RESHAPING OPERA WITH MAJEL CONNERY
How is Opera Cabal different from other Opera companies in Chicago?
Opera Cabal is up to something—and it's something I think is long overdue: a determination to infuse opera in Chicago with a sense of seriousness and inventiveness, urgency and play, interpretive verve and analytic fidelity. In short, this is opera as very much a live art form, not only because we perform in unusual spaces and to packed houses, but because we are alert to opera as a form that engages—or more, that fascinates, that can rivet—contemporary audiences.
I get the "Opera" part, but what is the "Cabal" all about?
Often when I mention the name, I get a quizzical look and what is possibly a predictable question: Opera what? If you look it up, the definition is clear: "A secret or private intrigue of a sinister character formed by a small body of persons; something less than conspiracy." I think it's really an operatic notion, the cabal, the "private intrigue of a sinister character." Though I have to admit that it's not entirely clear to me whether Opera Cabal is "something less than a conspiracy." I'm hoping it will be more than this!
What are the biggest misconceptions of what Opera is or can be?
In my view, the big misconception about opera in this country that it has to be impossible to understand, too long to sit through, full of fusty old singers and out-of-date-sets and only interesting to people from a certain income bracket. The same misconception motivates our mammoth educational programs in this country, designed to convince young people to swallow opera like so much spinach ... Opera Cabal proposes a radical alternative: astonishing musical authority, utterly compelling performances, and no holds barred, by-the-bootstraps theatrical imagination. If we do our work right, there won't be a need any longer to make a pitch for opera.
What is the gift you believe Opera Cabal gives to the audience?
Hopefully they'll all walk away thinking, "Wait a minute, this is opera? I like opera!" I want people to realize they can stop thinking "how will I ever get into this?" and start thinking "how will I ever settle for anything less?"
What structures exist in America to invite the creation of new experimental Opera?
There are certainly a few institutions, mostly on the East Coast, dedicated to fostering new opera, but I'm not sure there are any designed to encourage the sort of experimentation we're engaged in. We're very lucky in this regard to have found an institution in Chicago like High Concept Laboratories. They've been our headquarters since 2009 and they've been hugely supportive of each and every one of our endeavors, with no questions asked.
Explain the importance of collaboration within your creative process.
Opera is by nature collaborative—it might be the original multimedia art form. And what's stranger and more wonderful to me is that you can't ever reach the outer limits of opera. Opera can absorb anything you throw at it: the more you add to opera, the more operatic it gets. Music, theater, text, dance, stop animation, giant balloons ... you name it. For me opera is the perfect medium because I'm the sort of person who prefers to work with other people instinctively—it just raises the bar on what you can accomplish on your own. So the fact that I find myself in opera makes a lot of sense. But then I also actively recruit people who feel the same way, who believe firmly that they stand to gain from a collaborative experience, from other artists looking over your shoulder—it's a constant process of critique and improvement.
How can opera keep up with the rapid movement of technology we are accustomed to?
Thinking that opera cannot keep pace with current technology is just an example of how disappointingly antique our thinking about opera has become—just like all other arts, opera only gets more interesting when you integrate new technologies. With our new series, Opera Shop, we've made a point of going to people with unique technological expertise in order to capitalize precisely on the new possibilities and problems that working with new media can open up.
Who is your ideal Opera Cabal patron?
The people who come back to Opera Cabal performances are not necessarily the people who subscribe to the Lyric or to Chicago Opera Theater—I think they see "experimental" and think "no way." And I don't blame them. I've seen a lot of dodgy experimental theater! But I've also found that once we've lured someone to a show, even if they're expecting something more conventional, they're going to come back again because they realize that what we're doing is extremely thoughtful, and top-drawer in terms of quality and the artistic virtuosity of the people we work with. They'll say, "Oh, you're working with so-and-so? But they were just at Aspen!" or "They were just in the New York Times!" And I'm thinking, well of course! Just because it's experimental doesn't mean we're not working with the best people out there!
Where is your personal source of inspiration?
All the other groups working out there right now who have created something out of nothing and made it stick. I can't say how much I respect up-and-coming ensembles like the International Contemporary Ensemble, or truly innovative and off-beat companies: the work of Blair Thomas, John Jasperse, or Big Dance Theater. You don't know how difficult it is to do what these folks are doing until you've tried to do it yourself.