To develop an opera within our culture’s expectations—a Figaro or Bohème or Fledermaus—is in itself no small feat. We expect a traditional Gesamtkunstwerk, complete with florid classical singing, a full orchestra, theatrics, ornate scenery and costumes, and perhaps a complex literary bent and a courtly dance or two. But when we remove said expectations, at the heart of ‘opera’ is an impulse for interdisciplinary collaboration, which was the genesis of Opera Cabal’s Opera Shop residency project.
Neither composer-designer-tech whiz Alexander Overington nor cellist-singer Teddy Rankin-Parker has a background in classical opera, but both come armed with extensive experience in myriad pockets of music theory and practice. Rehearsals began with the question of what, in fact, this performance would entail. Dramaturgs Majel Connery and Amy Stebbins furnished a diverse collection of samples from traditional opera, pop music, avant-garde music-theater and the like. A lively discussion ensued as to whether this project might take the shape of a music-theater piece, a commentary on the making of a music-theater piece, or a commentary on witnessing a music-theater piece; the role of each performer, be it static or dynamic, concrete or improvisatory; the importance of form, content, and presentation. Are we interested in satisfying or toppling an audience’s expectations (and what would be the value of doing so)? Precisely because spectators would come to hear Teddy eloquently caressing his instrument and Alex’s careful finesse of electronic sound, what would happen if they traded roles or ‘failed’ to fulfill their respective ‘duties’, or if they collaborated in a medium toward which both or neither is inclined? Chaos or hilarity, and what is the value of each?
Finding themselves with such a broad array of options was both liberating and overwhelming. The first week of the residency, Amy and producer Majel Connery assigned a different task each day; Teddy and Alex spent the afternoon creating a piece to present and discuss the next rehearsal. At the end of the week, they chose the concept from one of the pieces to direct and focus their work. This is easier said than done as inquiry often feeds further inquiry, and such is the curse of artists endowed with such a wealth of resources! After some stops and starts, and within some level of seclusion, Teddy and Alex seem to have found themselves on a more comfortable footing. To what extent is art defined by the properties of its ‘product,’ and to what extent is it defined by the collaboration that creates it? These are the questions raised by Teddy and Alex’s Opera Shop collaboration. Suffice it to say that this opera is produced not just from a creative spark, but involves a focused study as to its ramifications and meaning in the wider context of contemporary opera– it is a uniquely self-conscious engagement with the idea of Opera not only as a genre, but also as a philosophy. We are eagerly anticipating the fruits of their labours, as those who know them have a fondness for and confidence in their working relationship.