Oceanic Verses




Commissioned by Carnegie Hall. Folk Opera and song cycle with film. Concept and dramaturgy by Paola Prestini, libretto by Donna Di Novelli, and film by Ali Hossaini. Improvisations by Helga Davis.

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Cast & Production

With a libretto by Donna Di Novelli, and poetry culled by Paola Prestini, “Oceanic Verses” is a 60 minute work featuring improviser Helga Davis, soprano Hila Plitmann, folksinger Claudio Prima and baritone Christopher Burchett.


THE CHORUS – The Mediterranean and all that float upon it.

THE SCHOLAR – American. Archaeologist. Searching for artifacts that sing of the forgotten, across oceans and across time. She takes notes.

THE SAILOR – Part Italian, part Greek, part Albanian, part African. He lives on the Adriatic and understands its currents. He will tie you in knots.

THE PEASANT – She works in the fields all day, and cooks all night. Smarter than dirt. She is tied to her own apron strings.

THE SOLDIER – Tied to the land. Famished. He searches for a good woman, and a good meal.


A meditation on fading civilizations, the exploration is led by an archaeologist, played by improviser Helga Davis, whose investigation into the ‘artifacts of song’ carries her into a collision of the past and present. The past, present and future crash onto the ancient coast of the Mediterranean Sea offering a promise and a dare to those willing to cross the oceans to reach it.

A film by Ali Hossaini offers a contemporary perspective on the struggles within the opera through the prism of the character’s emotional journeys. The sequences are a part of a larger video environment that immerses the opera’s players and audience in the folkloric landscape that inspired it. The work was workshopped as part of New York City Opera’s Vox series, then went on to be performed at the Kennedy Center, LMCC’s River to River Festival, and the Barbican Centre. Performed by the Washington Chorus, the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and conducted by Julian Wachner. A VisionIntoArt and Beth Morrison Projects Production.

A note from composer, Paola Prestini: “Oceanic Verses began as a Carnegie Hall commission — created from sourced texts — a chamber work that painted a picture of Italy as it once was, a cross section of cultures expressed through song. By examining and researching the Salento region, which maintains many ancient traditions, and still speaks a nearly forgotten language, I created a work that illuminated the complex ethnic mosaic that has shaped my cultural heritage. The story was derived from the text of the songs I chose, and intermittent poems from a variety of Italian poets through time such as Vittoria Colonna, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Dante Alighieri, and Aleardo Aleardi.  Oceanic Verses is sung in various dialects including Griko, Byzantine Greek, Ladino, and Bourbon Spanish, which colors the work with the ethnic influences of the Salento region.

My exploration of lost songs began in 2007, while I was in residence at Sound Res in Lecce, Italy, and with it, my understanding of Italy as well as my own heritage deepened. I became acutely aware of this ancient isthmus’ geographical position, which resulted in a cross cultural land full of artistic hybrids. It was then that I began to record sound samples and weave those into my musical language.

An opera, exploring the complexity of this main character – my native land – with its layers of invasions and empire building; the nexus of emigration and immigration; in constant flux and transformation as it remains a three-sided port of call, has become a metaphor for a today’s global struggle with issues of borders and immigration, and how it collides with one woman’s search for her internal geography.”


Opera / 70 Minutes


With a libretto by Donna Di Novelli, and poetry culled by Paola Prestini, “Oceanic Verses” features improviser Helga Davis, soprano Hila Plitmann, folksinger Claudio Prima and baritone Christopher Burchett.

Funders and Partners

Funded by Carnegie Hall; Premiered by The Kennedy Center, and at the Barbican Centre with the BBC Orchestra and Singers


Prestini’s style weaves folk melodies and field samples with massive choral sections reminiscent of some forgotten Renaissance Mass, all filtered through her own distinctive musical language… the overall effect is engaging and quite moving. The major themes of transformation, immigration and culturally complex, layered ethnicity seem to resonate both on a macro level in the age of globalization, as well as on a micro level in what Prestini calls the search for 'internal geography.'


“A sweeping social portrait of southern Italy.” … ”the songs and choral settings are painted in the bright hues and varied rhythms of folk exotica." ... “Their video counterparts in an artful film.”


“Paola Prestini, and her creative team have high ambitions…[and] common sense about what works onstage: characters you can connect to, music that engages.” ... “The layering of ideas and music knitted together to present something that moves forward with the vitality of the original folk material.”


“Ms. Prestini – an inventive composer whose style mixes the ancient and the up-to-date, the folk inspired and the artfully polished”


“An inquisitively progressive piece.” ... “[baritone Chris Burchett’s] depth and focus is quite beautiful.” ... “This is, I think, what will make us want to see this again and again- we’ll take something completely new from it each time we see it.” ... “Overall, I must and I will see this project in its entirety… it’s a gem.”