The Echo Drift
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In Review > North America

The Echo Drift

Prototype Festival

In Review Echo Drift lg 418
Blythe Gaissert in Prototype Festival’s Echo Drift
© Maria Baranova-Suzuki

EVERY YEAR, the Prototype Festival presents several groundbreaking new operatic works in small but lively productions. The festival is one of the great things about being in New York City in January. One of the most exciting events of the 2018 festival was the world premiere of The Echo Drift (seen Jan. 10), a one-act opera by composer Mikael Karlsson and librettists Elle Kunnos de Voss and Kathryn Walat at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. The Echo Drift is a truly moving, dynamic piece of music theater that deserves a great deal of attention.

Set in an isolation cell within a women’s prison, the opera centers on Walker Loats, a woman from hard circumstances, who is serving a life sentence for murdering a man. Deprived of all outside stimuli, Loats spends her time writing to the Governor, requesting a pardon. One day, she finds a cocoon in her soup. Rather than eating or destroying it, she allows the cocoon to survive. Eventually a moth bursts forth, and it begins to speak with Loats. Ultimately, the moth succeeds in getting Loats to consent to journey to the Echo Drift, a place in which time and being—past, present and future—contract into a singularity.

As Walker Loats, mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert gave a dramatically powerful, vocally stunning portrait of a woman growing increasingly desperate and delusional from lack of contact with the outer world. Gaissert’s development of Loats’s personality was utterly believable, and she gave a virtuoso performance of this very challenging music. Actor John Kelly was fully convincing as the Moth, who alternately begs, mocks, supports and cajoles Loats along the path to the Echo Drift. Kelly was equally impressive in the lesser role of the governor, beautifully modulating his vocal approach to each character.

Karlsson’s music is a haunting mixture of acoustic and electronic sound. The vocal line is through-composed and lyrical, effectively conveying the text. His colorful music covers the spectrum from the tonal through the very dissonant, all the way to pure noise. In all these varied utterances, the music is fully at the service of the drama. The libretto by de Voss and Walat is clever, ironic and at times disturbing. At first I was troubled by the loud, rather boxy sound-enhancement, but I came to realize that this was a deliberate and well-made choice to convey the brutal oppressiveness and sinister atmosphere of the piece. The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) played magnificently under the zealous direction of conductor Nicholas DeMaison. The set design, also by Kunnos de Voss, and the visual projections of Simon Harding expressed the claustrophobic aura of a life in solitary confinement. —Arlo McKinnon 

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