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Review: With Ellen Reid’s incandescent ‘prism,’ an opera composer is born

Review: With Ellen Reid’s incandescent ‘prism,’ an opera composer is born
Anna Schubert as Bibi (on the ground) and Rebecca Jo Loeb as Lumee in Los Angeles Opera's production of Ellen Reid's "prism." (Lawrence Ho / Los Angeles Opera)

At 9:45 p.m. underneath Walt Disney Concert Hall, Ellen Reid completed a quadrathlon in nine months, five days, one hour and 40 minutes. It was a world record. Many records were, in fact, broken.

With the premiere Thursday of her stunning first opera, “prism,” by Los Angeles Opera at REDCAT as part of the company’s Off Grand series, Reid became the first composer to have been commissioned by L.A.’s four major classical music institutions — Los Angeles Philharmonic, L.A. Master Chorale and L.A. Chamber Orchestra being the other three. She also became the first composer to have world premieres by all four. She could very well be only composer to have been performed by all four in winter, spring and autumn of the same year (unless unlikely fortune struck for Mozart or Britten). Finally, she is the only female composer to have been performed by the lot.

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So, does that mean that Reid will finally get a Wikipedia entry? Maybe a major recording or three? (There is almost nothing other than a short percussion piece.) Will it continue to be necessary, after the sheer incandescence of her score for “prism,” to point out that she is a major voice thus far mainly recognized only in L.A.? Probably not, given that “prism” will reach New York early next year as part of the Prototype festival presented by Beth Morrison Projects, L.A. Opera’s partner in Off Grand.

That is not to say that “prism,” a two-person opera about a young woman’s agonizing struggle with the psychological aftershock of sexual assault that leaves her in a near- catatonic state, doesn’t have its own cathartic requisites. At first glance, the text by playwright Roxie Perkins reads like a libretto from hell.

Confined to her bedroom (her “Sanctuary”), Bibi can’t (won’t?) use her legs, gags on her medicine and plays word games with her consoling/antagonistic/guilt-ridden mother, Lumee, to forget or overcome memories of her psychologically debilitating violation. Colors color her state: Blue is the threatening outside world, yellow protects her.

While the sung text of the two characters is poetically elliptical, Perkins includes a novel’s degree of descriptive motivation, all but taking on the jobs of music and stage direction. The production is the result of a five-year collaboration between Reid and Perkins, both of whom used it to work though personal issues dealing with sexual assault. In the end, music dominates. From their post-performance discussion onstage, Reid, Perkins and director James Darrah appear to have remained friends.

L.A. Opera last year produced Keeril Makan’s “Persona,” based on the Ingmar Bergman film of dueling catatonic actress and her nurse. It is hard not to draw parallels between that and “prism.” The film even starred a Bibi (Anderson). The dramatic arc of the new opera is, moreover, obvious to anyone who knows “Persona.” The first act, a struggle in the bedroom; the second, a flashback to a nasty night club in which Lumee has turned outrageously vulgar, then back to the now-disheveled bedroom, just the thing for the final catharsis in which Bibi takes back her life.

But “prism” also goes it own 21st-century way. As Perkins proscribes in her libretto, an unseen chorus, called Chroma, represents Bibi’s inner voice; the “action” is carried out by four dancers, not the singers; the lighting design applies the colors as necessary. Darrah, however, directs his attention to dramatic interaction, what works onstage, not the pretentious page.

Even so, were it not for Reid, this would be a pale “Persona.” She evokes a world of its own through a chamber orchestra of strings, shimmering percussion, harp, piano, flute, bass clarinet and horn that becomes a maker of wonder, mystery, suspense, fear and glory. Notes slide into one another as if guided by a secret force. Melodies are endless and inventively transformed, the atmospheric pressure ever changing.

Soprano Anna Schubert (Bibi) and mezzo-soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb (Lumee) are both strong singers and theatrically forces with which to be contended. Neither is particularly appealing; rather it is their wounds that concern us. There is cliché, thanks to the lighting and the overuse of color symbolism. For all the poetic labor in Perkins’ text, there are still some corny lines. It also takes a certain gumption to ask a composer to make a big deal of setting the word “slurp.”

Yet Reid makes a big deal of it and everything else. Her fabulous slurping is like nothing you have ever heard before. Her vocal lines have inherent lyrical quality that transcends even the most horrendous emotional outbursts or the disco beat of the club. Musical styles are myriad, yet this is the work of one recognizable voice.

There is too much amplification, which is typical for L.A. Opera in REDCAT and robs of some of the score’s humanity. But the upside is a metallic brilliance, the equivalent of seeing a fancy new OLED or whatever TV in the showroom, where colors are adjusted to an unreal vibrancy that makes you want to take it home. And conductor Julian Wachner (who will be replaced by Daniela Candillari for the final shows Saturday and Sunday) leads a strong performance that gives the music the primacy it craves.

Reid, in a word, has arrived. Wikipedia please take note.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Los Angeles Opera ‘prism’

Where: REDCAT, 632 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles

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When 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $79 (Saturday and Sunday had been sold out, but additional tickets may be released)

Info: (213) 972-8001 or LAOpera.org

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minuntes

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