The digital premieres of The PlanetA Lament and Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists from PROTOTYPE

United StatesUnited States PROTOTYPE – OPERA ǀ THEATRE ǀ NOW [2]: co-production of Beth Morrison Projects and HERE, New York, streaming through 16.1.2021 (click here). (RP)

The Planet – A Lament

The Planet – A Lament
Composer and performer – Septina Rosalina Layan
Director – Garin Nugroho
Sets – Anna Tregloan
Mazmur Chorale
Production – Garin Workshop & Turning World
Co-commissioned by Asia TOPA, Arts Centre Melbourne, Theater der Welt and Holland Festival

Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists
Music – Valgeir Sigurðsson
Text – a rawlings
Director / adaption for stage – Sara Martí
Dramaturgy / adaption for stage/performer – S. Sunna Reynisdóttir
Sets – Eva Signý Berger
Loom design – Marie Keller, S. Sunna Reynisdóttir
Costumes – Harpa Einarsdóttir
Light / video – Ingi Bekk
Animation / video art – Pierre-Alain Giraud
Sound – Dan Bora
Choreography – Valgerður Rúnarsdóttir
Singers – Ásgerður Júníusdóttir, Alexi Murdoch, Sasha Siem
Musicians – Liam Byrne, James McVinnie, Ólafur Björn Ólafsson
Produced by VaVaVoom Theatre and Bedroom Community

Two more different musical theater pieces from the past decade than The Planet – A Lament and Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists would be hard to imagine. There are links, however, as both originated in island countries – Indonesia and Iceland respectively – and natural phenomena lie at their cores. The Planet – A Lament is lyrical and pure, while Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists is, frankly, pretty bizarre, as baffling as it is mesmerizing. Videos of these extraordinary works are being streamed as part of the 2021 Prototype Festival.

The Planet – A Lament was conceived by Indonesian film director Garin Nugroho in response to the aftermath of the devastating 2004 tsunami in Aceh in northwest Sumatra. Laments by Papuan composer Septina Rosalina Layan propel the story of a lone male survivor of a natural disaster who carries an egg that will give birth to new life on earth. The man encounters demons and hardship, but he ultimately delivers the egg safely to a female bird, whose antics were so wild that even the chorus couldn’t help but smile at them.

The production is austere, and the color blue predominates. Black-and-white videos depict the devastation as well as the monsters who covet the egg. A parallel theme to the destructive power of nature is the threat to the planet caused by human-made environmental disasters. Large backdrops were created from clear plastic, the material that litters beaches, strangling fish and birds, as well as cast-off clothes, which lighting transforms into wild, menacing vegetation. There is an ever-present lightness to Nugroho’s directorial touch, however, that emphasizes hope rather than despair. Then there is the music.

Nugroho traveled the Indonesian Archipelago from Papua to Java in search of a chorus able to sing the traditional laments in the pentatonic scale, and he discovered the remarkable Mazmur Chorale in West Timor. On his journey, he also met Layan, who learned to sing her peoples’ traditional laments from the elders in her community. The music she composed for herself and the Mazmur Chorale to sing is almost otherworldly in its beauty and conveys the most profound emotions. Earlier this year, audiences in Indonesia and Australia were able to experience The Planet – A Lament live before the pandemic struck.

Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists

My first response to Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists was that Icelanders have better drugs than we do, and they are not sharing. A friend with strong Icelandic connections assured me that was not the case, but did suggest that the cold and the dark can overstimulate their natural creative tendencies. I’ve never been on an acid trip, but Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists is my idea of what the experience may be like.

The piece was inspired by the award-winning poetic fantasia of the same name by the Canadian-Icelandic poet and artist a rawlings; it explores the theme of metamorphism through the unlikely combination of sleep science and lepidopterology, the study of moths and butterflies. Each poem tracks with the utmost precision the stages of sleep and pairs them with a corresponding life cycle of the insects: insomnia is mirrored in the birth of the egg, narcolepsy in larval hatching, and ultimately waking from a dream occurs simultaneously with a moth emerging from a chrysalis.

Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurðsson composed the eclectic score for this stage adaptation of Wide Slumber in which he employed electronic, folk and classical to create distinct personalities for the three nameless characters. The music combines with rawling’s imagery to create a fascinating fantasia of the unconscious that hearkens back to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Kahn and its prefatory lines, ‘or, a Vision in a Dream. A Fragment’. Like Coleridge’s poem, Sigurðsson created an enthralling dreamlike state of wonder and disorientation.

Wide Slumber has an early Seventies feel to it. The British-Norwegian composer and singer-songwriter Sasha Siem, one of the youngest people ever to win a British Composer Award, dispassionately recites scientific jargon relating to the study of sleep. With her outer-space vibe and appearance, Siem was straight out of an ABBA music video. British folk singer Alexi Murdoch’s hirsute and often shirtless troubadour sings soothing, disjunct, dream-like utterances in a carefree, easy manner.

As a scientist obsessed with the life cycles and the collection and preservation of lepidopterae, Icelandic mezzo-soprano Ásgerður Júníusdóttir’s amazing voice, with its cavernous, clear lower range and luminous top, is exploited to the fullest. A moment of lucidity was provided by an exquisite solo for the viola da gamba, played by Liam Byrne, who collaborates regularly with Sigurðsson.

The stage was neatly divided into the realms of sleep, science and dream. In the final moments, a moth appears from the giant chrysalis, and the three singers doff their costumes. After a lyrical outburst from Júníusdóttir, the singers repeat over and over musings on whether insects and humans sleep and dream the same. It’s a feel-good moment, pure and simple.

Rick Perdian

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