Meta Opera

operacabal’s ideas for a twenty-first century opera – operashop II @ high concept laboratories, 1/28/12.

Elliot Cole, “De Rerum,” OperaSHOP II, High Concept Laboratories (Photo by Omar Robles).

OperaCabal‘s OperaSHOP II takes as its mission the exploration of new forms of opera for the twenty-first century, but the two workshopped pieces it presented were not as concerned with claiming the mantle of opera as drawing upon operatic forms to create new works. They cared not whether they were called opera. But without opera’s traditions they could not exist. By not caring whether they were labelled opera or not, they wound up realizing OperaCabal’s mission.

The double bill featured two well-matched performances—a wordy, nerdy, hypercharged, archeological hip-hop-jazz performance piece about the dawn of human agricultural and urban society  and a quiet, meditative, introspective exploration of the passing of time driven by digitally-looped violin and voice.

Like a Wagnerian Ring Cycle excerpt with a good dose of playful humor, Elliot Cole’s “De Rerum” drew upon the mythic dimensions of opera. With a crack band and a dancing libretto whose letters tumbled and swirled around a digital screen, Cole delivered serious mythos with a grin, reinvigorating the spectacle and grand scope of opera through an intriguing mix of sly ridiculousness and dead-serious purpose.

Caroline Shaw’s “Ritornello” went in almost the opposite direction, returning to an aria form of the baroque and taking it to a place reminiscent of Andrew Bird’s music. As a piece of paper repeatedly folded and unfolded on screen through stop-motion animation now rendered digitally on an LCD projector and as Shaw used a loop pedal to record layers of harp-like, plucked violin arpeggios and sang into the pickup on her violin to add harmonies to harmonies to harmonies, one slowly got lost in the gentle repetitions. With fragments of text from Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” and T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, this was a piece about something forgotten, or perhaps even something that never took place in the first instance. It wasn’t so much a reverie or a return as a kind of emulation of lostness, a sonic and visual evocation of memory as a Mobius-strip. There was beauty in the restraint, a kind of calm, impenetrable sense of imperviousness to catastrophe and, perhaps at some lower level, deeper in the digital loop, a longing to measure how far endlessness could go, how deep stillness might quiver.

Caroline Shaw’s “Ritornello,” OperaSHOP II, High Concept Laboratories (Photo by Omar Robles).

Could one get back to something that never was? This was the question Shaw asked. Could one make sense of how far we have come? This was the question Cole explored. In a way they were the very questions that OperaSHOP II itself posed. As Cole propelled the listener forward on the progress of civilization and Shaw drew us back to the stillness of self-investigation, the past and future of opera glimmered in the repurposing of its forms and traditions toward new and artful projects.


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