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Opera: Oceanic Verses

Novus NY and Washington Chorus conducted by Julian Wachner

“Stunning multimedia Opera” Huffington Post

“A sweeping social portrait of southern Italy.” Allan Kozinn, New York Times

“Characters you can connect to, music that engages.” The Washington Post

 Oceanic Verses was recorded with the DeCoda Ensemble and Trinity Choir under the direction of Julian Wachner this past summer, and will be released under a new label, VIA Records, this fall. For more information about purchasing the album and accompanying film, please VIA Records or visit the label page.

This past summer, Paola Prestini’s “Oceanic Verses” was recorded with the DeCoda Ensemble and Trinity Choir under the direction of Julian Wachner.

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. 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.

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 coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The past, present and future crash onto the ancient shore offering a promise and a dare to those willing to cross the oceans to reach it.


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.

Notes 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.