5 questions to Experiments in Opera (composers collective: Jason Cady, Aaron Siegel, and Matthew Welch)

On Thursday, May 10 and Friday, May 11 at 8pm, Experiments in Opera, the new collective founded by composers Jason Cady, Aaron Siegel, and Matthew Welch, will present its Spring Series at Roulette in Brooklyn: four new operas will be heard in workshop performances over the two evenings. Jason, Aaron, and Matthew (as well as Lynn Levy and Dave Ruder of the collective known as Cough Button) kindly answered our five questions…

What was the impetus for the creation of this collective?

Matt: The impetus for creating Experiments in Opera was to make an environment in which opera could be re-examined and realized on a different scale and in a different context. With the help of a community of musicians and like-minded supporters, we insist on putting on our own operas in the face of the massive industry that is opera today. We want to keep an open dialogue with collaborators who are probing the definition of opera and develop our own work along side them in hopes to strengthen our bonds and promote an exchange of ideas that further shapes the form of opera to come.

Aaron: As a composer working on experimental music, it has become pretty much standard that you have to create your own opportunities. And one of the things about experimental music is that it tends to be cumulative, so you have to get through one iteration of a piece or an experience before you can build your hypothesis about how things happen at a larger scale. In my mind, you can’t get much more complex than an integrated operatic experience. In reality, then, it makes sense that before you tackle your big opera, you figure out what kind of supports and infrastructure are going to need to build it and see it through to the end. Experiments in Opera is an apparatus for bringing big ideas to fruition.

Experiments in Opera - Aaron Siegel, Jason Cady, Matthew Welch

Experiments in Opera - Aaron Siegel, Jason Cady, Matthew Welch

What is the most persistent assumption about opera?

Jason: The most persistent assumption about opera is that it must be grandiose: big ideas, big emotions, big orchestras, big budgets, etc. I prefer to think that opera can be big or small in many different ways, that opera can be provocative and insightful, but also subtle and funny; that the substance of the thought can be conveyed not just in the words but in the music; that the intimacy of small groups in small venues experimenting with new ideas can be just as engaging as the spectacles of large opera houses.

Aaron: I like to think of language as a tool, so the idea that there are assumptions about what opera is is kind of irrelevant. We can use the word opera to denote any number of complex relationships between theater, music, experience, storytelling, ideas, singing or speaking. But I do think that opera is not just one thing. It can’t just be music, and it can’t just be a text. It seems to me that the notion of a big idea is that it is complex, contains conflicting elements and can’t be appreciated through one sensory experience. It has to be a multiplicity.

Is technology one of the tools you use to challenge the traditional idea of an opera?

Jason: Technology has been a part of opera since the beginning. As we all know, the term Deus ex Machina originally referred to actual machines that would lower actors to the stage as if from the heavens. That’s probably more high-tech than anything we’re doing. Artists use whatever technology they have at hand, and what they do with it can be creative or hackneyed depending on the sensibility of the artist.

Using synthesizers and canned laughter was certainly important to me in trying to update the texture of the recitative, so these were important to me, though they are hardly new technologies. More important to me though was exploring vernacular English and reacting against certain Wagnerian conventions of form that I believe are still very common today.

Aaron: I am not convinced that technology is all that we have to show for ourselves in the 21st Century. It is true that our world has changed incredibly fast over the last 20 years, and I do think that wrestling with technology’s role in our society is important, but I also don’t think that all the art created before the digital age should be considered quaint because it doesn’t use a computer. Nowadays, I think we can challenge the traditional idea of opera by choosing more personal stories and points of view. Instead of necessarily needing to imagine our connections to only the largest and most visible historical events, we can justify our individual experiences through opera. I am always deeply moved by the way that, during the Renaissance, nobles began to build chapels and prayer rooms in their homes for the first time, as opposed to always going to the community church. The art from those chapels, the paintings on window-shaped wooden panels, are beautiful and reflect a more personalized experience of the world.

Dave: Sure. If opera involves using all media at your disposal to tell a story on multiple levels, than being able to spatialize sound and vary it’s quality is certainly a useful tool to the opera composer. Using multiple kinds of sound sources and varying the sound sources attached to certain sounds over time allows us to demonstrate relationships (narrative, musical, and metaphorical) on a new level, much as making decisions about, say, sets and costumes adds new levels of meaning. Radio’s funny because it’s really not very new technology. We are driving parts of it with Max/MSP but the idea isn’t for it to sound particularly high tech. Radio has an old, familiar sound, and I think we’re much more interested in applying that sort of thing to our music than something more novel.

About opera a bit more: There are also certainly levels on which the music without the radios would challenge ideas of opera, or contemporary opera, and to this end I don’t think our goal is to be particularly radical. I think it’s more significant that we’re writing the music that we as composer/musicians want to and know how to write. I think we’re responding much more to contemporary, often interdisciplinary opera much more than Monteverdi or Mozart or Verdi or Berg. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Opera becomes a nice way to signify interdisciplinary bigness, and while I’m certainly interested in common practice opera, I think the idea is much more of an impetus to put pen to paper than having a dialogue with any particular past models. I can’t think of conversations we’ve had about how what we’re doing interfaces with other work, I think we’re making the work we’re making with a confident feeling that it’s operatic (without really discussing what that means). Compose first & categorize later I suppose.

Can you tell us more about audience/stage interaction in To Scale?

Dave: Aliza & I play together in a duo called Why Lie? We both have radio work in our backgrounds, and Aliza (Aliza Simons, Ed.) suggested in 2011 that we create some sort of larger performance piece that involves radios. I asked if Lynn (Lynn Levy, Ed.), who’s a radio producer & a great writer, could also be involved, and Aliza was excited about that. We had some very vague conversations over Malaysian soup about what sorts of things we’d be interested in, and then I was offered a performance or installation spot in a project called “Inside Lives” by a wonderful man named Adam Weinert. We created an installation with a few small transmitters in a stairwell that gave you varying bits of sound & narrative as you went up & down the stairs. It was a pretty successful (and pretty quickly assembled!) piece, but we were always thinking about doing something that focused more on a live performance. Experiments in Opera seemed like a great opportunity to mix transmitting live sounds, storytelling, and music.

Part of the idea of the radios is to make sounds that are intimate, in opposition to sounds that are, well, unilateral, non-conversational, direct, authoritative. To have an audience member know that s/he is hearing things slightly differently than everyone else around. We’re very much interested in the idea that people get to be transmitters & receivers simultaneously, and while this piece doesn’t make that metaphor super apparent in its current stage, there is a degree to which the various levels of action on the stage are brought to audience members in more personal ways.

Lynn: We’re experimenting with these little radio transmitters in To Scale. Each transmitter is about the size of a paperback novel and has a range of maybe 50 feet. We’ll be distributing radios in the audience, and broadcasting parts of the opera over those radios. It’s a very cool experience—to be sitting in a traditional theater space, but to be receiving sound in a way that you normally associate with personal, private spaces. And because we’ll be transmitting different signals to different radios, each audience member will hear the piece a little bit differently.

Talking about experiments: Holo-pac, genius or aberration?

Aaron: not so bad. It’s funny that the technology they used to make that happen has been around for a while. I think it’s called Pepper’s ghost and it is a pretty nifty gag. There is an opera company in London called Opera Erratica that is using similar technology on a show of theirs. I applaud the efforts of Dr. Dre’s production team that made this happen.

For more info, visit: http://www.experimentsinopera.com

For tickets visit: http://www.roulette.org | Adult: $15, Members: $10, Students with ID: $10, Seniors 65 and over: $10