Get Into It: “Opera Cabal”

The “Get Into It” interviews find interesting people and asks them three questions about their interests. Ideally, this will have nothing to do with literature. Too often while bopping around the louche, litmag web haunts, it can feel like a claustrophobic room of monomaniacal chatbots. “Get Into It” should serve as a reminder that we are all practicing an art, or refining a craft, or competing in a sport. Let’s hear what’s driving others to proliferating browser tabs and insomniac nights. And maybe we’ll find a new obsession while we’re at it.

Several weeks ago, the subject of the first “Get Into It” interview invited me to see a performance with the intriguing name, “Opera Cabal.”  Two musicians had been brought to Chicago for workshop-based residences to produce ‘radical, twenty-first century critique[s] of the operatic form.” What I saw was entirely new to me, and I’m still not quite sure how to describe it. Folding chairs, video art, and of course music. My interview with Majel Connery took place over email.

Photograph by Lara Kastner

What are you into? 

My personal mission is to radically change the nature of opera production in this country. We see tons of innovation in just about every other art form — in dance, in visual arts (including film), theater and music. For some reason, about 100 years ago, we started celebrating opera as a finished form, and we still do. Even as regieoper (the unleashing of exciting, young directors on old works to give them fresh perspective) is becoming more accepted we are still performing almost exclusively the operas of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and a handful of other old, white guys, and giving little to no incentive to young, interesting composers to try out new, 21st-century ideas on stage. Part of the problem is that opera is hellishly expensive to produce. I’m trying to change the culture of opera in this country by reaching out to fascinating young composers and performers to get involved in making new work, and by rethinking the premises on which opera is based. Instead of opera being expensive, gigantic and exclusive, I want to make people realize that opera can be nimble, lightweight, inexpensive and accessible to people from a range of different interests and backgrounds.

How’d you get into it? 

I’m a musicologist (currently finishing up a dissertation in music at the University of Chicago) but I’m most interested in what happens to music when you add the physical dimension. Before graduate school I was obsessed with theater, as a performer and director; I also trained as a vocalist. Opera was a natural confluence of these two interests — it’s a kind of physics of music, or the study of music in space. I’m happiest when looking at the unexpected collision of music and physicality together, the ways these two things inform and change one another, often in very unexpected ways.

What would you say to something thinking of getting into…undergrad opera? Starting a radical opera company? I’m not sure of the phrasing here…

Wow. I mean, I would love to find one single other person interested in doing this! Unlike the new music scene, which has really taken off in New York and is growing in Chicago, new opera is a rare beast, and I need all the support I can get in convincing people that expanding the long-slumbering experimental possibilities of opera is a must, especially because the institutional resistance to experimentation in opera is so formidable! There is another company in Chicago, Chicago Opera Vanguard, that has done some interesting work with staging (putting opera in bars, and in loft spaces) which is a step forward. Beth Morrison Projects is gaining huge momentum on the East Coast, and the International Contemporary Ensemble has created some riveting theatrical and dance projects. Opera Cabal is probably more closely related to theater groups like the Wooster Group or the dance theater of William Forsythe, for example. My hope is that the work of the company, along with the small tide of recent interest, represents a movement, one that is just beginning, but which will gradually come to fruition over the next few decades.

Checkout the Opera Cabal blog to keep informed of their next production, which is scheduled for September of this year.

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One Comment on “Get Into It: “Opera Cabal””

  1. sarahvanloon
    February 20 2012 at 2:24 pm #

    Fantastic interview – I loved it! Thanks, Matt. If Majel ever needs a singer you let me know… :)

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