When the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s first Next Wave Festival was advertised in 1983, the organizers included tongue-in-cheek promotional material directed at those skittish about its adventurous programming. Audience members who took the plunge were rewarded with “Former Next Wave Skeptic” buttons.
Thirty-five years later the conversion is complete. Next Wave is an integral part of New York’s performing arts ecosystem, featuring unconventional, challenging and emerging artists while helping to ensure that terms like “postmodern” and “interdisciplinary” are no longer sources of much anxiety.
Thanks go to Joseph V. Melillo, who put the first festival together at the behest of Harvey Lichtenstein, BAM’s executive producer at the time. Chosen to succeed Mr. Lichtenstein in 1999, Mr. Melillo has overseen the theater’s artistic endeavors since.
But this year will be Mr. Melillo’s last as the architect of Next Wave’s programming. He announced in 2017 that he would step down as BAM’s executive producer at the end of this year.
That made it a good time to speak with Mr. Melillo about the coming festival (which runs Oct. 3 to Dec. 23) and how its lineup reflects the trajectory of his career.
Philip Glass, full circle
Philip Glass’s music is in the festival’s DNA.
Mr. Melillo first saw “Satyagraha,” Mr. Glass’s opera about Mohandas K. Gandhi’s use of nonviolent resistance in South Africa, as an audience member at BAM in 1981 when Mr. Lichtenstein included it in his “The Next Wave/New Masters” series. Two years later, the opening production of Mr. Melillo’s inaugural Next Wave was the world premiere of “The Photographer/Far From the Truth,” with music by Mr. Glass.
But Mr. Melillo explained that returning to “Satyagraha” was not motivated by nostalgia. This fall’s production is all new. Two Swedish companies, Cirkus Cirkör and Folkoperan, have combined to create a minimalist opera complemented by the circus arts.
The size of the production is different, too. “New York City has only seen this opera in large-scale theaters,” Mr. Melillo said. “I’m presenting this work in the Harvey Theater, seating capacity of basically 800, and the orchestra and the singers and the circus performers are all on the stage together,” Mr. Melillo said.
“Satyagraha,” Oct. 31-Nov. 4 at the Harvey Theater
The Greeks, updated
The story of Oedipus is supposed to be timeless, for better or worse. In Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Greek,” Sophocles’ tragedy plays out on the troubled streets of 1980s London, where the renamed Eddy tries to avoid fulfilling a fortune teller’s prediction but winds up in the arms of a curiously familiar cafe manager.
“We do have, still in the 21st century, moral and human lessons to be learned from the Greeks,” Mr. Melillo said. “That’s why these plays stood the test of time.”
But the piece’s contemporary relevance extends beyond the timelessness of the story. Its depiction of the East End of London emphasizes the problems of racism and economic erosion — issues that are also likely to speak to New Yorkers.
Next Wave has a history of hosting imaginative adaptations of classic plays. Lee Breuer’s “The Gospel at Colonus,” a musical take on Sophocles’ “Oedipus at Colonus,” received its world premiere at the festival in 1983. More recently, Thomas Ostermeier, a leading German director, made his American directorial debut in 2004 with “A Doll’s House.”
After seeing “Greek” at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2017, Mr. Melillo invited the opera to make the trip over the Atlantic, continuing this tradition.
One of Mr. Melillo’s signal achievements was adding a third space for presenting work at the Academy in 2012, the Fisher building, which houses a 250-seat theater.
When approached by the Jerome Robbins Foundation about participating in Mr. Robbins’s centennial, he was grateful to have the theater at his disposal.
That’s because he wanted to program “Watermill,” a rarely performed, Noh-inspired Robbins piece from 1972 reimagined by the Italian choreographer Luca Veggetti and performed by Joaquin De Luz, a principal dancer at New York City Ballet.
He had seen the piece at the New York State Theater (now the Koch) but felt it would work best in a “small, intimate environment.”
In a review Clive Barnes called the piece “too uncompromising ever to prove especially popular” and Mr. Melillo described it as the choreographer’s “most radical work” — it was greeted with heckling from the audience when it was first performed.
He predicted a different response this time around. “The intimacy of the space changes the relationship that the audience has with the dance,” he said. “This has to do with the proximity; the audience members almost become participants.”
“Watermill,” Oct. 24-27 at the Fisher
Taking circus seriously
Supporting the circus arts has been a hallmark of Mr. Melillo’s tenure. “Contemporary circus — physical theater — is a legitimate art form of the 21st century,” he said, predicting that “it’s just going to continue to prosper in the future.”
Mr. Melillo first saw “Humans,” an acrobatic celebration of our ability to trust one another, in a tent. In October, the Australian troupe Circa will perform it inside an Academy theater that seats more than 2,000.
“That’s a common occurrence in my life as the artistic director of Next Wave,” Mr. Melillo said, “seeing artists in one particular kind of physical environment and saying, ‘This should be in the space that I’m the steward of. Let’s talk about how you’re going to get there.’”
“Humans,” Oct. 3-7 at the Howard Gilman Opera House
The art of matchmaking
Mr. Melillo calls Joan Didion “a rock star in my life,” so he was pleased to find out that Lars Jan, the writer, director and artist, was interested in creating a theatrical adaptation of her essay “The White Album.” But there was an obstacle.
“He said, ‘I really have this passion but I don’t know how to get the rights to do it,’” Mr. Melillo recalled. “So I said, ‘Well, we’ll help you.’”
With the paperwork settled, Mr. Jan and his Early Morning Opera company set about dramatizing Ms. Didion’s scalpel-sharp examination of upheaval in late-1960s California.
The result is highly theatrical: The actress Mia Barron performs the essay in its entirety as a monologue while, behind her, revelers party inside a typical California home of that era.
The essay’s theme — what Mr. Melillo calls the “disintegration of the social order” — is more than a historical curiosity.
“The implications of what she was writing about,” he said, “we are still living today, unfortunately.”
“The White Album,” Nov. 28-Dec. 1 at the Harvey Theater
Next Wave Festival
Oct. 3 to Dec. 23 at Brooklyn Academy of Music; 718-636-4100, bam.org.