PROTOTYPE: taking on the opera world

With its fifth anniversary in 2017 PROTOTYPE has reached a significant milestone, and yet it still feels like a youthful start-up taking on the opera world. Kim Whitener, producing director of HERE and co-founder of PROTOTYPE, explains how the festival has helped reinvent attitudes toward contemporary opera

When we three founding directors – Kristin Marting (artistic director, HERE), Beth Morrison (creative producer, Beth Morrison Projects), and myself (producing director, HERE) – came together over a glass of wine in 2009 to discuss how our organisations might work together, the dream of starting a festival to showcase the work of 21st-century composers emerged as the most effective means to that end. It’s still amazing to us that the dream has become a reality.

Left to right: Kristin Marting, Beth Morrison and Kim Whitener © Noah Stern Webber

At the time the climate in the opera industry was significantly different. At the 2008 Opera America conference, the general conversation was that new works couldn’t be produced because they were too risky and audiences wouldn’t come. The pervasive thinking was that traditional canon repertory was the only thing that would bring in audiences.

Because of this mind-set, the focus on placing the kind of work we showcase in PROTOTYPE with opera companies was not a field-wide priority. Instead, the focus was to showcase and premiere chamber-sized works that would tour to performing arts presenters.

It is an understandable attitude: new operas are costly in terms of both time and resources. But the outcome of this approach was that many up-and-coming composers and librettists were missing out on the chance to make complex and challenging works.

Dog Days at PROTOTYPE 2017 © Ellen Appel
Dog Days at PROTOTYPE 2017 © Ellen Appel

With PROTOTYPE we wanted to find this next generation of 21st-century voices and give them a chance to make these works. We felt that a festival could create a new forum to provide these artists with the time, space, and funds necessary both to bring their work to New York audiences and to extend their work’s life through exposure to venue directors from larger opera-theatre and music-theatre houses across the country and around the globe.

What has happened in the intervening years, and particularly the last four years since we launched PROTOTYPE, is something that we could not have predicted: there has been a radical shift in the opera industry. The conversation is now squarely focused on the development and production of new works.

We purposely planned the festival to take place during the two weeks in January of each year that directly coincide with the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and International Society of Performing Arts conferences with the direct intention of exposing as many industry people as possible to the work in a concentrated period of time. Once PROTOTYPE came on the scene, Opera America began to programme its annual New Works Forum for this time frame to coincide with the festival and conference activity.

Breaking the Waves at PROTOTYPE 2017 © Dominic M Mercier
Breaking the Waves at PROTOTYPE 2017 © Dominic M Mercier

Since its launch in 2013 PROTOTYPE has produced and presented 130 performances of 23 works in 14 venues across two boroughs; advanced the careers of nearly 500 early and mid-career composers, lyricists, librettists, and their collaborators by showcasing their works; and engaged an audience of nearly 17,500 people comprising an enthusiastic general public, opera general directors, and performing arts presenters.

Where the idea of ‘presenting’ a production was foreign and anathema to many general directors six years ago, a new openness has flowered. With Fort Worth Opera and LA Opera leading the charge, others are opening up as well. This means that projects in PROTOTYPE have a much greater chance of touring to opera companies.

The other major shift we have experienced is that we have relationships with general directors who are very interested for their newest projects to be considered for inclusion in the festival, as is the case with Opera Philadelphia this year, and others in the pipeline.

So, who takes part in PROTOTYPE? We seek artists who are speaking with original, fervent, and immediate voices, and tackling relevant and timely themes. As three women directors, making sure that over the course of multiple festivals we feature an equal number of women composers, as well as highlighting the works of diverse artists, is a huge priority.

Our curatorial criteria include an emphasis on early and mid-career artists who pursue bold directions in form and content, who possess unique musical theatrical voices, and often include in their work a vibrant visual or other enhancing sensory or theatrical component.

Angel's Bone © Cory Weaver
Angel’s Bone © Cory Weaver

We also consider later-career artists who are exploring new directions in their work, and artists working in non-traditional, site-specific, and immersive spaces. Commissioned projects are selected two to three years in advance and follow a specific project development calendar toward their PROTOTYPE premiere.

Once a production is selected to be included in the festival, it is individually shepherded by either myself or one of the other directors, with key support from the festival associate producer, the festival production manager, and both the Beth Morrison Projects and HERE staffs.

Each project – whether it be a world premiere, a presentation, or a work-in-progress – is produced according to its unique needs, ensuring that the production is appropriately cast and staffed, and its aesthetic and technical needs are met.

We knew it was risky to take on envisioning the future of the form, and a bit in the field’s face. But we are continually struck by the momentum that has built as an outgrowth of the festival – the encouragement that producers and presenters now feel to take risks themselves with the proven knowledge that there is a hugely enthusiastic and adventurous audience out there that also cares about the future of the form.