In the months before she hanged herself in 1999, the English playwright Sarah Kane woke up, nearly every morning, at exactly 4:48 a.m. As she went on and off drugs and in and out of hospitals, she wrote her final play, “4:48 Psychosis,” an anguished, mordant, fragmentary work, dissociative in form and content. A throat-shredding scream of a play, it has been staged and restaged since its posthumous premiere in 2000. It is now a chamber opera.
Composed by Philip Venables and directed by Ted Huffman, the Prototype: Opera/Theater/Now festival’s “4:48 Psychosis,” which had its premiere in London in 2016 and opens in New York on Jan. 5, makes music of a play with no delineated characters, few clear scene breaks and no stage directions except for occasional, italicized pleas for silence. “It’s not a piece that works by who says what on stage, and that is wonderfully liberating for an opera,” Mr. Venables said, speaking by telephone from London.
[Other festivals in January: Read about a play by Gracie Gardner at the Exponential Festival and Under the Radar at the Public Theater.]
Mr. Venables’s interpretation relies on six voices, three sopranos and three mezzo-sopranos, who convey — together and separately — the competing and often contradictory voices inside one woman’s head. In scenes where a psychiatrist or some other medical professional seems to be speaking, two percussionists beat out the speech rhythms as the text is projected in a rear wall. The orchestra, conducted by Richard Baker, is visible and sometimes the sound overwhelms the singers, Mr. Venables said, “like a kind of really powerful emotion that you can’t overcome.”
The music itself is “eclectic,” Mr. Venables said: passages inspired by Baroque and religious music, but also percussive attacks. As in Ms. Kane’s script, there are darkly witty passages, too, like the interspersed snatches of electronic music, canned lounge tunes that might play in doctor’s waiting rooms. Kim Whitener, one of the festival’s founding directors, described the score’s unique ability “to evoke the confusion, the fear, the panic, the chaos that is in this person’s mind.”
Rather than fastening on Ms. Kane’s biography, Mr. Venables has allowed her text to suggest something more universal, “a story for humanity,” he said, “a story for every person in that we all have dark thoughts, we all have times in our life when we suffer depression.” While some stagings have emphasized the violence and the rawness of the prose — it is, admittedly, very raw (“DON’T LET THIS KILL ME THIS WILL KILL ME AND CRUSH ME AND SEND ME TO HELL”) — Mr. Venables has decided that the text also speaks to search for love and he wants “4:48 Psychosis” to push its listeners toward “somehow appreciating joy and love and good things in our lives more,” he said.
Ms. Kane’s own story ended early and painfully. Yet the end of “4:48 Psychosis,” he promised, “is quite cathartic.”
“I hope it is anyway.”
ONE MORE FROM PROTOTYPE “The Infinite Hotel,” a hybrid of live film and opera written and directed by Michael Joseph McQuilken, casts the audience as extras inside a story about five strangers who collide, melodically.