Paola Prestini's Makes Her Debut In OCEANIC VERSES Opera, 6/23-25


At 36, Paola Prestini has already forged a singular and celebrated path in new music. Both through her Production Company, VisionIntoArt, and as a composer, she has garnered praise from fellow artists, presenters and critics. Osvaldo Golijov has described Prestini's music as "wrenching and tender and luminous and pure and exuberant: always vivid and always generous." Terry Riley has called it "music [that] speaks from the heart and inspires," and The New York Times has called it "radiant" and "amorously evocative."

To be sure, Prestini's multimedia opera Oceanic Verses is the most ambitious undertaking of her career to date, and the one that best reveals her sensibility. With her collaborators-including the film artist Ali Hossaini, the librettist Donna Di Novelli and the director Kevin Newbury-Prestini has expanded the work from a 35-minute oratorio to an evening-length opera commissioned by VisionIntoArt and produced by her frequent cohort, Beth Morrison Projects in association with Washington Chorus and Trinity Wall Street.

This summer, the Kennedy Center and the River to River festival will present the rolling World Premiere-the concert version in D.C.; the multimedia concert in New York-June 23 at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater and June 25 at the PACE Schimmel Center Theater, respectively. In advance, a residency and preview performances have taken place at Mass MoCA, May 13-18, to be followed by a showing in the OPERA America Conference's New Works Sampler, June 13 in Philadelphia.

Set against the backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea, Oceanic Verses follows the stories of four characters united by their desire to unearth and uncover the past. A meditation on fading civilizations, the journey is led by an archaeologist, (improviser Helga Davis) whose investigation of immigration leads her to a Sailor (folksinger Claudio Prima) searching for lost songs; a Peasant (soprano Nancy Allen Lundy) seeking a better life for her future children; and a Soldier (Christopher Burchett) searching for a good meal.

Each of the four characters has an onscreen abstraction of his/her essence or inner life, projected throughout the performance. In the film, the celebrated Italian dancer Emio Greco plays the Soldier, and local Salentine actors play the Peasant. Claudio Prima and Helga Davis play the on-screen, as well as the on-stage, versions of their characters.

Rather than tell a story in the manner of cinema, Hossaini directed the performers in the film to act in short abstract sequences that he juxtaposed as poetic counterpoint to what unfolds onstage. These sequences are part of a larger "video environment" that recreates the atmosphere of the Mediterranean and immerses the opera's players and audience in the folkloric landscape that inspired it. Hossaini's contribution amplifies the presence of the main characters while giving Oceanic Verses a broad sense of place that is impossible with a traditional set.