Angel’s Bone, awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music, was premiered at the 2016 PROTOTYPE festival and co-produced by Beth Morrison Projects, HERE, and Trinity Wall Street. The work is a momentous accomplishment for intrepid composer Du Yun and librettist Royce Vavrek, and it serves as a bold example of the continued relevance of the operatic genre. The recent CD release of Angel’s Bone (conducted by Julian Wachner for the VIA Records label), is a profoundly important testament to the work’s emotional and artistic impact. Unifying traditional forms with modern musical expression and unapologetically graphic and relevant subject matter, Angel’s Bone is a work that deserves to be heard everywhere.
The opera opens with solemn procession, setting the mood but revealing little of the impending drama. The Chorus sings “A Prism, A Video, A Flurry,” with exquisite purity of tone. The voices bring the words to life, unfolding across dissonances, navigating meandering tonalities, and finally, unraveling into the next scene. We meet the scorned wife, Mrs. X.E., (rich-voiced mezzo-soprano, Abigail Fischer) and Mr. X.E., who rushes in bearing two beings with bloodied faces. They are not runaway children, but in fact, angels. The angels, badly wounded, are deposited into the bathtub, wings askew, shaking in agony and fear. Cut and bleeding, they still have hope, singing, “People are naturally generous…good, helpful, kind, welcoming…They would never hurt us.”
As the Boy Angel, Kyle Bielfield’s bright, youthful tenor encourages the weary Girl Angel (Jennifer Charles), who bravely musters the strength to produce languid, melismatic sighs and shaking exclamations. Lest these valuable treasures fly away, Mrs. X.E. coldly commands her husband to, “Prune them.” Desperate to please, Mr. X.E. does this against a violent cacophony of gasps, screams, and shrill punctuations from the orchestra. Already bloodied and weak, the angels are completely defeathered by sharp pruning shears. One does not need a set and actors before them to visualize the terrible brutality and horror of the scene. In the end, the angels are left gasping and mutilated, and listeners cannot help feeling overwhelmed by this stunning violation. Who could brutalize an angel, and with such violence? Mrs. X.E., bursting with narcissistic self-pity, compares herself to the Virgin Mary, recalling her past financial struggles, and proudly displaying the angels’ feathers now adorning her body.
Some of the most poignant and beautiful moments in the opera come from the Choir of Trinity Wall Street—virtually unmatched for their exquisitely pure sound and perfect blend. The profound movement, “Feathers are Prickly Things,” has a homophonic, hymn-like feel, a strong contrast to the harsh sounds of earlier scenes. As the voices swell, first the lower ones, and then the higher ones, the message becomes clear: “Feathers are prickly things in the wrong hands.”
Meanwhile, the angels languish, and the Boy Angel comforts the Girl Angel who is “cut up, marked…from head to toe.” One could guess at how their injuries came to be, and that might be good enough. In fact, some might consider these images too vivid, too disturbing. But Du and Vavrek do not let their audience off the hook. In the next scene, “Taking Orders,” we are forced to witness, in graphic detail, the horrific abuse, torture, and rape of these poor and helpless creatures. “They are at your service!” says Mrs. X.E. to her clients, who arrive to be serviced as they wish. The Female Customer (Melanie Russell)’s sweet soprano belies her repulsive intent as she chokes and kicks the Boy Angel in a fit of rage. Beaten and bruised, he is then raped by Mrs. X.E. to a feverish orchestral accompaniment.
The Girl Angel fares no better. In “Brick J,” a spoken tour-de-force, she cries over the pulsing orchestra, recounting that her client “likes it rough…I’m wailing. He’s devouring.” She is so broken, that she can no longer sing. She must speak, and sigh, and howl, and moan as she tells her story, and even this cannot truly convey her horror. The Boy Angel cries “I am a wound, gaping, gushing.” They know that they must run away. Still, confused and broken, the Girl Angel hesitates, as many victims do, “But [Mr. X.E.] loves me.”
The X.E.’s grand scheme falls apart, however, as Mrs. X.E. reveals that she is pregnant with the Boy Angel’s child. Mr. X.E. throws a bag of feathers at the angels, yelling, “Restore your wings and fly away! Remove your shackles and fly away!” before remorsefully stabbing himself in the heart. Mrs. X.E. unrepentantly hatches a plan to escape justice for her crimes and to turn her transgressions into a source of pity. “My story, a television spectacle…forced to sell the spiritual, the sexual, by a deranged spouse.”
Whatever happens to those beautiful, broken, and tormented angels? We will never know, just as the fates of the most vulnerable victims of abuse are far too often unknown. Unlike so many operas before it, there is no tidy resolution, no happy ending, and no justice. Not even a weak apology can be mustered up for the victims. They are the forgotten ones in this drama. For them, there is only tremendous pain, unspeakable horror, and then, silence.
Angel’s Bone is a truly groundbreaking work, both in its deft integration of various, sometimes unexpected, musical styles and expressions into a unified whole, and for a libretto that is poetic and beautiful without ever glossing over the ugliness, violence, and horror of the story it depicts. This work serves as mirror, illuminated by bright fluorescents, inviting us to lay bare our own complicity in—or indifference to—these heinous, crimes. Bravo to Julian Wachner for leading a first-class roster of musicians through a complex score with equal parts precision and passion. It is my hope that Angel’s Bone will have a run in every major city and inspire a new generation of composers and librettists to challenge the idea of what is acceptable or desirable subject matter for opera in the twenty-first century, to explore and expose in great detail, the most painful and disturbing taboos, to give a voice to the voiceless, and to elevate the disturbing scenes from the world around them into a bold and engaging artistic creation that demands our full attention—even when we so desperately want to look away.