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At New York's annual Prototype festival, opera takes new look at trafficking via its culprits
L to R: Abigail Fischer, Kyle Bielfield, Jennifer Charles.

By: Shaun Tandon

NEW YORK (AFP).- Victims of human trafficking so often are forced into silence, yet a new opera is exploring the complexities of a group that is heard from even less -- the perpetrators.

"Angel's Bone," which premiered Wednesday to open New York's annual Prototype festival of experimental opera, seeks to understand the human dynamics that can lead once self-respecting citizens to perpetrate the scourge that afflicts an estimated 600,000-800,000 people each year.

The one-act opera opens in the banality of a suburban American Everywhere as "Mr. and Mrs. X.E." relate their mounting marital and financial problems.

Using metaphors for trafficking full of spiritual overtones, two angels stumble upon the property and initially enjoy a warm welcome. But Mr. and Mrs. X.E. soon sense opportunity in enslaving the vulnerable newcomers.

Mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer vividly portrays the tumult in the role of Mrs. X.E. who devolves from boredom to ravenous desire to bellicose vindictiveness.

Composer Du Yun came up with the concept after reading about trafficking, saying she was fascinated by the stories of middlemen and the attachment that victims sometimes developed toward their captors.

"I was really struck by how it's not a black-or-white issue," she said.

The premiere of "Angel's Bone" comes amid a historic influx of refugees to Europe and growing criticism of immigration among right-wing politicians in the Western world.

Du Yun, who came to the United States legally from China to pursue music, said she was distraught at the lack of understanding of how immigrants struggle to find new lives.

"People talk about the immigrants and have this idea that this is bad, we don't want them in, 'why don't they just get legal,' or build a wall," she said.

She hoped her opera would show another side -- that even native-born people can quickly be tempted to behave in ways they did not plan.

"If we are given the opportunity to make profit, then maybe we are not so different from each other," she said.

"I think the dark psychology of human beings is very interesting as an artist."

Burst of punk
"Angel's Bone" culminates in a rape scene as Girl Angel is tied up and relates the brutal desires of her assailant.

Making the action on stage even more powerful and unsettling, Girl Angel is played by Jennifer Charles, the singer of the New York dream rock band Elysian Fields.

Unlike the three other main performers, who come from a classical opera background, Charles wails in the fashion of a punk singer. 

Du Yun brings a loud electronic beat to parts of the opera, complementing a chamber orchestra and the choir of the Trinity Wall Street church.

"It wasn't a sense that I needed to water down or popularize the opera. For me, if you want to talk about a story that is present life, I want to find a language that is reflecting that," she said.

The dynamic between the victims and culprits is dramatized through the stage design, with the angels lying bloodied in a bathtub in the background as Mr. and Mrs. X.E. rejoice in the money windfall from pimping.

Librettist Royce Vavrek, a Canadian, said that Mr. and Mrs. X.E. also represented a facet of American life.

"I think they are talking to a certain extent about the idea that the American dream fosters greed," he said.

"It makes us greedy, entitled people perhaps and to watch the descent of Mrs. X.E. into this madness that is cultivated through her greed also seems very timely."

Vavrek has written librettos for a number of prominent modern operas, notably "Dog Days," about a working-class family in a future America ravaged by war. 

The opera premiered in 2012 and is being staged for the first time in New York as part of the Prototype festival.

Du Yun hoped that "Angel's Bone," with its intense grab on the audience's attention, could stir debate in a way that a newspaper article may not.

"Art really doesn't solve problems. But we can at least provide a platform to talk about them," she said.

© 1994-2016 Agence France-Presse

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