Amid the usual confections of the holiday season – a fresh Nutcracker and Jakub Jan Ryba’s beloved Czech Christmas Mass – Prague’s National Theater offered a contemporary counterpoint with Lost Objects, an oratorio staged for only the third time since its 2001 premiere in Dresden. A post-minimalist meditation on loss, the piece combines elements of early and modern music with a rock backbite and a stream of dizzying visuals that add psychedelic flair.

© Hana Smejkalova
© Hana Smejkalova

Lost Objects sprang from the Brooklyn, New York-based music collective Bang on a Can, a longtime favorite in Prague. Conductor Petr Kofroň began presenting the group’s work in the early 1990s with his Agon Orchestra, the best (and sometimes only) modern music ensemble in Prague during the ’90s and 2000s. He was on the podium again for this piece, a collaborative effort by composers David Lang, Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and librettist Deborah Artman.

The original version was even more of a musical mash-up, with a Baroque orchestra playing period instruments while DJ Spooky added flashes of sound and color from the turntable. For this authorized reworking, Kofroň and his team wisely dropped the DJ, substituting visuals to enhance the musical narrative, and modified the soloists to a soprano and two mezzo-sopranos (originally two countertenors). With the Kühn Choir of Prague and a four-piece rock band joining a chamber ensemble from the National Theater Orchestra, the production made smart use of local resources.

Lost Objects is constructed like a Baroque oratorio, with 11 self-contained sections pondering the spiritual dimensions of earthly affairs, sometimes with stories and lessons drawn directly from the Bible, the Torah and the Talmud. Over the course of the piece, banal events (“I lost an earring”) give way to ancient wisdom that segues to historical figures like Amelia Earhart and George Mallory, who vanished in the early 20th century without a trace. One segment deconstructs a phrase by Nelson Mandela (“It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us”) as a study of the loss of meaning in language. 

© Hana Smejkalova
© Hana Smejkalova

The music is minimalist throughout, mostly repeating phrases rendered in varying tones and tempos of energy and urgency. Different combinations of soloists and choir sing the text, sometimes in the tenderness of a single a cappella voice, other times with the roar of a full choir. Some segments, especially those composed by Lang, would fit neatly into a Sunday church service. Gordon’s tend to be hard-driving pieces with an inventive edge – Wagner’s Valkyries on speed in “Acoustic Aphasia” and the sound of war drums in “Two Are Holding.” Wolfe also adds percussive bursts to her otherwise refined, airy treatments of subjects like Earhart and passenger pigeons.

Performing behind scrim strips that blocked any view of their performance, Jitka Burgetová, Jana Horáková Levicová and Lucie Hilscherová nonetheless turned in sterling vocal efforts, imbuing smoothly executed monochromatic lines with character. The chorus came in and out seamlessly, creating a mesmerizing flow of sound. And under Kofroň’s baton, even the rock guitar and drum kit sounded controlled and precise, carrying the vocals rather than competing with them. Rhythm is ultimately what drives Lost Objects, and the orchestra never lost stride, showing the tight discipline necessary for minimalist music to work.

The visuals employed geometric shapes and the simple human figures commonly used on traffic signs, first free-falling down or floating across the scrim strips, then spinning in increasingly complex kaleidoscopic motions. The effect was at first intriguing, especially when images played off the themes or added subtle commentary. In the opening “I Lost a Sock,” for example, in which the losses grow from a simple item of clothing to life crises (“I lost my way”), there were fleeting images of Prague Castle, the seat of Czech government – and a sore point these days for many Czechs unhappy with the country’s reactionary, Eastern-leaning leadership. 

After a while, though, the visuals became too much, more distracting than entertaining. They also added an undercurrent of not trusting the music. It may be that mainstream audiences would not sit and focus on 65 minutes of continuous minimalist music without a sweetener. But the piece was performed with such precision and verve, it was a shame not to be able to watch the vocalists at work, especially in their interactions with the chorus and conductor.

However, this is a small complaint about an otherwise exciting and refreshing production. One of the beauties of Lost Objects is its malleability, the many configurations and possibilities it offers in its unusual marriage of modern music with longstanding, deeply held musical and spiritual traditions. The National Theater showing imagination and courage in picking up the piece, and impressive skill and creativity in bringing it to life.