The new American Modern Opera Company, a collaboration among composers, dancers, and performing musicians, with composer-conductor Matthew Aucoin, and choreographer-dancer Zack Winokur listed as co-artistic directors, debuted this week in a series of three events billed as the AMOC! Festival, sponsored by the American Repertory Theater. I attended the second show, “Cage Match,” Saturday night at the Oberon Theater in Cambridge.
The aim of this venture seems to be to rethink performance as well as opera. Making the most of their acronym, their website is called runningamoc.org, and they declare in the program booklet that “we define opera as the medium in which multiple art forms collide and transform each other.” Opera in the traditional sense was barely present in the performance Saturday night, which consisted of six mostly short sets or selections whose origins ran from the early Baroque to earlier this year. Each involved two performers—hence the event title, which referred to a variety of professional wrestling (a theatrical genre of which few of the sold-out crowd of mostly middle-aged Cantabrigians are likely to be fans). In fact, the allusion to fake pugilism proved somewhat misleading, and I’m not sure whether the roughly 45 minutes of actual music and dance added up to much that was really new.
I confess that my interest in the evening was largely to see what the prodigiously talented Aucoin, whose opera Crossing ART premiered two years ago, was up to. The pair of two-piano pieces, one by himself and the other by John Adams, which he performed together with Conor Hanick, proved the most substantial portion of the evening, bookending a series of briefer works. These included duets by Telemann, Bartók, and the 20th-century Italian composer Franco Donatoni, all played by violinists Miranda Cuckson and Keir GoGwilt. The penultimate item adapted a scene from Monteverdi’s Incoronazione di Poppea involving countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and dancer Winokur.
Following a trend that treats classical music as no different from any form of commercial entertainment, raucous introductions in the manner of a pro wrestling event, with “hosts” Or Schraiber and Bobbi Jene Smith respectively yelling into a microphone and sauntering about in various more or less tasteful outfits, preceded the evening’s musical selections. This was in keeping with the night’s official theme and perhaps with its venue. Oberon is essentially a black-box theater with a bar, with seating at tables and drinks available before and after the performance. Loudly piped-in rap music greeted this reviewer on entrance, and together with the silly staging, this might have desensitized ears. But this was forgotten once the program began, although “Bobbi and Or” (as they were identified in the handout) continued to make appearances between selections.
One result of this approach is to upstage the music. Theatrical lighting (spotlights on the performers, disco lights revolving during the concluding John Adams piece) meant that the printed programs were unreadable, and as composers’ names were never mentioned in the introductions, anyone curious about the music, as opposed to the performances, would have had a hard time knowing exactly what they were hearing. The cleverness of the famous “Gulliver’s Travels” suite by Telemann, with its musical references to Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians, could not have been evident to many listeners, and without a text or translation the Italian of the Monteverdi scene must have been incomprehensible to most. Uncertainty as to when to applaud was another result, as few could tell whether a pause marked the end of a set or merely of a movement.
A brief printed note by Aucoin described his new Finery Forge as “music of brute force, a series of pounding G-sharp-minor chords that slowly begins to ‘melt’ and to shoot sparks off in every direction.” The title, with its reference to an old industrial process for refining iron, did not seem entirely reflected in the music, perhaps because it was played with greater discretion, if not exactly delicacy, than the composer’s own description led one to expect. The piece nevertheless seemed a spin-off of 1970s minimalism, dominated by the familiar motoric pulsation and treating the two pianos as a single instrument to produce occasionally novel sonorities. One must listen to a composition like this more than once to be sure, but on first hearing it did not live up to the the composer’s hype.
John Adams’s Hallelujah Junction of 1998, the closer, is a longer and more varied example of the same idiom, rendered interesting by a more rapid rate of change in both sonority and rhythm and by the occasional presence of short solos for one pianist or the other.
Minimalism is actually a misnomer for this type of piece, for in its use of time it is maximal, taking 10 or 15 minutes to say what another composer might do in a space one tenth as long. By contrast, the three sets of violin duets, despite their diverse styles, were united by their composers’ refusal to carry on longer than necessary. The first comprised a single piece, Donatoni’s Duetto II, written five years before the composer’s death in 2000 (the composer’s first Duetto of 1975 is for harpsichord). This series of short, quiet vignettes, each highlighted one or two new-music sorts of violin sound: wispy arabesques, chirpy trills, and the like. As in the piano pieces, the two instruments tend to work as one to produce otherwise unobtainable sonorities, but again there was not much combat or even playful back-and-forth between the two performers.
The situation changed in the Bartók: five selections from his 44 Duos of 1931 (nos. 32, 38, 40, 41, and 43). Within the program these stood out for their lack of pretension and the composer’s economy of means, and despite their pedagogic character they struck this listener as real gems. Within their confined dimensions they also reveal genuine counterpoint and contrast between the two parts. It did not hurt that Cuckson and GoGwilt here demonstrated especially fine duo-violin playing, with beautifully matched bowing and phrasing and near-perfect intonation. Much the same could be said of the playing in the five little movements of the Telemann suite. Here, however, the composer’s musical humor was obscured by the players’ not very convincing pretense of being angry at one another, and by their dropping the pages of music on the floor rather than turning them—unnecessary concessions to the theme.
The Monteverdi scene might have been the one truly innovative performance of the evening, but it was problematic for this viewer. The scene occurs early in the opera at dawn as the emperor Nero and his mistress Poppea take leave of one another. Aucoin asserts that the original scoring (for male and female sopranos) “strongly suggests same-sex desire, or at least a bending of gender roles”—well, maybe to a modern viewer, although the same has been argued more convincingly of a later scene in the opera between Nero and the poet Lucan. Acting on the view expressed by Aucoin, the company staged this as a sort of duet in which countertenor Costanzo sang both Nero’s and Poppea’s lines while dancer Winokur intertwined with him, set him on the floor and spun him about, and (during one of the more aria-like passages) danced an expressive solo.
Evidently the identities of the two characters, and of the performers, were supposed to merge, and as an abstract representation of that idea the staging was perhaps a success. But the absence of Monteverdi’s instrumental accompaniment—Costanzo sang the long scene as a solo—made the music incomplete, obscuring the constant alternation between recitative and aria, which is essential to the scene as usually performed. One might have expected the distinction between discursive recitative and dance-like aria to be reflected in the choreography, but if so it was not obvious in most cases to this non-dancer. Costanzo sang valiantly while pressed into even more of the vocally non-ergonomic poses than has become usual in contemporary opera staging, and it is possible that the performance would make more sense if seen a second time. But on this occasion, it seemed merely strange if technically impressive.
Given its depth of talent the company is surely capable of great things. The actual dance and music Saturday night were impeccable, but after subtracting the stagy presentation it was a light-weight offering, and only occasionally did the program involve the competition or interaction between duettists that was supposed to unify the diverse selections. At the end, the “hosts” invited everyone to drink and dance, giving the impression that AMOC was a mere warm-up or aperitif for later fun and games. For subsequent outings, I hope the company will skip the trendy packaging even at the risk of appearing to present opera (in whatever form) seriously.
David Schulenberg’s The Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was published in 2014 by the University of Rochester Press. He has also written books on the music of W. F. Bach and the keyboard music of J. S. Bach, as well as the textbook Music of the Baroque. A performer on harpsichord, clavichord, and fortepiano, he teaches at Wagner College and at the Juilliard School in New York City. His website is here.