Coming to Mass MoCA for a residency and premiere of The Aging Magician, composer Paola Prestini says that multi-media productions are necessarily intimate and lengthy collaborations, children of multiple-parentage that reflect their genes seamlessly.
“I’ve been working on it with the same team for many, many years,” she said. “Believe it or not, it’s really, really a collaboration where all the elements, we couldn’t do one without the other. “
The idea for the show began with Prestini hoping to reimagine the classic tale of Charon crossing the River Styx, in her version a journey to Coney Island that involved children. She had been inspired by a Jonathan Safran-Foer book based on the work of Joseph Cornell. Prestini then brought in librettist Rinde Eckert, who felt he could take what she had started, which was still barebones, and transform it into a narrative piece that was more suited for a musical presentation.
“As we began to work together, Rinde really made it into this story about a clockmaker who is having a heart attack,” said Prestini, “and the kids appear at the moment he is having the heart attack as kind of narration and guidance into his afterlife.”
The show takes a journey on New York City’s F train to Coney Island, and features different subway stops as memories in the clockmaker’s life and points where you learn more about him.
“You get a glimpse into this man’s solitary life and how his mother colored his life and where his repressions are,” Prestini said. “All the while, Rinde is showing you his actual day to day life, which is that he really was writing a book called The Aging Magician.”
The book remains unfinished. The old man has fashioned himself a magician and never wanted to finish it, but it chronicles the magic tricks of his own life and his desire to be a magician on Coney Island.
A snippet was performed at Liederabend, a festival of contemporary art song, and this was attended by theater director Julian Crouch, co-director and designer of the Tiger Lillies’ production of Shockheaded Peter, who immediately expressed interest in becoming part of the project.
“He said, ‘I really love it, but I could direct this and make it really amazing,’” said Prestini. “And that’s how we started. He didn’t like the direction I was taking it in. He said let’s have dinner, let’s talk about this, and then shortly after it became a collaboration between the three of us with many, many workshops.”
Prestini had intended to include the Brooklyn Youth Choir and multi-instrumentalist and musical instrument designer Mark Stewart as part of the production, but Crouch conceived of a presentation that would include the choir as part of the actual staging, with Stewart’s creations at center.
“Julian wanted to use the choir as puppeteers and the narrators on a musical set that the kids play,” Prestini said. “The set is a big musical instrument that is interactive that Mark Stewart is creating.”
On stage, the choir will surround Eckert, who will also be surrounded by a string quartet, all on risers. There are 40 members of the choir that learned the piece and been to puppetry workshops to prepare, and 24 of them at a time will perform it on stage.
“In back of them are sheets of paper,” said Prestini. “They hold up paper that becomes a screen. Eventually that reveals a gorgeous set that is a musical instrument Coney Island.”
One of the great pleasures of this collaboration for Prestini has been witnessing the interaction between the youth choir and Crouch, especially in regard to a subject that isn’t often aligned with the interests of teens.
“I love seeing how 15 year olds relate to a 60 year old talking about death, because teenagers are thinking about their mortality and entering the world,” she said, “so that kind of compassion that has emerged between that character and them has been fascinating to see close.”
The Mass MoCA 10-day residency is the first chance Crouch has had to craft the staging, the one huge missing component from the multi-year process the production has been through.
“That’s been the hardest thing for Julian,” said Prestini. “He’s been so involved in the libretto and these touches of staging, but has never had the full choir and an actual stage to be able to incorporate all the elements — the light, the visuals, the puppetry. These two weeks at Mass MoCA are really going to be about that.”
Prestini says that the Aging Magician could not exist without the very specific creative components that have gathered to craft it. No one collaborator could have conceived of it and brought it to its current form.
And part of that process has been a learning one for Prestini, a chance to work in collaboration in such a way that it has been as much about the passing down of experience as it has been about sharing ideas.
“I think that for me working with Mark and Julian and Rinde has been incredible, because they’re in a more mature phase of their career,,” she said, “and so the opportunity to work with them and workshop and learn about multi-disciplinary process in such a deep way with such experienced collaborators has been amazing. It’s so exciting.”