United States Prototype 2023  – Du Yun, In Our Daughter’s Eyes: Nathan Gunn (baritone), Instrumentalists / Kamna Gupta (conductor). Baruch Performing Arts Center, New York, 11.1.2023. (RP)
Libretto & Director – Michael Joseph McQuilken
Sets and Lighting – Maruti Evans
Props – Matthew Soltesz
Sound – Garth MacAleavey
Video engineering – Asa Wember
Costumes – E.B. Brooks
Performer – Nathan Gunn
Recorded voices – Jackson Baker and Rio Kuhl
Child on film – Tallis Wachner
Prototype, the pioneering opera and musical theater festival now in its eleventh year, has returned in 2023 to live performance. It mounted an innovative and rewarding digital edition of the festival in 2021, but the outbreak of the Omicron variant last winter scuttled the entire 2022 festival. Through the works it presents during the festival, Prototype continues to expand the definition of opera and transform the genre into one of today’s most exciting and vital art forms.
Du Yun’s In Our Daughter’s Eyes was one of the most eagerly anticipated offerings of the festival. Baritone Nathan Gunn provided the inspiration for the one-man opera, which was to be ‘an Odyssey for the modern man’. Gunn turned to Beth Morrison, who assembled a team that included librettist Michael Joseph McQuilken and composer Du Yun.
McQuilken, a Brooklyn-based director, writer, filmmaker and composer, crafted a story of a flawed Everyman, who finds purpose in the prospect of becoming a father. There is a statement in the program that the opera deals with difficult circumstances surrounding pregnancy and birth, and it does.
Eager anticipation is replaced by despair when he learns that his daughter, if carried to term, will survive perhaps only for a minute or so, if she isn’t stillborn. He and his wife decide to continue with the birth, if only for the chance to hold the baby just one time. They name her Emma, which means healer.
The Chinese-born American composer Du Yun won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her opera Angel’s Bone in 2017, making her the first Asian woman to win it. McQuilken’s libretto incorporates part of Du Yun’s family story: her first piano was bought with five bars of gold that her grandmother had long kept hidden. In the opera, it is the man’s wife who was given the piano and for whom ‘music is her life blood’.
Du Yun’s score captures the emotional tumult that the prospective father experiences in an eclectic mix of styles. The opera is scored for violin, cello, bass clarinet, guitar, trumpet and percussion, plus electronically produced music. Textures can be as light as the tinkling of the xylophone or jazzy, even vaudeville-like. Electronic sounds underpin the rage and desperation in the man and provide the soundscape for the nightmares that haunt him.
Most of the action takes place in the man’s workshop, where he is working on a baby crib. It also is the hiding place for his stash of alcohol. Video is used effectively to establish time and place when the story line extends beyond the workshop. Red light washes the entire theater as the man fights and temporarily loses the battle to find escape in alcohol.
Gunn had an active part in the creation of the work, and his association with the role is complete. With his rock-solid baritone, Gunn was fearless in expressing the torrential flow of thoughts that raced through the man’s mind: rage and fear, as well as vulnerability, coursed through both his voice and body.
The final moments of the opera are incredibly moving. Upon learning of their baby’s condition, the man and his wife decided to donate their daughter’s organs so as to give other children the chance to live. She was delivered stillborn, however, and her organs were too small: only her eyes were suitable for donation.
Some years later, the man has a video call with the girl who was the recipient of Emma’s eyes. The girl asks questions, including whether his daughter had a name. During their conversation, the music becomes light, transparent and shimmering, as did Gunn’s eyes. Joy replaced trepidation as the man stared into his daughter’s eyes for the first time. He was healed.
It was one of the most magical moments that I have ever experienced in the theater.