PROTOTYPE 2018: The Echo Drift Explores Human Nature

Walker Loats’ day revolves around soup. The arrival of lunch is one of two ways she keeps track of time in solitary confinement. One bowl, however, contains an insect cocoon that hatches into a Moth offering Walker the chance to transcend her negative self. Can human nature change in isolation? Is a creature human without companionship? The Echo Drift opera rotated around these questions for seventy immersive minutes of six-channel surround sound and projected animations at the PROTOTYPE festival on January 12, 2018.

A cube within a cube sat center stage in front of a projection screen in Rose Nagelberg Theatre at Baruch College. Inside the cube’s scrim-covered outer frame was a grey prison cell furnished with a bed, desk, and chair. Eventually the set rotated, turned primarily by The Moth as it interrogates Walker and time loses its linear sequence. To its left sat conductor Nicholas DeMaison and The International Contemporary Ensemble, occupying nearly an equal third of the black box stage just as the acoustic music had equal footing with the digital elements. During the overture, drawings were projected onto the cube and screen and returned at crucial dramatic moments. We learned from The Moth that “The Echo Drift” is a point of space and time, or “state of things … where all is an event” that Walker can access if she relinquishes her obsession with control. Just as the creature offers new dimensions to Walker, the multidimensional elements enhanced the audience experience. In one of the most striking visuals of the show, white envelopes thrown in the air seemed like expanded versions of earlier 2D moth projections.

Blythe Gaissert and ICE perform The Echo Drift at PROTOTYPE 2018–Photo by Emily Hardman

Mikael Karlsson’s music deftly avoided a sense of both meter and ambiguity, underscoring and propelling the stark plot without making it linear. The score was modest, absorbing, and lush; sweeping gestures including bassoon, bass and alto sax, and double bass were punctuated by surprisingly prickly harp and a cello that echoed Walker’s emotional peaks. A stronger meter emphasized her obsessive details about clock mechanics, she dribbled soup from her spoon to a downward electronic sloop, and the instruments surged upwards during an exciting moment of thunder and lights. Still, the snippets of text painting were woven into something wider and more liquid. Aaron Likness on piano anchored the ensemble without dominating it; ICE was well balanced with tasteful digital music, live sound manipulation, and tightly controlled dramatic silences.

For a story about a convicted murderer in solitary confinement, The Echo Drift is surprisingly accessible and apolitical. The program notes explained that the opera explores the extreme between “the true nature of a person versus her better intentions,” and Walker’s sensory deprivation only augments the deep human needs she has always had. In this state, she invents a companion to both explore and resist her better self. Mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert gave an intelligent, mercurial performance of the struggle, but it was The Moth, spoken by performance artist John Kelly, who became the opera’s most transfixing and human character with wisdom, self-acceptance, and zing wit. “Your resident moth,” it calls itself as it teases, advises, and confronts its way through the libretto by Elle Kunnos de Voss and Kathryn Walat.

The Echo Drift Co-Librettist Elle Kunnos de Voss

In their program notes, the co-creators write that opposing extremes such as physicality versus psychological, space versus place, and limitation versus eternity make multidimensional media necessary. What emerged from these intentions was an emphasized human nature and its need for companionship.  Walker has no stimuli for change, both denies and imposes limitations, and is an ambivalent murderer; The Echo Drift allowed her the complexity of unresolved extremes while suggesting that self-reliance is a destructive choice and change cannot happen in isolation. “That’s your choice,” rebukes The Moth. “That’s not survival.” Gaissert and Kelly fully embraced the sophisticated score and meta set, and The Echo Drift balanced an immersive multidimensional experience with a refreshing affirmation of human solidarity.