Du Yun’s Opera About Human Trafficking, ‘Angel’s Bone,’ Wins Music Pulitzer Prize

Du Yun, the 39-year-old, Chinese-born composer just won the Pulitzer Prize for music yesterday with her opera Angel’s Bone. The announcement of the prize was made during a ceremony in New York in which the Pulitzer jury board said that Angel’s Bone “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 premiered on January 6, 2016 during New York’s Prototype Festival, and has a libretto by Royce Vavrek, who has worked with other opera composers such as David T. Little and Missy Mazzoli. A review in the New York Times called Angel’s Bone an “appallingly good work” considering its plot and message.

An angel at the end of a tunnel
Silhouette of an angel at the end of a tunnel [Image by sdominick/iStock]

Angel’s Bone is a commentary on human trafficking. The story of Angel’s Bone centers around a middle-aged couple, Mr. and Mrs. X.E. who are in desperate financial straits. When a pair of angels crash-land in their backyard, the couple takes them in and treats their wounds, nursing them back to health, only to then prune the angels’ wings in order to keep them captive. The neighbors of Mr. and Mrs. X.E., and others are intrigued by the angels and begin to pay money to the couple so that they can spend time in the angels’ company. It is a disturbing story based on a harsh reality.

“When we look at human trafficking, we always think that it’s far away from us,” said Du Yun in a phone interview with NPR.

“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.”

Angel’s Bone is meant to open the eyes of the general public and bring awareness to an issue that is very real and very devastating to those being exploited. One of the things that Angel’s Bone shows is that human trafficking does not always manifest itself in a way that one could consider “expected” or look like what one may assume. The buying and selling of human lives is a major issue no matter what form it takes.

Crying woman
Crying woman [Image by djedzura/iStock]

The music of Angel’s Bone differs from that of a traditional opera. It blends together music of various styles that all work together to heighten the impact of the story. The New York Times review said that the score of Angel’s Bone “obeys only her own omnivorous tastes and assured dramatic instincts.”

“It’s a lot of music that matters to me dearly,” said Du Yun.

“From Renaissance to chant to meticulously notated modern music to screaming songs like I like to sing.”

Jennifer Charles, who is a member of the band Elysian Fields, was cast in the role of the female angel. Du Yun stated that she needed a “female voice who can do punk rock.” A voice which she found in Charles. Though the lead roles of Angel’s Bone are sung in mezzo-soprano and baritone, like many operas, Charles’ voice stands out and gives the opera a unique flair.

“I did not want to write an indie-rock opera, an opera that had that voice, but the story called for that,” said Du Yun.

Angel’s Bone is a one-act opera, yet it is able to capture the essence of such an important matter as human trafficking without sacrificing any of the messages due to pacing. It is an impactful story that shines a light on a matter that all should be aware of, and it does it beautifully. There is no wonder why Angel’s Bone was able to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. It absolutely deserved it.

[Featured Image by SergeyNivens/iStock]