Contemporary Italian Multimedia Folk Opera Has Work-in-Progress Showing at MASS MoCA on Friday

A scene from 'Oceanic Verses'

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass.) – MASS MoCA will present a work-in-progress showing of Paola Prestini’s new multimedia opera Oceanic Verses in the Hunter Center on Friday, May 18, 2012, at 8 p.m. Set against the backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea, Oceanic Verses is about people who flee and people who stay, people who sail to escape and people who sail to arrive.

Oceanic Verses musically paints a picture of Italy as it once was, a cross-section of cultures expressed through song. By examining and researching the Salento region which maintains many ancient traditions and still speaks Griko, a much forgotten language, Prestini creates a work that illuminates the complex ethnic mosaic that has shaped her cultural heritage. The story is derived from the texts of the songs chosen and intermittent poems from a variety of Italian poets through time coloring the work with the various influences of Salento region.

Oceanic Verses is sung in various dialects including Griko, Genoese, and Sardinian, coloring the work with various ethnic influences. Librettist Donna Di Novelli is expanding the current text by thirty-forty minutes to create circa a seventy five minute work, and we are working together closely to develop the stories, music and visual elements as an organic whole. Di Novelli sees the piece as part archeology, part oceanography. The opera simultaneously sifts through the sediments of centuries and journeys on the top of Mediterranean currents that bring immigrants, and conquerors to each others’ shores. The opera juxtaposes death and life in every utterance, reminding us through its characters of the fragility of all life, including our common globe.

Paola Prestini, composer of 'Oceanic Verses'

Rather than a linear narrative, Oceanic Verses follows the arcs of four characters: a Sailor (folk singer Claudio Prima) who searches for lost songs; a Scholar (improviser Helga Davis) investigating immigration who loses a suitcase filled with research; a Peasant (soprano Nancy Allen Lundy) who seeks a better life for her future children; and a Soldier (Christopher Burchett) who crawls over land to bury what he loves.

The characters are united by a yearning to uncover a fading past in southern Italy. Ed Yim of the New York City Opera said the VOX 2011 performance of the oratorio of Oceanic Verses “made the hair on the back of my neck stand up for the sheer visceral pleasure of the musical language.”

Each of the four characters in Oceanic Verses has a double — an abstraction of his/her essence or inner life — who appears in an accompanying film backdrop by Ali Hossaini, projected throughout the performance on a triptych screen. In the film, the celebrated Italian dancer Emio Greco plays the Soldier, and actors from the Salento region of Italy play the Peasant. Prima and Davis play both the on-screen and on-stage versions of their characters.

Ali Hossaini’s visual world is an immersive video environment that recreates the atmosphere of the Mediterranean while offering a canvas where we can tap the expressive potential of the performers as actors. Using a technique of undulating video, Hossaini creates a visual music that presents the inner lives of the characters on an ultrawide screen that curves around the stage. Players and audience are immersed in the folkloric landscape that inspired Oceanic Verses. Rather than tell a story in the manner of cinema, Hossaini directs the performers to act in short abstract sequences that he juxtaposes as poetic counterpoint to the musical stagecraft. This video environment amplifies the presence of the main characters while giving Oceanic Verses a sense of place that is impossible with a traditional set.

Oceanic Verses combines fragments of music that date as far back as 3000 BCE, field samples from research in the Salento region, and Prestini’s original music. Di Novelli created the libretto by weaving her own original work together with a selection of archetypal Italian texts from songs and poems written by Vittoria Colonna, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Dante Alighieri, and Aleandro Aleardi. The songs are in dialects spoken throughout history in Italy, including Byzantine Greek, Arab, Sephardic Jewish Hebrew, and Bourbon Spanish.

Prestini and director Kevin Newbury, plus singers Claudio Prima, Helga Davis (The Love Show, 2011, MASS MoCA), Nancy Allen Lundy, and Christopher Burchett, as well as filmmaker Ali Hossaini, librettist Donna Di Novelli, and producer Beth Morrison (69 South, 2007, and Maya Beiser’s cello opera Elsewhere, 2011, MASS MoCA) present the work-in-progress after a week-long residency in which they will continue to expand the piece from an oratorio to an evening-length production. Designers include Vita Tzykun, scenic and costumes; S. Katy Tucker, projections; and Bruce Steinberg, lighting.

As is customary with MASS MoCA’s work-in-progress showings, the audience is invited to become part of the creative process by offering feedback and asking questions of the artists during a Q&A after the showing. This presentation is part of a series of work-in-progress showings. The next showing, from June 21 – 24, will be Here Lies Love, a workshop of an immersive theater piece unlike any other, combining dance, song, narrative, and video montages, with music by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. Here Lies Love is presented with support from Williamstown Theater Festival and The Public Theater.

Oceanic Verses is commissioned by VisionIntoArt, produced by Beth Morrison Projects, and is a VisionIntoArt and Beth Morrison Projects world premiere.

Paola Prestini is the director of the nonprofit multimedia collective VisionIntoArt, which has commissioned countless emerging artists and has performed worldwide since 1999. Named one of the “top 100 composers in the world under 40” by NPR, Prestini has created a body of work celebrated by critics and fellow artists. Terry Riley has said that her music “speaks from the heart and inspires.” Prestini has been commissioned by Carnegie Hall, Kronos Quartet, MATA, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the New York City Opera (VOX). Helga Davis, Rinde Eckert, and Hila Plitmann are among the numerous esteemed soloists who have performed her work, which has been presented in prestigious venues worldwide, including Zankel Hall, The Kitchen, The Whitney Museum, Le Poisson Rouge, PS 122, and the Stone in New York; Etnafest, Milano’s Teatro Manzoni, and Sound Res in Italy; and BEMUS in Belgrade, Serbia. Recent projects include works at BAM, the Kennedy Center, the Barbican Centre, the Harare International Festival, and the Krannert Center. She has collaborated with artists Maya Beiser, Erika Harrsch, Cornelius Dufallo, Gabriel Kahane, and Julian Crouch.

Oceanic Verses will be presented as a work-in-progress on Friday, May 18, at 8 PM in MASS MoCA’s Hunter Center. Drinks from the MASS MoCA bar and dinner and snacks from Lickety Split are available before the show. Tickets for Oceanic Verses are $15 and $10 for students. Tickets are available through the MASS MoCA Box Office located off Marshall Street in North Adams, open from 11 AM – 5 PM closed Tuesdays. Tickets can also be charged by phone by calling 413.662.2111 during Box Office hours, or purchased online at

MASS MoCA, the largest center for contemporary visual and performing arts in the United States, is located off Marshall Street in North Adams on a 13-acre campus of renovated 19th-century factory buildings. MASS MoCA is an independent 501(c)(3) whose operations and programming are funded through admissions and commercial lease revenue, corporate and foundation grants, and individual philanthropy. Except for an initial construction grant from the Commonwealth and competitive program and operations grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, MASS MoCA is privately funded: 90% of annual operating revenues are from earned revenues, membership support, and private gifts and grants.




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