By Charis Shafer
Opera Cabal smashed Ikea chairs as well as opera conventions last month, at the New York debut of its multimedia work, USW (und so weiter).
The experimental performance by the Chicago-based music collective takes its inspiration from the life and death of World War I-era Polish-German socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, who with several hundred other socialists and communists were executed without trial in Germany for their radical antiwar activities. To this day, she is considered a martyr by Europe's social democrats and Marxists.
USW (und so weiter) - German for "and so on," featuring a libretto by Lewis Nielson and directed by Habib Azar, takes a similarly radical stance on opera, interweaving the works of Karl Marx and F. Scott Fitzgerald, using overlaid sound and video projections. The two female leads do not sing, but intensely act out a psychosexual drama complete with running leaps and the riotous destruction of an Ikea chair they had painstakingly assembled.
A week after USW's debut at Galapagos Art Space in Dumbo, between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridge approaches, Opera Cabal's director, Nicholas DeMaison, chatted by phone about his work and why New York is no place for amateurs.
DeMaison says he started the opera company out of desperation.
"There is virtually no platform for a young composer unless you do it yourself," he says. He thought: if I want to write an opera. I should write it myself. He and his cohorts decided if they called themselves an opera company nothing would be lost, and having their own company would give them the excuse to stage works that would not find a home elsewhere. "There is so much involved in staging on opera; it is hard to make it happen, and no one is willing to make it happen with someone young." DeMaison, 30, says.
While USW is more performance art than Puccini, DeMaison argues that this says more about society's current conceptions of opera.
"We're only redefining the genre against the antiquated notion of what the genre is," he explains. While he equivocated about whether he wants to change opera or not, he finally decides, "I want the combination of music and drama to continue to be relevant. Period." He cites the revitalization of other musical traditions, like chamber music. He wants opera to be as relevant as other forms of contemporary artistic expression and to actively push the boundary of the genre.
The adventurous staging at Galapagos certainly made the young audience take notice. Under the stage direction of Emmy Award-winner Azar , performers Majel Connery, the art director at Opera Cabal, and Sarah Kozinn raced between the stage and a suspended sheet. They took turns pounding the suspended cloth near the entrance to the venue and bounding on stage behind a scrim illuminated with images of kittens being born and handwritten words of Karl Marx by video artist Alexander Overington -- not a typical evening at the Metropolitan Opera.
It was just this sort of genre-bending that helped Opera Cabal attract the interest of respected composer Lewis Nielson. At first he declined to collaborate with the group, but then was struck with an idea he knew might not get staged elsewhere. "He called out of the blue two months later and said I'm thinking about a piece," says DeMaison. He believes that for Nielson the composition was about bridging a gap between his music and his morals. "He's interested in stories that have moral meaning," DeMaison says. The symbiosis was ideal. "We knew he would write something adventurous."
The group incubated their work in avant garde performance spaces in Chicago which, DeMaison says, tolerates a greater do-it-yourself aesthetic. But DeMaison is thrilled that Opera Cabal has had its coming out in New York. He says audiences here are more discerning. "There is an expectation of a certain standard of production in New York." He says that while New York is more critical of a less polished production, it is only because New Yorkers want to take productions seriously. "They want to know that you are not screwing around." Along with this, he says, is an easy acceptance of work ready for the city. The New York press readily categorized it as performance art and are able to engage with the work in a different way, he says.
DeMaison is ready for the next project working with Azar to create more multimedia collaborations with his chamber orchestra, Ensemble Sospeso, that DeMaison now directs. The only obstacle facing is raising funds,
"Musically there is nothing we couldn't do. It comes down to how much money can we raise, and how quickly we can make it all happen."