The intrepid Experiments in Opera presents Story Binge, an ambitious two-night program featuring seven new operas by seven composers at Roulette on April 1 & 2.
Experiments in Opera spoke with Roulette about the curatorial process behind Story Binge, and composers Sam Hillmer, Nick Hallett, Matthew Welch, Gelsey Bell, Jason Cady, Aaron Siegel, and Faith No More’s Roddy Bottum shared insight into their respective operas and on the art form in the 21st century.
Experiments in Opera
How was Story Binge curated? Is there a specific theme to the festival?
The name Story Binge refers to the current culture of binged consumption, as in TV binges, food binges, etc. Experiments in Opera’s analogy presents 7 ambitious projects in one big production, and at the same time, provide a wide variety of new approaches to the genre of opera. The works, though all created by composer-performers, do not share a theme other than to explore singularly each’s own conception of mise en scène. The outcome of the two evenings we hope that through our presenting a varied and evocative community of opera makers to an intersecting audience, we can foster more dialogue of ideas on opera and edify a sense of community.
We are drawn to work that can re-invigorate the relevance of opera to today’s culture. We encounter work that grows from a number of music circles, stretching what is possible to call opera, beyond its ancestry of classical music and theatre. Broadening our criteria as to what is opera, we find that the basic potency between music, text and portrayal with a convivial collaboration could produce a progressive approach to opera regardless of musical style alone. We expose the explorative impulse.
Story Binge presents operas by Sam Hillmer, Nick Hallett, Matthew Welch, Gelsey Bell, Jason Cady, Aaron Siegel, and Faith No More’s Roddy Bottum. What drew Experiments in Opera to these seven composers?
Premiering and/or commissioning a composer’s first opera is a curatorial impulse of ours that embraces the discoveries made by this encounter with a new genre, and also the unique approach as birthed from their overall musical style. We are presenting Roddy Bottum’s Sasquatch, the Opera. Bottum has composed for film, concert and is in the band Faith No More. Sasquatch, the Opera is his first foray into opera. Sam Hillmer’s work fuses rock, composition, improvisation and multi-media, and is known for his work in the band Zs. Hillmer’s this is soon, and that was the web this is going to be brings his multi-disciplinary work to explore spoken text and interiority – a fresh look at a crucial cog in the mechanism of opera: the flexibility of the sound of the voice either in depiction of acted or thought words.
Nick Hallett and Gelsey Bell as singers and composers both work exceptionally with the voice and are innovative musical story-tellers. Their work intersects Experiments in Opera’s community rather pervasively, so it is natural to extend the scope of their unique formal, textual, musical and topical approaches to opera. Hallett’s To Music portrays a composer’s scandalous affair via social media and the realities of contemporary composing such as a copyright misstep. Bell’s tellingly-titled Rolodex, spawns a fractured story of webbed relationships and investigates and “re-files” a core element of musical drama as being driven by character.
The Experiments in Opera co-founders find it necessary to bring their own aesthetic proposals and solutions to the table in our productions to complement our curatorial guest composers work. We and our guests receive each other as both being vital to the intellectual support and collaborative effort required to make opera. The approach in our works for Story Binge has been for each of us to expand and refine the nuance of our topics and how they may redefine what types of stories and sounds can be combined. Through this we aim to create more personal and harder to categorize works of art that could fit within a playfully “what-if” and aesthetically broader conception of the genre of opera. Welch’s And Here We Are explores family memoirs of a concentration camp, in Cady’s The Captives, returns to his interest in Science-Fiction and Siegel’s Laughing examines a biblical metaphor based on the story of Abraham and Isaac. All three portray alienation and being trapped. Each of the three explores fresh instrumentation for opera and which are essential for their dramatic wholeness and musical character.
What is opera, and where is the art form now in 2015?
Tackling the question: “What is opera?” is exactly what Experiments in Opera aims to test. Opera has gone through many different guises, objectives and social circles throughout history, during which the conventions gradually changed along with. The dedication to past repertoire at perceived height of the art is what many know as opera, and shadows the visibility of newer work. Works that organically have changed along the times with musical culture remain obscure due to this, yet a smaller, more facile sub-culture of smaller scale project-makers has been gaining momentum as an alternative. The magical world accessible in opera can be created with a multitude of new and efficient performance conceptions neither reliant on large orchestras and large casts, nor any sound world handed down to them. Opera is now in a proliferating phase as a survival response that is working. An opera can present a small or large world at the composers discretion, and this is its potent principle that can allow it to explore any size of an idea and abandon any, often grandiose, baggage. A clever new story acted and sung and supported by a rock band score could be considered an opera. Operas are now at a point where they can be confidently molded into their own unique shapes less and less reliant on older models, and can receive, absorb, use and/or reject the creative tools that become available through multi-disciplinary interaction in search of ever-newer ideas. Opera is in its Renaissance.
What is opera, and where is the art form now in 2015?
What attracted you to writing in this genre, and how did you approach composing within that context?
Opera of course is the plural of opus – meaning works. This to me implies not necessarily the magnitude of scale commonly thought of as requisite of opera, but more the exploitation of the interactivity and “sum is greater than the parts” effect in juxtaposing often separate modes of creative thought and production. Opera now is experiencing a new life – as the aesthetic inertia and conservativeness of large institutional opera and the impracticalities of funding linger or worsen, composers now have resolved to make the work happen in a more practical way and musically and topically relevant to today’s culture.
My interest in opera as a listener started with contemporary opera, and gradually I’ve come to appreciate the developmental history of classical opera. What text and staging add to what is considered mostly as a musical genre creates a complete package of expression and idea. Concepts expressed in absolute music that don’t require words or fail to translate to literal meaning can be enhanced by these other more literal or corporeal disciplines to create a type of complex layering of thoughts. What drew me to composing opera was stimulated by study of non-Western types of musical theatre, such as Indonesian musical theatre with gamelan, dance and singing or shadow puppetry. The efficacy with which these idioms communicate with and solidify a cultural community inspired me to compose opera from a different angle that tries to absorb some of these differing purposes. Often the more things change, the more they stay the same – so they say… for me, I think the ability to be innovative in this genre is to simultaneously look very forward to times when conventions undoubtedly will have changed and look far back on the ritualistic and inter-disciplinary aspects from where the combinations of music, story and visual movement begin – millennia before the term opera came to be, communities came together to create rituals – this is some of the primacy I aim to capture.
The definition of opera that has become most useful to me in recent years is—art for composers. In 2015, the form is wide open, but its history is no longer enough to sustain the practice, which has caused both major companies to shutter, composers to shift their focus away from its typical spectacle, and venues not traditionally sympathetic—such as art museums and experimental performance institutions—to open their doors to new kinds of opera experiences.
My attraction to opera comes from my training as a vocalist—singing the classic repertoire, feeling it inside my body. When I began wanting to tell stories and creating artistic experiences using music, I go back to that muscle memory. How might the voice be able to embody not only human emotions, but the psychology of the culture we live in? My operas try to answer that question.
Opera is one of the few art forms that we have to keep stating definitions of! (Maybe that’s actually part of its charm…) My definition of opera is a theatrical performance where musical listening is paramount to experiencing the work. Opera also comes with a particular kind of historical baggage and economic framework that is unique within individual territorial regions (for instance, the American relationship to this term is different than say the Chinese or German one). I don’t think opera requires a particular kind of vocal technique or musical genre. Rather than wondering if a work qualifies to be called an opera because of a specific set of qualities, sometimes it is interesting to see what kinds of qualities defining a work as opera lends itself to the performance.
I think we’re at a very exciting moment in opera right now in New York. There is a resurgence in chamber works, a great deal of interest in the voice and the inherent theatricality of musical performance, and a vibrant community of composers and performers naturally being drawn to making work that turns out to be opera. I think we’re on the precipice of tearing down some of the fences between opera and musical theatre (and really it’s about time) and I think it’s very exciting to see folks from both the theatre-end-of-things and the music-ends-of-things working closer and learning to speak each other’s languages.
The ideas behind Rolodex, as a work exploring the functions of character and story within individual meaning-making, necessitated the operatic form. It seemed like simply the best way to explore the concept. I needed a structure large enough to play around with all these ideas in this way – a single song didn’t seem like enough. I am trying to use the expectations of character, story, epic-ness attached to the form of opera to facilitate my exploration of these ideas… Also, as someone who has spent a great deal of time working in opera – or shall I more specifically say “new opera”? – both as a performer and as a performance creator, it’s not much of a stretch for me to end up writing in this form.
My take on opera is that it is a vision realized through music. It is exciting that there are as many different visions out there as there are people who want to call their work opera.
I am really interested in working with texts, characters, and stories that are complicated, funny, odd and real. Questions are my starting point for a new project. The work is an exploration of what the questions are asking.
One of the things I like about opera is dialogue since other types of vocal music generally don’t have dialogue. When I compose opera I generally focus on dialogue, but in The Captives I wanted to try something different, just for the sake of doing something different. So I wrote a story told from the perspectives of two characters and each character delivers a spoken monologue before each song, which makes the form distinct from the opera-as-a-play model. The story is about a couple in a captive breeding program that alien zoologists initiated to try to conserve the human race from extinction.
To compose the music I began by outlining the form: 6 songs with the 2nd song being 10% faster than the first, the 3rd song 20% faster and so on, until the last song is 50% faster than the first song. Then I composed the bass lines and sang and wrote down the vocal parts. I added the pedal steel and keyboard parts later and I made the synth patch after finishing the score.
Opera to me is simply stories told through music and language. The art form seems currently all over the map. There seems to be no need to limit the art form to the history of the genre. The more progressive the direction of opera, to me, the better.
I was really into Tommy as a kid and it was billed always as a modern rock opera. That piqued my interest. With my current work I tried to combine a classical use of timpani and trumpets with the use of drum machine and synthesizers to create a somewhat unorthodox tone. For casting I tried to push the envelope a little bit and base my roles on real life performers, like drag queens and circus folk, whose work didn’t necessarily cater to the opera genre. I was more interested in the personality of the performers than i was the traditional musical chops.
In the imploded cultural landscape of 2015 Opera is primarily a socio economic construct. A reason to drink sparkling wine and debate recondite facts about the aesthetics of former times, all of which is an elaborate and chivalrous method of articulating class categories. As the bird articulates territory with song, so do we. The historicity of operatic practice is of course profound and at times stunning and transcendent in it’s current manifestation, but as income inequality deepens, as the planet fades, and war rages on around us unremittingly, the code aspect of the ornament, of aesthetic and performance practice, gets louder and more utilitarian. Forms like opera, the symphony orchestra, the string quartet, and social spaces like the concert hall, become more about what is not happening inside of them, and less about what is happening. Opera is, without a doubt, a part of that right now.
To paraphrase Boulez, ‘when the dog is on the outside of the house it barks, when it is on the inside of the house it bites’