Paola Prestini's multimedia opera Oceanic Verses is described as :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 directorKevin 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 semi-staged production 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 will take place at Mass MoCA, May 13-18, 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 is about people who flee and people who stay; people who sail to escape and people who sail to arrive. Rather than a linear narrative, Oceanic Verses follows the arcs of four characters: a Sailor (folksinger Claudio Prima) searches for lost songs; a Scholar (improviser Helga Davis) investigating immigration loses a suitcase filled with research; a Peasant (soprano Nancy Allen Lundy) seeks a better life for her future children; and a Soldier (Christopher Burchett) crawls over land to bury what he loves. What unites these four characters is their yearning to uncover a fading past in Southern Italy, a land emblematic of today's global struggle with issues of borders and immigration.
Each of the four characters has a double-an abstraction of his/her essence or inner life-in Hossaini's film, which is projected, throughout the performance, on a triptych screen. 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.
Along with the principals performers and their on-screen counterparts, Oceanic Verses features the 12-piece ensemble NOVUS NY: the contemporary music ensemble of Trinity Wall Street and the 40-person Washington Chorus. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus Academy will join the company for the New York premiere. Maestro Julian Wachner conducts.
In addition to its unconventional format, Oceanic Verses had an unusual genesis. The piece was commissioned by Carnegie Hall in 2009 and began as an operatic tableau of rituals spanning Prestini's Italian heritage. This shorter concert version of the work paid homage to Italian folk music throughout the ages, from the Salento, Genoa and Sardinia regions of the county. Inspired by five millennia of folk music-and the work of American ethnomusicologist and folklorist Alan Lomax-Prestini's score combines field recordings she made in Salento with reconstructions she undertook of ancient music and original music in which she echoes contemporary Italian singers Fabrizio D'Andre and Robert Licci.
Donna Di Novelli joined the team as Prestini began shaping the work into an opera. Di Novelli created the libretto by weaving her own original work together with a selection of archetypal Italian texts: from songs and poems written by Vittoria Colonna, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Dante Alighieri and Aleandro Aleardi. The opera is sung in a variety of dialects including Griko, Genoese, and Sardinian.
The Oceanic Verses creative team also includes Emio Greco | PC (Choregraphy), S. Katy Tucker (Video and Projection Design), Vita Tzykun (Costume and Set Design) and Bruce Steinberg (Lighting Design).
In the overall work, the ocean surrounds and binds the main characters' tales. It serves as metaphor for the expanse that can both separate cultures while simultaneously connecting them.
Oceanic Verses was an official selection at the 2010 New York City Opera VOX festival and the 2011 21c Liederabend festival at the Kitchen. It has been developed through residencies at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Sound Res, the Hermitage and Mass MoCA.