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EXCLUSIVE: Classicalite Q&A with PROTOTYPE Festival Founders Beth Morrison and HERE's Kristin Marting, Kim Whitener on Courtney Love, Stefan Weisman, Bora Yoon and What's Next

By Maria Jean Sullivan m.sullivan@classicalite.com on Jan 07, 2015 02:07 PM EST

From Thursday, January 8 on through to Saturday, January 17, New York City will be overrun with innovative and provocative opera and theater productions by way of the third annual PROTOTYPE: Opera/Theatre/Now Festival.

Founded and curated by Kristin Marting and Kim Whitener of HERE with Beth Morrison of her own Beth Morrison Projects, PROTOTYPE is a lavish showcase of the startling breadth of underground live performance--across the globe.

To wit, this year's lineup includes two exciting world premieres: composer Stefan Weisman and librettist David Cote's The Scarlet Ibis, as well as Korean-American artist Bora Yoon's multimedia work, Sunken Cathedral.

And, sure, while everyone is talking about Courtney Love's debut in Todd Almond's Kansas City Choir Boy, we're more looking forward to Toxic Psalms, an international co-presentation with Slovenian vocal company Carmina Slovenica and St. Ann's Warehouse.

Recently, Classicalite had an early morning chat with the intelligent and charming Marting, Whitener and Morrison in DUMBO (where Weisman was setting up stage for the Ibis) to chat about the history and future of PROTOTYPE, itself.

Classicalite: First of, how did the three of you meet and decide to start PROTOTYPE? 

Kim Whitener: Well, Beth and I like to tell the story of having a conversation in a bar about ways of which we might collaborate as companies. Because HERE has a venue and a couple of spaces, and Beth is the empresaria of opera theater. HERE also has residency programs for which we develop opera theater and music theater. So, we just started to talk, in a bar, one day about possibly starting to work together. We then had a big meeting--the three of us. And Beth said, "I have a dream!," which was the festival.

Beth Morrison: Then we took it to the Mellon Foundation, who had very open ears and were very excited by the idea and it went from there. They asked us to create a proposal, which then makes you actually create the festival. So we created the festival in theory and put numbers to it and dreamed a lot together about what we wanted it to be. And then we went through the process of getting the funding. Mellon funds us in part, they're our lead funder, but it's about a third of the funding, maybe a little bit more, per each festival. And the rest we fundraise on top of that. Once we got the funding secured, we just kind of went full blaze ahead and decided that this was a festival that was meant to be about local artists, national artists and international artists and that it was really important to us to contextualize what was happening in New York City with what was happening in the larger world of opera and music theater. And that's been very exciting for us because we've traveled to see work and we make a commitment every year to bring on international project. This year we're excited to have an amazing choral theater group from Slovenia. We've had a group from Lithuania, the first year we had one from the Netherlands, we're hoping to branch out into other parts of the world and coming festivals. So that's been important to us, but then of course showcasing local and national artists is the main focus of what we're doing. And the idea for the festival really came out of this vacuum that existed in New York. In January, APAP (Association of Performing Arts Presenters)  and the International Society of Performing Arts Conference and there are multiple theater and dance festivals across the city at that time so that people can come and shop and bring the things that they see here back to their home venues. Well there was nothing for music theater and opera theater that was happening at that time and there was all of this work that was being created in New York that was chamber sized and economy scale and that needed to be seen and taken out of New York. So that's really where the idea for the festival came, which was how, I was producing this work, they were self-producing, HERE was producing some of this work too and I was like we can't get it out of New York. So the idea was how to do we get what's happening, which is so great, to the other parts of the world. So that's really the genesis of the idea.

Kristin Marting: And we also, curatorialy, were really interested in sort of interrogating the question of what is the opera and how do you define it. And what is the line between opera theater and music theater and in each festival we really try to have a huge spectrum and say we embrace all of this and that what you think it is isn't what you think it is because look at this spectrum. So we're really trying to get people to think more deeply about what this whole spectrum can mean and how you can be impacted by the work on a number of different levels.

Beth Morrison: And no matter what the spectrum is, it's high quality. That's the excellence, the high quality, the standard is the same across the spectrum, but the aesthetic is very different.

Kim Whitener: It might range from a slightly more traditional work, even though everything's really adventurous, and these are 21st century composers and librettos, but something that's a little bit more conventional in the form of being and using really opera structure and libretto and operatic voices, all the way to the other end of the spectrum of being something like pop glam opera band or this choral theater work that's coming from Slovenia that has just never been seen in this country. So that and sort of everything in between.

C-LITE: Let's talk more about the curatorial process, then. Namely, you don't take any applications.

Kristin Marting: Right, we are looking at work throughout the year. We go around the country to the different opera companies and see the work that they're doing. We go to international festivals. I was just down in Buenos Aires visiting and seeing work down there. So we travel around to find work that we think will be interesting.

Kim Whitener: We can have artists that we're interested in that we're sort of tapping or we're asking other colleagues for people they're interested in. And we do have people approaching us, but it's varried, and we're not off putting, but we say that we have our own curatorial process and we're happy to receive ideas and work. But each festival is really, carefully structured to reflect the different kinds of work and now we're looking in two, three, four years down the line and having a lot of things sort of in the pipeline.

Beth Morrison: We all have to sign off on each piece, so it's not like Kim you get one, Kristen you get one, we all have to agree on every piece or we don't do it.

Kim Whitener: What's awesome is that we really have a lot of shared aesthetic.

C-LITE: Because the main focus is to explore these arts that aren't showcased in a wider spectrum. So, instead, you ladies are scouring the world in search of up and coming performing artists.

Beth Morrison: And we serve on different panels for things, so we're seeing things from around the world all the time and all three international projects that we've done have been through those experiences, so we definitely are really involved in international music theater and opera theater scene. So between those experiences we have and our trusted colleagues in different places saying to us you have to know this person, that's a lot of how we work as well.

C-LITE: You're really just researching from the ground floor, yourselves. Speaking of international exposure, the past iterations--all of that has taken place here in New York. Right?

All: Yes.

C-LITE: Is there a chance that you're going to go abroad?

Beth Morrison: I don't think so.

C-LITE: Your focus is bringing them back here to showcase?

Beth Morrison: I think for at least the foreseeable future; I don't think we have any plans to broaden out.

Kristin Marting: But the work goes out. That's the idea. The work is being toured. The reason that we're doing it at this time is because the presenters and the general directors are in New York in this two-week period, the national and international presenters. So we're bringing, trying to shine a light on this work so that it is touring to these other places around the world.

Kim Whitener: And then in the opera world, after our first festival, which was January 2013, the opera world, there's a typically, Opera America runs the New Works Forum, and that had been at different times of year, in the summer or in the fall. They decided to move their New Works Forum to this period in January and so now we have a group of 40 or 50 or 60 opera directors who are interested in doing new work, opera general directors coming to town and then actually being exposed to the work as well. So it's this kind of cauldron of activity of showcasing work and we just filled this niche.

Kristin Marting: The point of it is for the work to tour.

C-LITE: Prototype as a launch pad.

All: Yes.

Kristin Marting: I feel like one curatorial filter that we didn't say because it's so obvious to us, but it's important to say out loud is that it's 21st century composers. It's living composers. We're not doing, even if it's the most innovating production of an old work, we're not doing that. It's all new work and new voices and new approaches to new work.

Clite: That's what's so attractive about the fest, that your focus is to get these new artists out there.

Beth Morrison: And a lot of the work also comes through our developmental programs, so HERE has their artist residency program, Scarlet Ibis, and Sunken Cathedral, two of the works in this year's festival have come through HARP and they have their own very specific, three-year developmental period that HERE has confided, developed the way to create work. Then, my company also develops new work from the ground up and we have our own developmental process as well, and so a lot of the work comes up through these programs as well.

C-LITE: HERE was developed first, Beth Morrison Projects much later. Correct?

Whitener: In terms of the length of time, HERE's been around since 1993 and you were 2006.

Marting: And our residency program started in 1998.

Whitener: HERE is multi disciplinary and all the work that happens at HERE is multi disciplinary. Opera theater, music theater is one strand of that. We do other multi disciplinary works as well.

Marting: We do theater, dance, music, puppetry, media arts, we do all of that.

C-LITE: Was there something in particular that stood out to you about composer Stefan Weisman's The Scarlet Ibis and TED fellow Bora Yoon's Sunken Cathedral, out of all the things that you must have seen?

Whitener: That was what refers to what we were just saying about the things that the artists that we've been developing. Since it's a relatively new festival, we're now going into our third season; Damon and Stefan had started in our residency program before that. So that project was already in development, and we chose that together, Beth served on the panel. It was sort of a glimmer, the festival was a glimmer in the eye, but the idea that if it developed in a way that we were excited about that it could premiere in Prototype. We didn't make that decision until a little later on in the process.

Marting: It's not automatic that everything Beth's developing and everything we're developing will be in Prototype. It's something that we look at as we're putting together each iteration of the festival and we all talk with each other and figure out the way to best produce it.

Morrison: And we find an artist that we're all excited about.

C-LITE: Todd Almond snagged Courtney Love for his opera Kansas City Choir Boy. How did Almond's work come into your hands? What are the interactive elements between Almond, Love and the Contemporaneous Ensemble?

Whitener: Opera director Kevin Newbury, with whom we worked last year on Paul's Case, brought the project to us, having been working with Todd for a while on developing and staging it. Todd and Courtney are friends and have a mutual agent, and everyone thought Courtney would be perfect for the role. The piece is staged in the small space at HERE in an immersive setting, with the action of Todd, Courtney, a chorus of 6 young women, and the 4-member Contemporaneous Ensemble moving around and through the audience and playing space. The piece is energetically and creatively choreographed by Sam Pinkleton, so it involves a great deal of movement.

C-LITE: What would you say is different about Prototype 3, or Prototype 2015 rather, than years before?

All: It's bigger (laughter).

Marting: It's a hard question to answer in a way because the content changes, so it's totally different. Each festival is really different.

Whitener: This year we're collaborating with some very interesting organizations. We're doing stuff with the Spaces, we're doing Bora's Sunken Cathedral at La Mama for the first time and we're doing a Slovenian vocal theater with St. Ann's. So in a way, this festival, but we've been collaborating before. We've collaborated with 3LD, the Center for Art and Technology; we've collaborated with Baruch.

Marting: We always collaborate because HERE has two spaces and we have seven shows. So we always have to find outside venues to use, but this does mark our first time partnering with La Mama and St. Ann's and that's very exciting for us.

C-LITE: Absolutely!

Marting: We're continuing our collaboration with the Park Avenue Armory. The Armory worked with Bora earlier in the development of Sunken Cathedral and they've been working on Aging Magician in two different iterations. This is the second iteration and then we had Aging Magician in the festival the first year in ... form as well. So that's kind of been an ongoing collaboration. Also with the Choir of Trinity Wall Street. This is our second year working with them and something we worked on with them last year we're developing into a full production for down the road.

Morrison: Yeah, and they basically said that they want to partner with us every year on something, which is great because they have a wonderful new music orchestra and the best choir in the city.

Whitener: And looking down the line, one of the things we're looking at for the next several years is a partnership with a regional opera company. I mean we haven't solidified this, but it's a hope because we've been approached by regional opera companies now saying "oh this is great, we want to work with you and premiere something, or do a New York premire"

Morrison: We do have something on the docket, which is our partnership with Opera Philadelphia for Breaking Waves. And that will happen in 2017.

Kim Whitener: And we've been talking with Fort Worth Opera and LA Opera and to a bunch of other organizations. So that's very exciting that there could be this collaboration sort of from afar with another opera company.

Clite: And would you pull them here or would you go out to these different states?

Whitener: No, if something happens in Philadelphia it premieres there and then comes to New York. So it would be the reverse. It would be the New York premiere of something that's already premiered.

Clite: What is coming down the pipeline for 2016? 2017, even?

Morrison: I don't know that we want to announce anything because it's very; everything is all in the works, in the matrix. It could be shifting, but we do have incredible projects that we're very excited about that are certainly in the mix.

Kristin Marting: And we're thinking all the way to 2018, so we're going to be here to stay.

Clite: Kristin, Trade Practices with HERE; is that still going on?

Marting: Oh, yeah. That was a show that we premiered on Governor's Island, but it's not opera theater or music theater at all. That's a totally different thing. It was an immersive performance piece, but it was awesome. I'm building a touring version of the show, so I'm hoping that it's going to have a future life outside of New York. But yeah, thanks for asking.

C-LITE: No problem. Let's gain a greater perspective on all of your individual projects outside of the Prototype Festival, and how those two worlds mesh.

Morrison: We have a tour of Dog Days coming up in the Spring, which marks a new partnership with LA Opera and Beth Morrison Projects. We're going to tour that with LA Opera and Forth Worth Opera. And we're going to tour with David Lang's Love Fail.

Whitener: And then we have several projects in development at HERE that are not necessarily destined for Prototype, but opera theater and music theater objects. We have a wonderful piece called Science Fair by Hi Ting Chin, who actually appears in our festival this year, so that's a wonderful song cycle about science. And we have another opera in development called "Madahari" by Matt Marks and Paul Pierce, so there's always a lot.

Morrison: So, all the things in our lives is actually one thing in our lives, in the scale of what we do.

C-LITE: A lot of work goes into it, but its such a little core of what you guys have going on in your artistic lives in general.

Whitener: We all operate with a very lean and mean and fabulous team!

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TagsEXCLUSIVE, Classicalite Q&A, Prototype Festival, Kristin Marting, Beth Morrison, Kim Whitener, Here, Courtney Love, Bora Yoon, Stefan Weisman