Mata Hari and Secondary Dominance Reviews: Prototype Festival “Operas”

I once asked Luciano Pavarotti what “opera” means, a question that made him momentarily look lost. Opera in Italian literally means “work,” he replied, but you don’t need to define it. Farmers play opera to increase milk production, he told me. “Even cows understand opera.”

What would Pavarotti, and those milk cows, make of Prototype, which calls itself “the premier festival of opera-theatre and music-theatre”? Is that the same as opera? The festival, which runs through January 15, is in its fifth year, and is presenting seven full-length works. I went to two of them


Mata Hari

Click on any photo by Paula Court to see it enlarged

We first see Mata Hari in a French prison condemned to death for espionage. The most surprising aspect of her situation in this work is not that her jailer is a nun, Sister Leonide, who swears and smokes. It is that the title character, portrayed by Tina Mitchell, doesn’t sing. That seems unusual for an opera, which is what the creative team labels it, more or less: Composer Matt Marks calls “Mata Hari” in a program note “my first serious opera-theatre piece,” and Paul Peers, both the librettist and the director, writes that “my goal was to push the boundaries of the operatic form” (by which he means he includes “various technologies,” i.e. video.)

A non-singing Mata Hari makes sense thematically in their 90-minute work, since this “Mata Hari” offers a decidedly feminist spin on the woman most often depicted as a femme fatale — an exotic dancer and seductress turned cunning double agent. Here, she is a victim of the men in her life (hence, denied a voice.) We see her victimization from the opening, when the male characters, all dressed in identical military uniforms, strip her of her fanciful tiara and elegant dress, and leave her in nothing but a slip. (The image is striking, as are several other moments in the piece, primarily because of designer Lucrecia Briceno’s chiaroscuro lighting.)  Then in non-chronological flashbacks and in testimony before her interrogator, we learn of her abusive first marriage to a military captain who abandons her, and takes away their children, forcing her to take up dancing (and…mistressing?) to survive; the departure by the subsequent love of her life, the injured soldier Vadim; and the double-dealing and lechery of the French and German military men who recruit her. Treated abominably in prison, she reveals at the end a final and bitter long-ago betrayal.

The non-singing Mata Hari is also part of the composer’s eclectic musical approach, combining traditional arias both forceful and tender by classically trained singers (most notably Mary Mackenzie as the nun) with contemporary melodies by the jazz singer Tomas Cruz as Vadim, with a repertoire of avant-garde sounds from punk-rock to standard modern dissonance by the four-piece band (electric guitar, violin, piano and accordion)

I wish I could say all of this struck me as refreshingly innovative, but it would be easier to feel that way if Mata Hari hadn’t already been the subject of everything from Greta Garbo’s 1931 film (“Mata Hari”) to Paulo Coelho’s 2016 novel (“The Spy”)


Mati Hari is on stage at HERE through January 14.



Secondary Dominance

“Secondary Dominance” is a compelling example of my long-held belief that nearly any endeavor, no matter how awful it sounds in theory, can wind up wonderful if it’s done well enough by passionate, creative and talented people.

Sarah Small calls her piece a “multimedia concert in 13 micro movements.” It is an hour long, without a discernible plot or point, without even discernible words in English, and filled with enough familiar avant-garde tropes to keep your newly arrived hipster happy for months:

Lots and lots of videos — long shot video projections of mountains and waves, close-up videos of snakes and frogs, videos of naked people singing, including a really fat woman; and videos of the live performers as they perform in front of the screen.

An older couple posing for a series of tableaux-vivant typical of how young people view old people (in one the woman knits.)

A half-naked, bald bearded man in pancake makeup.

Three ballet dancers who sit down on the stage to take off their leg warmers and put on their ballet slippers.

Three other women attired alternatively in peasant dresses, bangles and flowers in their hair, or, like, Sarah Small herself, wearing comic hero style silver sneakers.

A clue to why this all works is in the title, which is a play on the phrase, secondary dominant, a musical term. The music is what matters in this piece, and the music is gorgeous. The combination of flute, cello, percussion, the harmonizing vocals, even the electronic sounds – music that, as the production puts it, “synthesizes genres from Balkan folk to contemporary chamber, industrial, renaissance, rock, rap, and punk” – is mesmerizing enough to justify (or at least excuse) all the visuals. It becomes a sonic adventure, a journey through dreamland.  I wouldn’t call “Secondary Dominance” the 21st century’s “Fantasia,” but that’s because the century is so young.


Secondary Dominance is on stage at HERE through January 14, 2017

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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