By Seth Colter Walls
January 10, 2018
A large screen looms over the stage. Projected onto it is a black-and-white close-up on an eyeball, fluttering in a state of nervous distress.
An overture, powered by distorted electric guitar and staccato strings, accompanies this sooty B-movie-style image. A choir grasps toward high-pitched wails. Everything blares.
Gradually, as the onscreen image pulls back, the audience can discern that the twitching eyeball isn’t recorded, but is rather a very much live, high-definition stare at Mikaela Bennett, the soprano at the center of “Acquanetta.” The composer Michael Gordon and librettist Deborah Artman’s old-school-suspenseful “filmic opera” had its chamber version premiere at the Prototype festival of new opera-theater on Tuesday at the Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center in Dumbo, Brooklyn.
The production’s camera eye — and the audience’s gaze — rarely move away from Ms. Bennett over the next 70 minutes in an opera that feels like a major addition to this composer’s canon. A founder of the influential Bang on a Can collective, Mr. Gordon has a history of creating scores that can work alongside moving images. But “Acquanetta” is something different — and grander.
The plot has a true-story undercurrent. The actress Mildred Davenport, known as Acquanetta, had a celebrated (if necessarily minor) career in 1940s B movies, including the horror film “Captive Wild Woman” — elements of which are repurposed in this opera. Its creators describe her career as brief, saying in a program note that she “inexplicably walked away from the Hollywood studio system.” Rather than telling the actress’s biography straight, “Acquanetta” bills itself as a “one-act deconstruction” of the horror genre. But that makes the piece sound more academic than it is. Though experimental in design, it doesn’t stint on narrative; it hurls the audience into the maelstrom of the making of “Captive Wild Woman” — starring her and, yes, an ape — heightening the wary, intoxicating experience of being a young woman in Hollywood. The director, Daniel Fish, delights in parceling out important information, just like a horror film should. (Some of the ways his staging builds and releases tension are too good to spoil.)
“Acquanetta,” which debuted in an arrangement for more instruments in 2006, also mulls questions of gender, identity, media representation and spectatorship. Its wittiest section comes when a stereotypical blonde bombshell from the film-within-the-opera sings what sounds like an appeal to a zombie, with the refrain “Please don’t take my brain.” (The chorus eventually takes up the feminist chant of “I want to play a real woman.”) Amelia Watkins brings usefully campy acting to the role of this “Brainy Woman.” But she also excels in bringing across the character’s underlying existential dread.
Ms. Bennett works the same magic with the title role. Her opening aria is a list poem of desires, presumably addressed to Hollywood. (“Bury me, transform me, convince me, remake me.”) But as soon as the song ends — as the whirl of the studio system starts to drown her in makeup and director’s commentary — her face communicates real-life horror.
Her adroit performance is as well suited to the libretto’s subtleties as her voice is to the music’s thrashing intensity. Mr. Gordon’s writing, for a small yet loudly amplified rock-meets-classical ensemble, is similarly alert. Long stretches of his score channel a doomy, goth-rock energy. But he also sprinkles in unexpected accents — including swooning touches of folk-like string harmonies — that keep the soundscape as nimble as Ms. Artman’s text. The conductor Daniela Candillari guides a uniformly powerful cast, as well as a tight ensemble of the Bang on a Can Opera musicians and the members of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street.
If only there were a new-opera studio, akin to the vintage B-picture system, that could churn out works of this energy and originality. But, alas, contemporary music is rarely produced at the pace of a Universal or an RKO, so audiences should catch Prototype’s brief run of “Acquanetta” while they can.