere, Prototype received notification that the U.S. was no longer accepting Ukrainian carnets, leaving them with no choice but to find an alternative solution to staging the piece. In the end, by fabricating the major set pieces, sourcing materials, and instruments in New York, Prototype was able to successfully prepare for the premiere.


Chornobyldorf is characterized as an “archaeological opera in seven novels” and features a large screen, traditional Ukrainian instruments, sounds so loud that audience members were offered earplugs, and even nudity. While preparing my coverage of the festival, I had the pleasure of interviewing the creators of this revolutionary piece to learn more about its creation and message.


“The creation process started years ago in the geographical space called "Central Europe" - somewhere in between the Chornobyl exclusion zone in Ukraine, and Zwentendorf an der Donau - a small village on the Danube, where the only Austrian nuclear power station was never launched,” shared Grigoriv and Razumeiko. The duo emphasized that the opera is dedicated to the research of an imaginary post-apocalyptic world. They added, “After 24.02.2022, the message of the piece was dramatically transformed by the outside world. Operatic and a bit "romanticised" apocalypses became very real in the form of large-scale war and genocide.”


One of the trademarks of Chornobyldorf is its use of traditional Ukrainian instruments, such as as the Ukrainian bandura. Furthermore, much of the vocal material is based on the research of Ukrainian polyphonic folklore songs. When I asked them about their instrumentation, Grigoriv and Razumeiko noted that the piece consists of an incredible variety of musical elements, including Ganga singing techniques that originated in the Balkans, Mongolian morin khuurs (bowed stringed instruments with the structure of a violin and positioning of a sitar), and a microtonal dulcimer. 


The piece’s particular Ukrainian identity is central to its message. With Chornobyldorf, the artists sought to rethink the history of Chornobyl through a post-colonial lens, presenting it not as an “urbanistic technological catastrophe somewhere in the USSR” but as a “sociocultural tragedy of Ukrainian Polyssia — a unique forest region with very rich folklore music and storytelling traditions, that was wiped out.”


The foundation of Chornobyldorf is particularly fascinating, as it started, according to Grigoriv and Razumeiko, not as a libretto or music-theater piece, but with a series of “video-archaeological expeditions.” Even before planning the stage work, the pair established a system of institutions: the Anthropological Museum for Chornobyldorf Culture, and Chornobyldorf Institute. “The opening of the museum,” said the duo, “which contains over 100 artifacts in Kyiv, and the Institute were organized together with the international “Conference of the Ends,” which gathered scientists, art critics, and artists to reflect on the ideas of the ‘End’ and the ‘Apocalypse’ in a playful form.” These activities are well-documented on the artists’ digital platform, chornobyldorf.xyz, which they call “real virtuality opera.”


Chornobyldorf has been presented in various different theatrical settings, including: conventional theater stages in Kyiv and Rotterdam; immersive black-box spaces in Liverpool, Huddersfield, Frankfurt, Vienna, and now New York; and even Elizabethan theater in Vilnius. It has embraced the idea of “opera aperta,” or “open work of art” (a term coined by the Italian novelist Umberto Eco),  using a plethora of materials and stories to paint a cohesive and immersive picture in such a way that even Richard Wagner, famous for his idea of the “total work of art”, would be proud of.



To say that Chornobyldorf was a thrilling experience would be an understatement. Two hours in length with no intermissions, it kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time. The image of the artists taking their bows after the performance, holding up a Ukrainian flag with tears in their eyes, was reflective of the incredible power of art to touch people's hearts and make a difference in the world.


Although I wish I had seen and reviewed more shows, I can only hope that this article gave you a good sense of the incredible variety of innovative works that the Prototype Festival has to offer. See you next year!

 

My name is Alkis Karmpaliotis, I'm a Junior at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, and I founded AppreciateOpera.org in 2019 when I was 12 years old. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out some of my other articles and interviews!

108 views1 comment

1 Comment


What a lovely article! A substantial amount of time and effort was invested into its structure and content. It is always lovely to see someone appreciating opera and writing such thorough reviews!

Like
bottom of page