Paola Prestini’s “The Hubble Cantata”

By · Photography Katalina Studio · Date 08/11/2016

At 7 p.m. on Saturday, August 6, the line just outside the entrance of the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn, New York, was already sprawling around the block. It was the kind of large crowd that might be expected for, say, the U.S. folk-rock band The Lumineers, which had played a benefit concert at the venue only a few nights ago. But this particular evening’s entertainment offered an intriguing break from the festival’s usual diet of indie rock bands and world-music artists: the world premiere of a new classical work called “The Hubble Cantata.” Billed as “a live virtual reality performance,” according to promotional materials distributed on-site, the piece incorporated images and soundscapes, along with two soloists, chamber orchestra, and two choruses. It also featured a five-minute virtual-reality film. As one might guess from its title—referring to the 26-year-old-telescope that, through the images it has captured of outer space, has enriched our understanding of the universe beyond Earth’s borders—these elements combined to take us on a journey into the cosmos.

It’s a journey that has been three years in the making, when “Hubble Cantata” composer Paola Prestini was approached by the Maine-based organization Bay Chamber Concerts in 2013 to create a piece to commemorate the anniversary of the Hubble telescope. Along with librettist Royce Vavrek—a prolific opera wordsmith (with recent credits including two acclaimed new operas with composer David T. Little, “Dog Days” and “JFK”), who had previously collaborated with Prestini on some smaller song-cycle projects—they were both put in touch with Dr. Mario Livio, an astrophysicist who spent 14 years at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates the Hubble telescope. But it wasn’t just his experience with the Hubble that impressed them both.

“He has a wonderful, wonderful way of describing super-complex concepts,” Prestini glowingly remarks. Vavrek echoes his collaborator’s assessment. When they both went down to Baltimore to meet Dr. Livio at the Hubble Institute, he recalls that in addition to learning more about the science behind the Hubble, “we also understood that the scientific language that Mario was using was so poetic, and so utilizing the poetry of the science was something that we were really excited about, and something we implemented rather early on.” Thus his own words, spoken in his own voice, are sprinkled throughout “The Hubble Cantata,” during its many interstitial soundscapes, offering contextual musings that are simultaneously scientific and philosophical in nature.

But though the piece is abstract to a certain degree, there is something of a storyline to draw us in. Originally, it began just with the idea of a woman searching for her lost child in the stars. “We knew we wanted to tell a story about a woman who was grieving, and she goes on a journey and becomes lost to the stars,” Vavrek explains, “but she begins by drawing these pictures based on the Nazca lines in Peru, and so she draws stories in the ground.” Only later—after “The Hubble Cantata” initially premiered as a 20-minute piece for soprano and small ensemble in Rockport, Maine, in 2013—was a second character, the woman’s husband, introduced. “If we were going to make this longer,” Vavrek says, “I would love to write a companion work where her husband goes out and tries to find her. He traces the lines she’s drawn and he searches for her in the heavens, but the heavens are so vast, how would you ever find somebody, especially in the future when galaxies open up?” Both characters eventually found their way into the final work unveiled in Brooklyn.

The idea of accompanying “The Hubble Cantata” with images and a virtual-reality film, however, was a more recent addition to the creative equation—and this is where Eliza McNitt comes in. Her filmography to date evinces a passion for cinematic depictions of science, a passion that began with research in high school into the disappearance of honeybees around the world, for which she made a documentary, “Requiem for the Honeybee,” that was eventually broadcast on the television cable channel CSPAN. “It made me experience firsthand the power of film through documentary means, [and] inspired me to further explore how to tell stories about science,” McNitt explains. Cut to seven months ago when, through a classmate of hers at a New York University screenwriting class, she was introduced to Prestini, who was immediately excited about the possibility of incorporating visual elements into the piece. “She really wanted to create something that essentially explored the Orion nebula,” Prestini recalls. “And so, honoring the collaboration with Mario with a visualization of the Hubble felt like the perfect match.” With the help of the VR firm The Endless Collective, McNitt created an immersive five-minute VR film called “Fistful of Stars” that offers a depiction of the life cycle of a star, based on Hubble imagery—in essence, what McNitt calls “an artistic interpretation based off scientific data.”

On top of all those moving parts, there were the 360-degree sound designs conceived by Arup; the black-and-white still photographs by Sasha Arutyunova, featuring stage actor Rufus Collins and former New York City Ballet principal dancer Wendy Whelan, projected onto a screen in front of the performers; and the presences of Jessica Rivera and Nathan Gunn, two renowned Metropolitan Opera singers, as the soloists. In short, “The Hubble Cantata” is an immensely ambitious production, with its multimedia aspects distinguishing it from many modern-day opera events. With some advance publicity in the preceding days thanks to articles in popular local publications like The Village Voice and Brooklyn Magazine, anticipation could not have been higher for its world premiere.

At a party earlier this year, I got into a brief conversation about opera with someone who admitted to finding it too much for her, with the interplay of musical, literary, and visual elements. I couldn’t help but think of this exchange as I watched “The Hubble Cantata” unfurl, because the work represents an attempt to push that interplay to the futuristic limit. Perhaps it’s too much to expect any work to measure up to such openly grand ambitions—though of course, that didn’t stop filmmaker Stanley Kubrick from forging ahead with “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which remains arguably the premier artistic meditation on outer space and man’s ultimate insignificance in the grander scheme of things.

There’s certainly much to admire about “The Hubble Cantata” conceptually. The idea of setting a smaller human story about loss against the backdrop of the cosmos is a sound one: What better way to illustrate Dr. Livio’s own thoughts on “the multiverse” and the possibility that intelligent civilizations such as ours may be but a mere précis in the world’s broader timeline? But neither the woman nor her husband come off as much more than ciphers, which keeps us at an abstract intellectual remove even as the mother cries out about how “a mother should not outlive her son / on Jupiter, in fetal position.” (Supertitles might have helped; it wasn’t always easy to understand the words that were being sung, especially by two choruses, The Washington Chorus and Brooklyn Youth Chorus.)

Thankfully, Prestini’s music compensates for a lot, vividly shimmering and raging with the emotional temperatures of characters as suggested in Vavrek’s libretto, and generally conjuring up an authentically cosmic atmosphere with its trembling strings, ethereal wind lines, and luminous glockenspiel. Prestini offers some imaginative touches in her orchestration, having a couple of the performers blow into Victrola horns and conch shells to contribute a sense of the primal to the proceedings. Even the miking of all the 1B1 and NOVUS NY players (under the direction of Julian Wachner, another frequent collaborator with Prestini) and singers adds to the atmosphere, with the extra reverberation giving the whole work a mythic feel.

Then there are Arutyunova’s photographs: surreal black-and-white images, some of the husband and wife, either separately or together, posing in ways that suggested romance, pained yearning, and rapturous wonder. Seeing them projected with crystal clarity on the large white screen erected in front of the performing forces onstage was already impressive enough. But the pièce de resistance, of course, was McNitt’s “Fistful of Stars” VR film, at the end of the 55-minute work, contained in a smartphone app which all of the audience members (in a venue that can hold 6,000 people) were encouraged to download before donning custom Google Cardboard VR glasses distributed at the event. As awe-inspiring as the animated imagery was, this final stretch of “The Hubble Cantata” also suggested the possible limitations of Prestini & co.’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. While much of the audience was audibly dazzled by the transporting views inside the Orion nebula that McNitt offered, the act of donning those cardboard glasses and moving one’s head all around in order to get a fuller view of the 360-degree visual environment distracted from the words of both Dr. Livio from the soundscapes and the singers onstage. Even as a devotee of opera, or staged opera, productions like this, I could for once understand what that party guest was saying about having too much thrown at us all at once.

Still, warts and all, I’m glad something like “The Hubble Cantata” exists—if nothing else, to suggest possibilities for opera and classical music in general going forward.

Even now, the term “classical music” for many conjures up associations of old works, performed in lavish settings, with generally older-skewing audience members rich enough to be able to afford the high-priced tickets they usually command. This is especially the case with opera, with the Metropolitan Opera still ruling the roost in New York, at least—even though many of their new productions in recent seasons have been either half-baked high-concept embarrassments (I’m still scratching my head over the useless meta-theatrical conceit behind Mary Zimmerman’s 2009 reimagining of Vincenzo Bellini’s “La Sonnambula”) or even bigger high-tech disasters (like Robert Lepage’s much-hyped “Ring” cycle with its cumbersome 24-plank machine and general lack of interesting vision beyond the pictorial).

“The Hubble Cantata” represents an attempt to shake up that musty museum image of classical music that still persists in many people’s minds. Certainly, that’s the spirit with which Prestini has undertaken not only this particular project, but her work as the founder of the nonprofit VisionIntoArt—which she started back when she was still a student at Juilliard—and, more recently, creative/executive director of the new performing-arts organization/venue National Sawdust in Brooklyn. “I’ve been thinking a lot about this for a long time, because I’ve always been very preoccupied with first being a woman composer and trying to find my way in the world when I was in my 20s,” Prestini says, “and realizing just how many doors I had to open. So for me, the beginning stages of this question occurred when I was in my 20s and I began to think of what is my responsibility to the art form. And so what I realized is that I couldn’t wait for opportunities. I had to create them, and I had to not just create opportunities for myself, but I had to also create opportunities for people in my field.”

This perhaps explains the collaborative spirit she has fostered with many of her works, including “The Hubble Cantata.” It’s another aspect of her artistry that was fostered in her Juilliard years. “When I was in Juilliard,” she tells me, “there wasn’t a lot of collaborative work being done, and I started my company, VisionIntoArt, when I was there. The disciplines were there—there was a dance department, an amazing theater department—but they weren’t really working together at the time. It felt like something that really needed to be done, and it spoke to my calling as an artist. …I began playing with the idea of different disciplines in one concert. First, it was more about the juxtaposition of different forms. And then it really became about the integration of multimedia and different forms and different collaborative work.” It’s a generous ethos that Prestini brought to the rehearsal process for “The Hubble Cantata.” Even two days before the world premiere, Prestini was working closely with the musicians and technicians, patiently fielding suggestions and even making small last-minute adjustments to the score to accommodate their needs. Despite being the essential mastermind of this enterprise, she exuded not an ounce of ego as she either sat behind the players or, in the fuller rehearsal the next day, perched in the balcony observing the proceedings from above.       

“The Hubble Cantata” could be considered the highest fulfillment of this collaborative, boundary-expanding potential: a free public event incorporating multiple forms of media into one communal interactive experience. It didn’t necessarily pass by without hiccups: On a couple of occasions during the opening act’s set, one of the organizers of the event came out and implored people to turn off the wi-fi on their smartphones in order for others to be able download the “Fistful of Stars” app and film for the main event. But such difficulties are to be expected in trying to push an art form forward. Beyond the journey it chronicles, “The Hubble Cantata” suggests a deeper, more subtextual journey: a peek into the future of classical music, one as full of endless possibilities as the cosmos it explores. ¶