Opera can do lots of things — festivity, pomp and circumstance, flirtation, and/or disagreement, just to name a few — but it has a special, long-standing, almost mystical relationship with female tragedy. The association between opera and women’s troubles runs so deep, wide, and frequent that in 1979 the French philosopher Catherine Clément published a book whose title equated the two. In French, it was called L’opéra ou la défaite des femmes, and in English, Opera: The Undoing of Women. In it, Clément used dozens of examples from the operatic canon to investigate the way that the art form relies on “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of the woman who dies, murdered.”
Although Bibi, the heroine of Ellen Reid’s new opera p r i s m, avoids that ultimate fate, she nevertheless participates in opera’s ongoing mediation of women’s experience through narratives of trauma, distress, and sacrifice. In a dazzling performance on Sunday, December 2, at L.A.’s REDCAT, soprano Anna Schubert disrupted opera’s canonical narrative of women’s undoing by telling a new story that revealed both the complexity of mother-daughter relations and the ongoing dilemma of women’s complicity in their own oppression. Fueled by Roxie Perkins’s shocking libretto and focused to a fiery pitch by James Darrah’s superb direction, Reid’s wild, unforgettable music created the sensation of witnessing the dawn of a new era, one consciously situated within the matrix of #MeToo that defies the tradition of “la défaite des femmes.”
In Act 1, “Sanctuary as it should be,” we meet Bibi (Schubert) and her mother, Lumee (Rebecca Jo Loeb), in a white bedroom wallpapered with reflective surfaces. Bibi can’t walk, and she and Lumee enter into a classic parent-child tussle over whether or not the sick girl will take her medicine. In the hands of Reid and Perkins, this struggle takes on cosmic overtones, and the color of the medicine (yellow), and that of the threatening alternative of compromised quarantine (blue), become both metaphysical principles and characters in the score. Act 2, “Sanctuary as it was,” reveals the traumatic event that damaged Bibi, a sexual assault that took place in a nightclub. An intermission allowed for the transformation of the initial set into this new, raucous public space, where multiple mirror balls hover at waist height, and four dancers (Tatiana Barber, Charbel Rohayem, Chris Emile, and Gigi Todisco) circulate to the frenetic pulse of an EDM-like soundtrack. Here’s where Rebecca Jo Loeb reveals the origins of Lumee’s hypervigilance in a moment of irresponsibility that led to Bibi’s exposure to danger. The mother’s failure to protect her daughter, located in an abstract disco and scored as a cacophony of raw, darkly beautiful new music, implies that generational differences, so often at the root of stubborn recriminations of a sexual nature, are part of what’s in play here.
Finally, once the now mostly naked bodies of the quartet of dancers have done their stuff, and Bibi has apparently been deflowered, we return to the primal scene of the bedroom, but with a difference. Act 3, “Sanctuary as it is,” provides the opera with a genre-defying conclusion in which the question of what Bibi’s “undoing” might mean gets a daring, ambiguous answer. As conducted by Daniela Candillari in Sunday’s performance, the members of the LA Opera Orchestra and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street rendered the finale of Reid’s ambitious score with a precise yet exuberant fierceness. The demands made on the two singers only added to the pathos of the occasion, and looking around the packed REDCAT space, it was clear that the overall emotional impact of the piece was inescapable. Director James Darrah will return to the Music Academy of the West this summer to helm the operatic version of Charles Frazier’s Civil War novel Cold Mountain, and librettist Roxie Perkins has had several of her plays produced here thanks to the summer theater festival known as On the Verge. Given the extraordinary advance for both artists represented by this collaboration with Ellen Reid, is it too much to ask that Santa Barbara get a shot at premiering their next venture? Perhaps, but in any event, p r i s m was one of the season’s most thrilling musical experiences.