A little over a month ago, Decca Gold released a recording of p r i s m, a chamber opera by Ellen Reid that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Music. Working with a libretto by Roxie Perkins, the opera develops a metaphorical perspective on the aftermath of sexual assault, exploring the relationship between memory and trauma. The work was commissioned and produced by Beth Morrison Projects in association with Trinity Church Wall Street. It has been given premiere performances in both Los Angeles (as part of the Off Grand series presented by Los Angeles Opera) and at the New York PROTOTYPE Festival 2019 at the La Mama Experimental Theatre Club. The release was taken from live performances at La Mama made on January 10–12.
As of this writing, Amazon.com is releasing p r i s m only through MP3 download. A full-album download includes a Digital Booklet. However, my own download source provided two booklets, one providing personnel details, images, and a track listing and the other consisting of the libretto. I have not yet been able to verify whether or not the Amazon package includes the libretto.
Anna Schubert in the New York performance of p r i s m (photograph by Noah Stern Weber, courtesy of Universal Music Group)
The textures of Reid’s music are often thick, involving a wide diversity of sonorities, even though the resources include only two solo vocalists (Anna Schubert and Rebecca Jo Loeb), the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, and the NOVUS NY chamber ensemble, all conducted by Julian Wachner. While the diction of both singers is first-rate, the thick symbolism of the text impedes understanding based on a “straightforward reading.” It is unclear that having the text to read would be of much help during “real-time” listening; and it is hard to tell from the photographs in the booklet whether James Darrah’s staging assisted in overcoming any of those impediments.
Without having enjoyed the benefit of seeing this composition in performance, I would, on the basis of listening only, suggest that, whatever prizes may have been awarded, p r i s m is an overwritten composition. This is not just a matter of vocal lines that repeat words, taking them to the threshold of ad nauseam. The above photograph suggests that this is a work that is visually assaulting as much as it is musically. In other words this project may well have resulted in a production in which noise tended to outweigh signal, perhaps more than either librettist or composer had intended when the effort was first launched.
My conclusion, on the basis of limited evidence, is that those who enjoyed attending a performance of p r i s m will probably have favorable memories triggered by this recording, while the rest of us may have to make do with consignment to the realm of the perplexed.