Friday night marks the beginning of American Modern Opera Company’s (AMOC) first festival, Run AMOC!, which will “redefine opera through its new model of interdisciplinary collaboration.” Held entirely in Harvard Square neighborhood from December 15th-18th, Run AMOC! partners with the American Repertory Theater to throw out the old standards of opera performance and attempts to create something completely new.
Artistic Director, composer, conductor, pianist, and poet Matthew Aucoin explains the need for a different opera production:
I’m certainly not approaching this the way, say, the young Boulez did, when he infamously said the best thing to do with opera houses would be to blow them up. I love opera — I’m attracted to its powers of psychological penetration, and the richness of opera’s musical possibilities — and I’m someone who has marinated deeply in the operatic tradition, from Monteverdi through Saariaho.
But the way opera is produced has certain curious features. When we talk about an opera “company,” we don’t usually mean a company of artists. What we usually mean is a building — the opera house — and an administration, which hires different singers, different directors, and different conductors from opera to opera. The orchestra and chorus are generally permanent employees, of course, but they usually don’t have a voice in artistic decisions, and they rarely interact with the principal singers in an intimate way.
This creates the bizarre reality that the principal performers in each show are essentially a bunch of strangers who have been hired to work together for a period of maybe six weeks. It’s difficult for singers, in particular, to develop deep bonds with colleagues that they especially like to work with; it’s difficult for directors and singers to develop a shared language; etc.
Now, compare this model with the extraordinary intimacy of, for example, a dance company – Pina Bausch’s company, or Mark Morris’s. Those dancers work together intimately, day in and day out, and they develop an artistic language together with their choreographers. A rock band has the same model, come to think of it: the music of Radiohead is only possible because of a particular group of five musicians in a room together.
This is how we’d like to operate in AMOC. We are an “opera company” not in the sense of being an opera house, but rather we’re a company of artists who work together intimately. We are singers, instrumentalists, dancers, a director, a composer — and we love it when artists from different media work together in unexpected ways. The reason we’re calling ourselves an “opera” company is that we’re treating opera in its most elemental sense: we don’t define it as “something that sounds like Puccini,” but rather as “the art form that is the collision point of multiple art forms,” multiple disciplines.”
What you’ll be seeing at the A.R.T. this weekend is a kind of small-scale test run of these “collisions.” For example, A Study on Effort, which plays at the Harvard Dance Center on Friday and Sunday, is for me the heart of what AMOC wants to do. It’s an hour-long duet for dancer (Bobbi Jene Smith) and violin (Keir GoGwilt). The piece is a meditation on human effort in many forms: the effort of sustaining a virtuosic posture, as Bobbi does, or the effort of maintaining a slowly-ascending tremolo on the violin, as Keir does. Bobbi and Keir react to one another and interact across the invisible wall that separates their media, music and dance, and what emerges, for me, is this poignant illumination of both the fragility of human effort and the possibility of achieving a kind of poise, a kind of calm, within activities that at first look violent or challenging. Bobbi has said that she believes pleasure and pain are the same thing, differentiated only by the flipping of a psychological switch, and part of the power of her dancing, for me, is the visible transfiguration of painful effort into exquisite pleasure.
Aucoin’s idea that opera should sound like something other than Puccini, mixed with trendy, interdisciplinary music, provides a foundation for present day performance, thus expanding the medium to a potentially elevated form. On Friday, A Study on Effort comes to Harvard Dance Center at 7:30 pm (and again on Sunday at 3 pm). Conceived by Bobbi Jene Smith, the piece is “an exploration of the connections between sound, body, and duration.” It contains nudity and is suitable for audiences 18+. On Saturday at 7 pm at OBERON, Cage Match debuts, featuring “duels of virtuosity performed by pairs of artists from varied disciplines,” including Conor Hanick – a pianist that “defies human description” (Concerto Net).
Were You There, performed by Davóne Tines and Michael Schachter (and directed by Zack Winokur), runs on Monday at 8 pm in the Loeb Drama Center. The performance is “a music-theater meditation on the victims of police brutality.” Though it is connected with current political discussions, Aucoin writes, “Davóne’s show is at its heart personal; it is a gorgeous lament and catharsis which is inspired by his experiences… I tend to believe that artistic responses to difficult political or social questions are often most effective when they’re refractive. Davóne’s show consists almost entirely of spirituals, of very old traditional songs. Those songs hang in the air like ghosts, like ancestors reaching out to us, and perhaps reproaching us.”
Tickets to all performances of the festival are on sale HERE and start at $25.
Rachael Fuller studied piano and music theory at Kent State University in Ohio.