Du Yun, a 39-year-old composer, musician and performance artist, today won the Pulitzer Prize for music for her opera Angel’s Bone. The Pulitzer jury describes the piece as a bold work “that integrates vocal and instrumental elements and a wide range of styles into a harrowing allegory for human trafficking in the modern world.” Angel’s Bone, which has a libretto by the versatile Royce Vavrek (Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves and David T. Little’s Dog Days), was commissioned by New York’s Prototype Festival and Trinity Wall Street, which staged the world premiere Jan. 6, 2016.
The opera tells of a middle-American couple who find a pair of angels dropped into their backyard. They nurse the angels back to health — only to clip their wings and exploit them for money.
Du Yun, reached by phone Monday afternoon while attending a cultural summit in Abu Dhabi, said that while she has never been a victim of human trafficking, she wanted to make the case that it’s more prevalent than we know.
“When we look at human trafficking, we always think that it’s far away from us,” she said. “We all have our own narrative of what human trafficking is supposed to be, but if you do a little research, human trafficking happens, in many different forms and shapes, right in our backyard.”
The music in Angel’s Bone seamless weaves together many styles. “It’s a lot of music that matters to me dearly,” Du Yun said. “From Renaissance to chant to meticulously notated modern music to screaming songs that I like to sing.”
The score calls for a mezzo-soprano and a baritone in the lead roles, but also, as Du Yun noted, “A female voice who can do punk rock.” She found a voice with just the right energy in Jennifer Charles, a member of the band Elysian Fields.
The idea that a non-operatic voice can have a place in opera today was attractive to Du Yun. But she wasn’t out to add a voice from the pop world gratuitously. “I did not want to write an indie-rock opera, an opera that had that voice, but the story called for that,” she said.
Du Yun, a native of Shanghai but now in New York, has released a pop album of her own, but she’s also been commissioned by American orchestras such as the Detroit and Seattle Symphonies. Her works have been called cutting edge, yet she feels that the intelligence of classical music audiences should not be underestimated.
“The audience in the art world is ready,” she said. “The audience for literature is always ready. Our opera audience is also ready. But if we are not presenting it in such a way that creates a dialog, the audience would never be ready, because we don’t think we’re ready.”
Angel’s Bone will undoubtedly be staged again, with much more attention now that “Pulitzer Prize winner” can be attached to the composer’s name. But winning the award won’t change Du Yun.
“I’ll still be me — who is very plugged into social change,” she said. “That’s the biggest impetus of why I want to write music. And that’s why I’m here at this cultural summit. It’s to be part of this dialog. Career-wise? I think career happens later. I’m always going to use music, use culture as a tool to engage people to have this dialog, to enable others. That’s very important.”