Q&A: Co-Artistic Director of Experiments in Opera Jason Cady on EiO’s Serial Opera Podcast ‘Aqua Net and Funyuns’

By Chris Ruel

Jason Cady, co-artistic director of the New York City-based “fun and fearless opera collective,” Experiments in Opera (EiO), has been, well, experimenting in fun(yun) and fearless ways with a new podcast opera, “Aqua Net and Funyuns,” released in December 2020.

Aqua Net is, of course, the hairspray preferred by 99 percent of Hair Band rockers in the 1980s and those of us who grew up in New Jersey. We were a flammable generation.

Funyuns? You’ve seen them in the yellow bags with an onion ring(esque) snack inside. They’re a staple vending machine delight.

Hairspray and a snack. An opera, you say?

Five, actually. Each is 25 minutes, and episodes are “round robin,” which spreads the operas’ acts across the series. By the time you’re through, you’ve heard all five.

That’s cool, but it gets even better. Hidden “Easter eggs” interconnect the operas. On the series webpage, there’s a downloadable form if you want to go on an audio scavenger hunt.

The five librettos are the product of an intense one-month iteration of EiO’s Writer’s Room project and took shape collaboratively with the writer’s workshopping and sharing feedback on the stories. The result is as follows:

“Beauty Shot,” with a libretto by Daniel Shepard and music by Tariq Al-Sabir tells of infidelity and murder in a Kansas hair salon.

“Another One Bites,” with libretto and music by Cady, stars a high-schooler who escapes from an anti-drug assembly to smoke weed in a teleporting Porta-Potty.

“Ships That Pass,” written by Cara Ehlenfeldt with music by Aaron Siegel, follows a character named Alden after he learns his deceased mom wrote queer fiction. The discovery causes him to reexamine his high school days and hesitation to reveal his queer identity to his mother.

“The Understudy,” for which Cady and Ehlenfeldt collaborated on the libretto and EiO’s co-artistic director Kamala Sankaram composed the score, relates the tale of a non-singing private eye who goes undercover as the understudy to a soprano.

And last, “Arkana Aquarium” written by Annie-Sage Whitehurst with composer Michi Wiancko tells the story of a widowed janitor who believes the newest fish in the tank is his reincarnated wife.

To understand all this fun, OperaWire spoke with Cady about the genesis, the writing and recording of the works, and the opera he wrote for the series, “Another One Bites.”

OperaWire: Let’s start at the beginning: Where did this idea come from?

Jason Cady: To go into the backstory, we did a podcast opera two years ago in 2018 called “Buick City, 1:00 AM.” It was also a limited series like “Aqua Net and Funyuns” except it was a single opera with libretto and music by me.

My wife has been in the podcasting world since before podcasts existed. She used to do documentaries and shows like “This American Life” and “Radiolab,” so she has a big interest in audio fiction.

From the perspective of experimental music, I was hearing new things in some audio fiction that’s out there. So, I thought about merging opera and audio fiction. “Buick City 1:00 AM” was the outcome.

We wanted to do another podcast opera, particularly Kamala [Sankaram]. We made it part of our long-term planning, and after the pandemic hit, all of us thought it made sense to fast track the podcast.

With the timeline moved up, we started working on “Aqua Net” in July. I met with the three other writers and came to them with the structure. I said, “These are going to be three-act operas and they should end with cliff hangers or big reveals and I want them to be in this kind of round-robin format.” We also wanted to bring the stories together through little inside jokes or Easter eggs.

OW: Had the writers worked with Experiments in Opera prior to “Aqua Net and Funyuns”? 

JC: The writers were all people that I brought on and had not worked with us before, except for Annie-Sage Whitehurst, who’s an actor and starred in a popular fiction podcast from a few years ago called “Limetown.” She also had a starring role in “Buick City, 1:00 AM.”

When bringing together writers, it’s good to get a little variety. Having someone who is an actor/writer can bring in a fresh perspective. Another example is Cara Ehlenfeldt, a writer who also did the sound design for the series.

OW: Tell me what happened in July when you brought the writers togethervirtually, of course.

JC: These were four people that didn’t know each other. Once we settled on what the basic story premises were for each story, I tasked us with writing one act per week.

There are five stories and four writers, so Cara Ehlenfeldt and I co-wrote an additional story.

OW: What were the challenges of writing five 25-minute operas?

JC: Actually, it went really smoothly. I don’t have an interesting answer. It was incredible; we had a lot of fun, and there were no major problems.

I’ll say one little thing; none of the writers had a background in opera. I was the only one who did, so I typed up a one- or two-page sheet, giving them some basic information.

I am of the belief that a lot of contemporary libretto writing is not as good as it could be. That’s partly because, historically, libretto writing was usually not the greatest literature with a few exceptions such as the Da Ponte librettos.

The stories and music should shine. And if it’s a stage show, the visuals should shine, too. Let’s have everything. To me, that’s the point of opera. This shouldn’t be an unusual idea, but I think it actually is, surprisingly.

OW: I think you and the team brought out some of the spectacle of opera through the stories. 

JC: I will officially go on the record as being pro-spectacle. Which I guess isn’t controversial in the world of opera. But in some music communities that might not be the dominant viewpoint. With sound design, you can bring out a little spectacle.

With my interest in audio fiction, I’m not necessarily against the visual. It’s just a different medium. We listen to podcasts when we take a long drive, washing the dishes, or jogging. We tried to bring the spectacle when we could.

OW: How did the recording come together?

JC: When we commissioned the composers, I wrote up a little style guide that included things like, “We will record this to a click track—so don’t write very flexible tempos and, in most cases, avoid improvisations and stuff like that.” I pointed out the obvious: “This is going to be audio only, so you have to set the text to make it as clear as possible.” Obviously, it’s up to the composers how much they follow those guidelines.

Beyond that, the composers basically had total freedom in terms of what they actually wrote. Aside from Aaron Segal and Kamala, the other two composers were chosen because we liked their music and trusted they would write great music.

All the instrumentalists except for the pianist recorded themselves at home. We provided them with Pro Tools, so they already had the meters and the tempos in there.

For the pianist, we had a studio in Manhattan called 2nd Story Sound, and they had really good COVID protocols. They had installed a filtration system and allowed only one artist in the room at a time. There is always a hard calculation to these risks. Nothing is perfectly safe other than staying at home.

We recorded the pianists and the singers in the studio. But with the singers recording one at a time, they couldn’t react in real time.

The way we handled this was through our pianist/music director, Dmitry Glivinskiy. Besides music specific issues, he thought about the theatrical, acting and character issues. He studied the pieces and knew them really well, allowing him to provide feedback to the singers. The singers would also come in with really smart ideas.

The opera singers have so much training, and it was amazing to see the thought they brought to flesh out the characters. For most recording sessions, I would be in the booth with the engineer—both of us with masks—and I would answer questions or give feedback. Sometimes, Aaron Siegel and Kamala would be in the booth instead of me.

Our engineer Jeff Cook is someone who we’ve worked with a lot, and he played a big role as well.

OW: Can “Aqua Net and Funyuns” help grow opera audiences?

JC: Opera definitely has challenges there. One idea I think about is trying to bring in three different audiences for our various projects.

I always expect we’ll have a certain amount of opera buffs, a certain amount of the experimental music audience, and then depending on what the project is, that’s where we will try to bring in a third audience, and in this case, the third audience is fans of audio fiction.

With the podcast, we are hoping to bring in just fans of audio fiction. The audience for podcast fiction is not necessarily huge—it’s a bit of a cult-like audience. I think we could get at least some of them.

One challenge that Experiments in Opera has is that we have this name “Experiments in Opera.” We are kind of setting up expectations in people’s minds that this should sound like opera, but also it should sound experimental. Those things can be contradictory.

We’ve done some projects that have veered far from opera and I sometimes worry because I don’t want to feel like we’re being misleading. When we’re assembling something that’s going to include multiple artists; we want some of them to be immediately identifiable as opera, and then also the same for experimental music.

OW: Let’s talk about the “Aqua Net and Funyuns” opera for which you wrote both the music and libretto, “Another One Bites.” You achieve the blend of opera and experimental music you just mentioned.

JC: With “Another One Bites,” my idea was to have a narrator. I wanted that because it was my way of getting around the difficulty of doing an audio-only opera. The narrator tells the story, and then other characters will come in and out.

The way of differentiating the narrator from the other characters is that all the characters sing in operatic voices and the narrator in more of a pop voice. The singer that played the narrator was Eliza Bonet, who’s less accustomed to pop singing, so her interpretation was opera light.

To bring out more of a pop quality after the fact I had the engineer put a band-pass filter on her voice. A band-pass filter is also known as the telephone effect. Obviously, I did not want her to sound like she was coming from a telephone because story-wise that’s not what was happening.

Sometimes the telephone effect is used in pop music and I love the sound, so I thought it would be interesting to use it on a light opera voice. I can’t say for sure that no-one else has put a band-pass filter on an opera voice, but it’s not something you hear normally. It also bridges the gap between the more electronic sounds in the pieces, and the acoustic instruments and the singing.

OW: What was your inspiration for the story?

JC: It’s basically autobiographical. I moved from Flint, Michigan to Mesa, Arizona when I was 12 years old in the late 80s. Mesa has been ranked as the most conservative city in the nation with a population over 200,000. When I moved there, it was culture shock.

The opening scene has a police officer speaking in a classroom about drugs and the danger of playing records backwards, and sometimes forwards, because many albums were so reprehensible in his view. That literally happened.

OW: I remember those visits, myself. 

JC: The cop played “Another One Bites the Dust” backwards, and it sounds like its saying, “It is fun to smoke Marijuana.” The whole idea of back masking to include subliminal messages is utter BS, of course. However, if you listen to it, it does actually sound like that.

Then the guy played a Dead Kennedys record that had the word “Reaganomics” in it. It was clearly political satire, but he thought it was about cannibalism, completely missing the subtext.

Obviously, some parts of the story are fiction. I never actually passed through a portal that led back to Michigan, but I thought about how my life might have turned out had I not moved. My best friend back in Flint died when we were in our late teens. That was traumatic for me, but it would have been even more traumatic if I’d still been living there.

While they ranked Mesa as one of the most conservative cities in the country, Flint had one of the highest murder rates per capita in the United States. Not to get too much into my personal life, I’ll just say looking back as an adult I can see that had I not moved, there would have been problems.

The main character is a woman because I wanted to provide a certain amount of distance. I base most of my writing on real-life stuff, but I try to distance it. Also, in certain ways, I brought in a few details about my sister.

So, the principal character is mostly me, some of my sister, and a bit of pure fiction. I had the father in the story be a horribly abusive person, but my father is actually a pretty wonderful guy.

OW: Will you continue to add operas to “Aqua Net and Funyuns?” 

JC: Well, to be honest, we haven’t thought that far ahead. We could hypothetically do another season. At the time that we were planning this, especially in the early days of the pandemic, it was hard to know how long it would last.

There was an urgency to get it out in December. We didn’t want to coincide with the election because of fears about something happening like what we ultimately experienced on January 6. We could have done a January/February release and it ultimately wouldn’t have mattered for the opera, but we didn’t know that in the summer.

Currently, we have a big project we’re working on, which is a 10-episode serial opera. The entire project will be around three hours long.

Originally, the 10-episode serial was to celebrate our 10th anniversary as a company, and it would have premiered this season, but it’ll need to wait until our next.

Photo credit: Nina Roberts


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