Shanghai-born composer Du Yun has won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music for her eclectic operatic work, Angel’s Bone, beating finalists Ashley Fure with Bound to the Bow and Kate Soper with Ipsa Dixit. The prize is awarded to a ‘distinguished musical composition by an American’, premiered or first recorded within the past year – in this case on January 6, 2016 at the Prototype Festival in New York which celebrates contemporary opera.
Du Yun collaborated with librettist Royce Vavrek to create what the Pulitzer jury described as ‘a bold operatic work that integrates vocal and instrumental elements and a wide range of styles into a harrowing allegory for human trafficking in the modern world’. The drama unfolds when two fallen angels are discovered in the back garden of an ordinary middle-class couple who proceed to clean them up and exploit them to escape financial trouble and pursue a life of fame and wealth.
Journalists at both premiere and preview tried to capture its chameleonic essence: New Music USA described it as ‘an idiosyncratic amalgam of church motets, punk, and quasi-European post-expressionism’, while the New York Times called it ‘a musical cocktail of Renaissance polyphony, electronica, Modernism, punk rock and cabaret’. Featuring as it does aspects of Gregorian chant, elements of Offenbach and Shostakovich, art-rock and sleazy blues, Opera News reviewer Fred Cohn could only conclude that ‘in its complexity, the music compels you to listen.’
Du Yun, 39, and currently based in New York, is a composer, multi-instrumentalist and performance artist. Her music exists at an artistic crossroads of orchestral, chamber music, theatre, opera, orchestral, cabaret, storytelling, pop music, electronics, visual arts and noise. Given the inherently collaborative nature of opera, it’s no surprise to find Du Yun’s success in this arena.
[Soprano Abigail Fisher in the premiere performance of Angel’s Bone, conveying in the ‘Mirror Scene’ its striking balance of hauntingly beautiful otherworldliness and deeply unsettling realism]
The production is visceral, but discomfort is as much a part of Du Yun’s creative process as her artistic aesthetic. In a 2014 interview with Frank J Oteri for New Music USA, she explained: ‘I grew up as a pianist, and my challenge to myself is to write music without the aid of a piano ever, not even checking things. I don’t want to be too comfortable when I write music.’ Inspired by the fluidity of Asian philosophy, Du Yun views the world and indeed art as a continuum; challenging our preconceptions about genre, she invites us to view it merely as musical language, secondary to the content it conveys. Speaking to the US National Public Radio this week, Du Yun expresses her belief in the readiness of classical music audiences to broaden their artistic appetite: ‘The audience in the art world is ready,’ she said. ‘The audience for literature is always ready. Our opera audience is also ready.’
In winning the Pulitzer prize, Du Yun joins a distinguished list of former recipients, including John Luther Adams (Become Ocean, 2014), Jennifer Higdon (Violin Concerto, 2010), Steve Reich (Double Sextet, 2009), David Lang (The Little Match Girl Passion, 2008) and John Adams (On the Transmigration of Souls, 2003).
Angel’s Bone is to be staged at LA Opera, dates to be announced.