Entertainment » theatre

The Opera Shop

by Christine Malcom
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Sep 26, 2011
High Concept Laboratories brings an avant-garde take to opera with,  "Opera Shop"
High Concept Laboratories brings an avant-garde take to opera with, "Opera Shop"   (Source:Opera Cabal)

Since its founding in 2006, Opera Cabal Performing Arts Association has dedicated itself to crossing disciplinary boundaries, offering diverse support to artists working on the bleeding edge of their fields, as well as to confronting and reinventing musical and theatrical genres.

In June, the Cabal announced its latest endeavor, the "Opera Shop," a co-production with High Concept Laboratories. For the "Opera Shop," the Cabal plans to unite two or three artists working in fields outside opera, and a dramturg each fall in an incubation residency, the goal of which is to create a piece that "confronts the idea of opera itself."

The inaugural project brings artists Alexander Overington, a composer, video artist and "all-around technological whiz," and virtuoso cellist and singer Teddy Rankin-Parker together with dramaturg/director Amy Stebbins.

Although the group conversation "research and development" blog (http://operashop.blogspot.com) for the inaugural project dates back to April 30, the residency formally began on September 1 with Overington and Rankin-Parker taking on the challenge to produce one piece per day in the first week, which they described as a means of ensuring their own accountability to engage with one another and the commission.

The output from this period appears as opera pseudo-operas, opera experiments, and opera investigations for public consumption on the blog and, as contributions to the blueprint for the emerging work.

During the second week of the residency, the focus had come to rest on two texts, Richard Strauss's "Salome" and Gertrude Stein's libretto "Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights."

With these texts in play, the development process had reached a point where it was natural for Stebbins to step back from daily involvement, and Overington and Rankin-Parker described themselves as working independently throughout the day, then coming together in the late afternoons to mine their individual day's work for contributions to the piece.

True to the Cabal’s commitment to marrying scholarship to creation and performance, their conversation kept returning to questions of why and what for. What does it mean to subvert expectations of an instrumental overture?

I visited the Shop at the end of this second week for what turned out to be a "check-in meeting" of the residency group. When I arrived, Stebbins and Overington were previewing segments of the proposed overture, stitched-together "money shots" from Strauss's opera, embellished with sound effects and answers to opera's vocal acrobatics from modern popular music.

True to the Cabal's commitment to marrying scholarship to creation and performance, their conversation kept returning to questions of why and what for. What does it mean to subvert expectations of an instrumental overture?

Does it, and should it, undermine the function of an overture, which (traditionally, at least) was to allow the audience time to settle in their seats? Is the overture about the deferment of pleasure and how does opening an opera with an orgasmic vocal montage change the rules? These themes of challenge and rigor continued as Rankin-Parker and Majel Connery, Founder of and Operations Manager for Opera Cabal, joined the meeting.

Overington and Rankin-Parker both spoke of the confronting the reality that the piece would demand they each engage in a type of performance quite alien to them. Overington described himself as evolving into the piece's composer-cum-theatrical director, whereas Rankin-Parker spoke about overcoming his own barriers to dramatic performance through repetition, memorization, and storytelling.

In addition, they spent the second week learning how to bridge the gap between the technological backbone of Overington's composed pieces and Rankin-Parker's improvisational risk taking.

Throughout the conversation, the artists turned to the bank of monitors to show clips of everything from straight-on dramatic rehearsals to the newborn miracle of a clap-on, clap-off video fire, to moments of stunning visual beauty emerging from happy accidents of technology.

Even at this, the halfway point in the first experiment, even during the course of what amounted to a business meeting, the project throws off gorgeous sparks.

On September 30 and October 1, the inaugural production of "Opera Shop" will debut at High Concept Laboratories. Come see what the artists' improvisations will yield.

"Opera Shop" debuts in two workshop performances on September 30 and October 1. For info or tickets email p@operacabal.com

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.


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