Review: An American Opera Gets the Attention It Needs Abroad

Anyone bold enough to take command of a pirate ship should also be prepared for strife. Cannon battles? Frustrated crew members? All part of the job.

Yet Helena, the captain of the Dragon Lily BX4, must face more than that in the first act of Anthony Braxton’s opera “Trillium X,” which was completed in 2014 but premiered on Tuesday at the DOX Center for Contemporary Art in Prague.

After scheming like a titan of industry, and after sending scores of enemies to their watery graves — even after genocidally pledging to foster “the kind of mess that historians will love forever” — Helena still has to deal with those who doubt her ruthlessness. When the pirate discovers some young stowaways aboard her vessel, she learns that they have studied her violent exploits at college. They’re not impressed, calling her “overrated” to her face.

It’s one of the best jokes in this opera. And it was hardly the only punchline in the four-act, over-five-hour evening, which had young audience members laughing out loud in the aisles of the museum’s joyously oversold hall.

In the role of Helena, the soprano Eva Esterkova deployed a secure vibrato — including in piercing, high-tessitura phrases — that channeled the character’s unflappability. On the whole, the performance came off as a significant milestone in Braxton’s opera career, thanks to some revelatory work by a cast of 12, the Prague Music Performance Orchestra and the conductor Roland Dahinden, a longtime Braxton collaborator. Officially a concert performance, the show had enough video projections and lighting design choices to foment some stage magic, too.

Roland Dahinden led the Prague Music Performance Orchestra in the performance.Credit…Marek Bouda

This “Trillium X” also served as a reminder of the broader “Trillium” series, an ambitious cycle that Braxton has said will eventually include 36 discrete acts — all of which can then be freely recombined from one production to the next. They have been produced by his own Tri-Centric Foundation on shoestring budgets in the United States. But this performance in Prague demonstrated just how much American opera companies, and audiences, are missing in neglecting this project.

You may catch a scrappy outfit like Experiments in Opera delving into the “Trillium” operas at a black box theater, like that company did earlier this year. Braxton’s foundation produced a semi-staged version of “Trillium J” in 2014: a vivacious performance that was released as a Blu-ray, alongside a studio-recorded version. But, sadly, major classical music presenters have shown little interest in this work.

That might have something to do with a broadly held perception that Braxton is too abstruse for the mainstream. Since the 1960s, he has long been reputed for the complex, overlapping nature of his many creative guises: as an experimental composer, as a student of jazz and an improviser, and, starting in the 1980s, a creator of music dramas.

In the “Trillium” operas, the music seems to always be in flux, moving from pleasingly sour drone states to singsong marches and riotous blasts of orchestral pandemonium. Nor do the plots stay put. As in other “Trillium” works, each act of “Trillium X” featured the same singers, and the same character names, but placed them in entirely different situations. Braxton has expressed affection for the operatic cycles of Wagner and Stockhausen, but with no linear narrative, this is far from the “Ring.”

Alongside all the complexity — and here is the too-often undersold part — this stuff is a lot of fun, too. In the semi-staging of “Trillium J,” which is also available on Vimeo, you can see how much the soprano Kamala Sankaram enjoys playing (in her character’s own words) a “helpless maiden who happens to own 400 nuclear weapons stockpile containers — not to mention the chemical gas warfare options.”

Featuring the soprano Kamala Sankaram.

After the first act on the high seas in “Trillium X,” the second act begins with singers hiding out from robots that have taken away humans’ voting rights, and their ability to get credit. Act III, titled “The Three Sisters,” depicts the joint wedding of a trio of celebrity bank robbers. (Esterkova was once again a key presence during that section’s gun-toting delirium.) The fourth act begins in the White House’s war room, before moving to the site of a Roman orgy.

Dahinden’s orchestra responded to the score’s tumultuous moments with precise intonation and enviable balance. But the violins also sound sympathetic and sweet in the second act, as human characters lamented the way they’d allowed robots to slowly take over the world.

Video projections (Barbora Jagrova and Tobuke are credited for the lighting and visual designs) that show robots patrolling a doomed, lamp-lit cityscape were both comic and chilling. When one live human singer proposed a détente with the robots, he was greeted with pretaped sounds from the robots, which declared on repeat: “YOU. ARE. WRONG.”

Those robot chants, as well as cannon blasts and nuclear explosions in other acts, were delivered by speakers. Singers, too, were amplified. But the sound mix didn’t feel artificial; each portion of the orchestra was audible at all times. In the second act, brass exclamations contributed to an interpolated Braxton piano composition performed by pianist Hildegard Kleeb. (Since Braxton has written that “all compositions in my music system can be executed at the same time/moment,” the insertion of this material — like Composition No. 30 for piano solo, or Composition No. 257, which included the brasses — was fair play.)

Braxton’s own Tri-Centric Orchestra deserves more opportunities to play this music in American halls. But the Prague Music Performance Orchestra proved that it can also pull off a credible “Trillium” show; thankfully, the program for Tuesday’s concert advertised the ensemble’s plans to record “Trillium X” and present the live premiere of “Trillium L” in 2025.

So this language is not too complex to be learned. This orchestra’s founder and director, Jan Bartos, said in an email that the concert had come together with a week of rehearsal and a budget of about $100,000.

More performances of this music, and at a similarly high level, should be possible. A question, then, now hangs over the United States: Who will take on “Trillium” next?

Trillium X

Performed on Tuesday at the DOX Center for Contemporary Art in Prague.

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