The Byzantine Choral Project is a dynamic collaboration between playwright Helen Banner, composer Grace Oberhofer and director Colette Robert to make theater using women’s voices. Inspired by the Byzantine Empresses Irene, Maria, Euphrosyne and Theodora they are creating work that showcases the radical power of strong, diverse women+ singing on stage and explores the importance of imagery, representation and iconoclasm in classical and contemporary life.
ICONS/IDOLS is a tetralogy of choral plays for over a dozen women+ singers. Mixing music, movement and text, the four plays recover the secret history of these purple empresses as they ascend in a society with deep animosity towards female rule. Deeply committed to religious icons, these powerful empresses sacrifice personal relationships in an attempt to gain enough power to re-introduce them into an empire that fiercely and violently opposes iconography.
ICONS/IDOLS is a tetralogy of choral plays currently in development that follows the Byzantine Purple Empresses as they establish their rule against the odds in the ninth century Iconoclastic Wars. Each play tells a different part of the story of grandmother Irene, rejected wife Maria, and grand-daughter Euphrosyne; catching at questions about gender and political imagery within the giant spectacle of dynastic power-play.
IRENE follows Irene's rise from child bride to Empress Regent and her journey from provincial Athens to the palace in Constantinople. A twenty women chorus singing a cappella draws us through Irene's survival as a secret young iconophile in an Empire intent on destroying all religious images. Deeply committed to religious icons, Irene sacrifices personal relationships in an attempt to gain enough power to re-introduce them into an empire that fiercely and violently opposes iconography. Imprisoned in the palace by her much loved husband Leo for bringing an icon into her rooms, Irene endures a separation from her infant son, that sets mother and son up as rivals for power for the rest of their lives.
THE EUNUCHS plunges into the complex and diverse world of the castrated Byzantine ‘third sex’, telling the story of how the powerful palace eunuchs Staurakios and Aetios form a alliance with Irene to build a new female form of rule, that subverts the traditional power of the church and army. However Irene only holds power as regent for her son, and although they have rebuilt their relationship since he rejected her as a boy, Irene still longs to experience ruling in her own right, as Emperor not Empress. By the end of the play, Irene has herself become an icon of the female imperial, dominating the political landscape of the East, but she has had to blind her own son to keep herself in power and faces death and final exile on the island of Lesbos.
In PRINKIPO, Irene's legacy has been lost and the imperial throne is being grabbed at by a succession of useless usurpers. Three renegade eunuchs, the angel soldier Stephen, the tattooed Nikitas and the historian Antony, sail to the island of Prinkipo to tempt Irene's grand-daughter, the exiled nun Euphrosyne with a return to power if she agrees to marry the violent peasant soldier they have just made Emperor. As they return to Constantinople, Nikitas has discovered a new radical love for icons that will force him to build a new church with his own congregation. Scored with theremin and bass, Euphrosyne's mother Maria and the radical nuns of Prinkipo fight to keep her within their closed world of prayer. Inspired by the parallels between the counter culture of the eunuchs of the Byzantine Era and the fringe artists who began the grunge and garage rock sounds of the 1990s, The Eunuchs pairs electronic bass with the a cappella, chant-inspired melodies of Irene.
THE WILDNESS OF SIN sees Empress Euphrosyne restored to an uneasy power but unable to give birth to her own child. The loyal Antony is focused on curating a women's quarters in the palace filled with female talent, while Stephen and Nikitas fight to control the violent Emperor Michael and bend him to their incompatible military and religious ambitions. As Euphrosyne navigates life in the palace, nursing her inconvenient lust for Stephen, she comes close to contemplating murder and is forced to develop her own style of politics as an Empress-nun. Her rejection of Irene's personal violence sets up what legacy the imperial purple Empresses will leave for both the East and the West. The score draws on the music of all three previous plays, as well as referencing Kassia, the only known female Byzantine composer, whose intensely beautiful music is woven deep into the final play’s soundscape.
HOW THE PLAYS FIT TOGETHER. The tetralogy is designed so that eventually each play can function as a stand alone piece, or all four can be presented together either in one long performance or in repertory with each other. Cast size between the plays varies from a minimum of twelve to a maximum of twenty. Each individual play runs between 80 to 90 minutes in performance.
Further programming permutations of the plays will also be possible. For example, IRENE and the THE EUNUCHS are being written to work together as a double bill, plus PRINKIPO and THE WILDNESS OF SIN can be joined together to form one long opera. We are also developing a one hour musical show that showcases all the Empress Arias from the tetralogy and uses eight voices.
Helen Banner is a playwright, librettist and songwriter and a member of The Jam at New Georges. She grew up in the British Channel Islands and studied at Cambridge and the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she completed her MFA in Dramatic Writing and was awarded the John Golden Playwriting Award. Her work has been developed at New Georges, the Drama League, the O'Neill Theater Center, Fresh Ground Pepper, the Wild Project, Dixon Place, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, The Lark, the Great Plains Theatre Conference and the Last Frontier Theatre Conference and she was a participant in the Ingram New Works Lab 2015-16 at Nashville Repertory Theater. Her choral play ICONS/IDOLS, written in collaboration with the composer Grace Oberhofer for the Byzantine Choral Project, was the opening show at the New Ohio’s Ice Factory 2016. Helen was a 2016-17 Special Resident at New Georges creating LA DÉROUTE, a medieval water opera, with composer Catherine Brookman for inclusion in their Water City take-over of 3LD Arts and Technology Centre in June 2017. Helen's play INTELLIGENCE will be in the 2018-19 NYTW Next Door Series, directed by Jess Chayes and produced by Lucy Jackson in association with Dutch Kills Theater. You can find out more about her work at www.helenbanner.com and https://newplayexchange.org/users/9372/helen-banner
Grace Oberhofer is Tacoma, WA native and a Tufts graduate (B.A. Music, summa cum laude) who currently lives in Brooklyn, where she works as a composer, performer, sound designer, and music director. Recent collaborations include assistant music direction with the Adirondack Theater Festival, administrative assistance with PROTOTYPE festival at HERE Arts, and sound design with Gloucester Stage Company, Two-By-For Productions, Fresh Ground Pepper and Tufts University. Current compositional projects include a choral play, ICONS/IDOLS, recently presented at the 2016 New Ohio Ice Factory Festival, Caroline Angell’s After I Was Free,, and a A Doll’s House: A New Opera. Grace is also a current member of the BMI Musical Theater Workshop. www.soundcloud.com/graceoberhofer
Colette Robert is a Los Angeles native living and working in New York. She likes new plays, old plays, and diversity on stage. Recent directing credits include: THE MOUNTAINTOP (Chester Theatre Company), ICONS/IDOLS (The New Ohio/Ice Factory Festival), HOTTENTOTTED (Ars Nova/ANT Fest), FLOPS FAILURES, AND FIASCOS (The Civilians/Let Me Ascertain You), SOMETHING LIKE LONELINESS (Ensemble Studio Theatre), and WHEN LAST WE FLEW (Diversionary Theatre and FringeNYC, GLAAD Media Award). Colette is a member of Ensemble Studio Theatre and co-facillitator of the New Georges Jam. Alumnus of Lincoln Center Directors Lab, Mabou Mines Resident Artist Program, and The Civilians R&D Group. Colette was a 2015-2016 Audrey Resident at New Georges and the Public Theater's 2009 Van Lier Directing Fellow. She has developed new work with EST/Youngblood, Atlantic Theatre Company, The Old Vic, May-Yi, Naked Angels, Vineyard Arts Project, Classical Theatre of Harlem, Labyrinth Theatre Company, and the Sundance Theatre Lab. M.A. RADA and King's College, London, B.A., Yale University. www.coletterobert.com
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Graphic and Photo Credits: Stephen Cyr, Eliot Olson
Audio Engineering: Fernando Familiar
ICONS/IDOLS was originally developed through the New Georges Jam and the New Ohio Ice Factory Festival 2016.
The continuing development of ICONS/IDOLS has received funding from OPERA America's Opera Grants for Female Composers program, supported by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation.
Making four operas is a big undertaking! The first full productions of the ICONS/IDOLS choral plays are likely to be in the 2020 opera season and we have a full slate of development on all four plays set up for 2018 and 2019. However, we're already thinking about what we want to make next as a collaborative team and are beginning to explore both an immersive jazz theater experience inspired by the films of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire and an opera based on writer James Baldwin's time living in Istanbul in the 1960s.