I don’t talk about my assault. Like many others, I don’t have the words for it. Or, I do: when I was 21, a male mentor—old enough to be my father—invested what he felt to be an appropriate amount of time and energy in my personal and intellectual growth before taking me up to his apartment and climbing on top of me.

I can write these words, yet even several years later, saying them out loud is difficult, so I don’t. The experience distorted my perception of my body, of my sexuality, of reality. I stopped eating because the task of ingesting food reminded me of my body. How heavy it suddenly felt. When I think about him – when I remember that rainy August day – I can feel bile in the back of my mouth, but not words.

Ellen Reid’s p r i s m musicalizes this all-too-commonplace experience of sexual trauma and the disintegration of language that can accompany its aftermath. Reid’s musical language seems to express what words cannot, yanking the listener into the depths of a psychological narrative where sensation supersedes sense and time isn’t linear. Her score doesn’t exist for the sake of itself, or even for the sake of matching itself to the words of Roxie Perkins’s libretto. Instead, the music engulfs its audience in Reid’s expert juxtaposition of vocal and instrumental and electronic sounds—a raw wordlessness that express far more than the words being sung.

Reid’s musicalization of sexual trauma is some of the strongest orchestral and choral writing I’ve heard. The opera was presented this past week at La MaMa as part of the PROTOTYPE Festival, in a production by Beth Morrison Projects in association with Trinity Church Wall Street. The Trinity Wall Street Choir and NOVUS NY, conducted by Julian Wachner, brought an unassuming urgency to the score that propelled the listener through three acts (roughly 90 minutes), of which the first act was definitely the strongest. Although the second and third acts felt rushed by comparison, the opera still conveyed a rare portrait of the psychological ramifications of sexual assault.

Anna Schubert (left) and Rebecca Jo Loeb in ‘p r i s m’
Photograph: Maria Baranova

The protagonist, Bibi, has been through a sexual trauma, though this is not made clear until much later. In the first act, “sanctuary as it should be,” she and her guardian, Lumee, pace around a glass box wearing billowy white nightgowns. Bibi, sung tumultuously and tenaciously by Anna Schubert, and Lumee (Rebecca Jo Loeb) bicker, comfort each other, and repeatedly chant some sort of nonsensical creed. Is it an incantation, a lullaby? Perkins explains that her libretto’s use of nonsense words – words that have been fractured like light through a prism – grew from her interest in conveying “how trauma can corrode language over time.”

At first glance, Bibi is the quintessential opera heroine. She’s falling apart. She coughs; she clutches her stomach and writhes in agony; she drags herself across the room, unable to stand up due to what appears to be some sort of flesh-eating bacteria afflicting her legs. Lumee warns her that her bones will turn to dust. The sanctuary “as it should be” doesn’t seem all that great, as Lumee forces medicine down Bibi’s throat and she then vomits it across the pristine white bedroom’s floor. Only a single door – secured with five padlocks – separates Bibi and Lumee from “Outside,” where the unseen chorus can be heard singing the words “blue” and “remember remember remember.” Yet the “Inside” (“away from you,” as Bibi puts it) doesn’t seem to be protecting Bibi from whatever lies beyond that door.

Why are we supposed to care about these characters? We aren’t given enough information to be invested in their bizarre circumstances, and half the time we can’t even understand what they’re saying. If it weren’t for Reid’s utterly engrossing score, or Perkins’s confusing yet enchanting libretto, we might not really care about Bibi’s plight. Yet the musical language, in combination with James Darrah’s staging, creates an atmosphere that is unavoidably gripping.

(L-R) Tatiana Barber, Anna Schubert, Gigi Todisco, Chris Emile, Charbel Rohayem, and Rebecca Jo Loeb in ‘p r i s m’ (Julian Wachner conducting)
Photograph: Maria Baranova

Between Acts I and II, audience members were all encouraged to leave our seats and stand in the lobby, where Act II began with Bibi being carried in by four silent dancers. The logistics here were really awkward, with audience members talking over the music and bumping into each other as they made room for the PROTOTYPE procession to wander through the lobby before we all followed them back into the theater. Moreover, I found it problematic that the only people of color in the opera were seen but not heard, silently toting around the figurative and literal pain of a white woman. The visual was all too stark a reminder of the ways in which white feminists constantly silence and erase the voices and experiences of people of color.

During Act II (“sanctuary as it was”), we live through a version of the memory that lurks outside the padlocked door of Bibi and Lumee’s “sanctuary.” In her efforts to gain entry to the VIP lounge in a nightclub, Lumee abandons Bibi among rows of low-hanging disco balls as the four dancers, choreographed by Chris Emile, weave wordlessly among them. A menacing electronic thrumming sound recurs as Lumee’s words – “take it as a compliment” – repeat and distort into just “take it.” In the center of the stage, Bibi’s body lurches backwards with each thrust of her invisible, nameless abuser. There is no male character onto whom to project our anger, only the specter of a rapist, which makes this scene all the more powerful.

The final act (“sanctuary as it is”) depicts Bibi and Lumee tucked away again, hiding from this memory and trying to forget. Perkins’s libretto problematizes the concept of “sanctuary” and the ways in which assault survivors retreat inwards, away from the “Outside,” even though the private world of feminized domesticity is not necessarily any safer than the public world that exists outside the door. Even despite the haphazard third act, with its somewhat unearned ending, p r i s m was a truly memorable event. In the sanctuary of Perkins and Reid’s opera, sexual assault is not a plot device. It’s an experience that so many of us have lived, that the creators of the opera have lived, and that the protagonist of the opera lives, and relives, and will continue reliving.

Rebecca S. Lentjes is a writer and feminist activist based in NYC. Her work has appeared in VAN Magazine, Music & Literature, Sounding Out!, TEMPO, and I Care If You Listen. By day she studies ethnomusicology as a doctoral student at Stony Brook University and works as an assistant editor at RILM Abstracts of Music Literature; by night she hatches schemes to dismantle the patriarchy.

Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.