“What is opera, and what does ‘operatic’ and ‘opera’ mean to you?” It is a question that has the potential to uproot tradition.
No longer bound by antiquated edicts, artists can now use ‘opera’ to make a statement: a profession of some emotion and inner feeling that lies deep within their core. It is my goal, through interviews with all manner of people involved in the multifaceted world of ‘operatic theatre,’ to examine projects and works with an aim of figuring out just what, exactly, it means to do opera in the 21st century: what is the statement that modern opera makes?
In the following interview, I sat down with Jason Cady, Artistic Director of the New York-based contemporary opera company Experiments in Opera, to talk about their new 10-episode operatic series “Everything for Dawn.” It is a coming of age story about a girl named Dawn, and her path towards healing after her father’s suicide. Based in the suburbs of Detroit—rather than a major cosmopolitan city, as most operas tend to favor—this American sitcom-styled episodic opera challenges the idea of aesthetic homogeneity by utilizing ten libretto-composer duos, as well as destabilizing the ‘staginess’ that filmed operas tend to create. This project also honors the company’s ten year anniversary, and will be premiered next month in New York.
OperaWire: What is Experiments in Opera?
Jason Cady: An opera company in New York City that is strictly devoted to contemporary works and the exploration of the genre.
OW: What makes EiO unique as an organization?
JC: In New York City, there are a lot of smaller companies, in addition to larger ones like the Met, although we don’t see ourselves as aligned with them and their mission. The word “opera” encompasses a lot, and there is an official idea of what it is, and the Met might be the only idea for them. I think of the Met as an operatic dinosaur, and they are great, but we are a living company. As far as our distinction between other companies, there are many that do focus on traditional repertoire reimagined in creative ways. Others are staging new works, but some of them are artist-led while others are producer-led.
We are a company that is artist-led. Some companies are like this but only focus on singular artists rather than many at a time. An important distinction, and really difficult to explain, is that we are focused on being contemporary. There is a lot of discord about what this means and looks like. We use the word ‘experiments’ in our name, and sometimes critics will come to our performances with a certain idea of what we do. Often, it’s a 20th-century, modernist vision. My conception of “experimental” is something that is connected to modernism but not a copy of it and the ideas of the 20th century.
OW: You say the company is “re-writing the story of opera.” Could you explain why this is so important to EiO?
JC: I don’t think opera should be any different than other art forms. If you’re going to watch a movie, you’re more than likely watching something from the 21st century. Why should opera be any different? You’ll probably watch some older films, but it’s always in relationship with contemporary alternatives. I think it’s important to be in the now. What I’m trying to do with Experiments in Opera is develop works that are more compelling than just storytelling. There’s a lot in the operatic medium that is great. But the major drawback is intelligibility. It’s very challenging to understand, both singing and narrative-wise, and this has inevitably led to a reliance on familiarity.
I mean a few things. The first one is making an adaptation of a well-known myth. This dates back to the very beginnings of opera. Along with mythology, there is adaptation itself, another theme straight from the historical beginnings of the genre. Just the other day, I read about John Adams’ adaptation of “Antony and Cleopatra.” No one should be doing Shakespeare anymore. It should be rare to see Shakespeare; I mean, it’s the 21st century. It’s rare to see Baroque opera and early opera, so why are Shakespeare, Puccini, Verdi, Wagner, and even Donizetti not rare either? That’s how it should be! It should not be easy to see Puccini and Verdi and Wagner and Donizetti and the rest.
OW: Quick turnaround is a focal point for your company. Why is that, and what is the benefit of experimental work?
JC: There’s something to immediacy. Long, drawn-out development processes can take that away. But now that the company is ten years old, it’s true that our development processes are becoming longer. But at the very least, when we have long periods of creative development, it is usually because we have a good reason. Everything for “Dawn” was drawn out because of COVID difficulties: we had our first workshop the week before the first lockdown. Despite lengths, we’ve never had a developing piece that wasn’t performed. Some companies do workshops, but there isn’t a guaranteed performance at the end.
OW: EiO’s mission stems from collaborations and public education. How do you balance these?
JC: I am opposed to education via arts organizations because they always seem so superficial and there solely because of financial incentives. I’m all for learning opportunities, but a lot of organizations develop into quasi-pyramid schemes where in order to get grants, education programs are created, which are often geared towards people who already have degrees in composition. It’s insulting to “mentor” someone who has a graduate degree as if they aren’t able to compose themselves.
It’s okay if there’s mentoring in a general way, but when it’s formalized into a program where established artists mentor younger artists, mind you, people with graduate degrees, I can’t help but feel that this is an insult to their developed skills. Eventually, people just have to put their work out into the world and see what lands and see what fails. That’s composing. You learn through having glorious failures and transient successes, you know? We need more bad music to be heard and bad art to be seen.
OW: Where did the idea come from, and how was the project conceptualized?
JC: The episodes are 15-20 minutes each, and there are ten of them. The whole work itself is three hours long. A good way of thinking about it is the model of American sitcoms. They were usually 15-20 minutes slots because of commercial breaks. So this is like that model. The project itself came about as a result of our 10-year anniversary as a company, and one of our assistant directors stated that we needed to do some type of big project to commemorate the occasion. I proposed some kind of serial drama, maybe akin to “Breaking Bad” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” which is written by a team of writers. So I figured that we could do ten episodes for ten years.
OW: How did the themes of the opera series come about? Why Detroit, suicide, and self-development?
JC: I feel very strongly that there are too many American stories based around New York and Los Angeles. I knew I did not want these cities. I’m originally from Flint, Michigan. I’ve done quite a few operas that are set there. I’ve also lived in Arizona and used this place as well. But the setting for “Everything for Dawn” is a suburb of Detroit, so not technically the city center. We chose to avoid highlighting the city, but I really love the idea of the suburb. There are also too many stories that center on city life. They’re important sure, but I like writers like Stephen King: most of his works are in Maine or Colorado. This is also a period piece set in the ’90s, and post-WWII USA was all about the fast expansion and fast contraction of suburban living.
OW: Because there are 10 duos, how is cohesion created throughout the episodes?
JC: For the libretto writing, we met regularly, and we outlined the whole story together, as well as the individual episodes before the librettists began working. Once they were drafted, they were edited down. That created cohesion with the narrative, although there are moments when the relationship is reduced a bit. Musically, there was a lot less done to integrate the different composers together. Where there is cohesion has to do with the cast and ensemble regularity, all directed under David Bloom. The interpretation then becomes unified. Of course, there is the director and artistic team who are working on all ten episodes, so they are helping to integrate each episode with the others.
But overall, I’ve had some conversations with some of the composers who have called the musical life of the work what they call an “exquisite corpse.” I didn’t agree but thought it was valid. The point, though, is the process of writing the music without knowledge of what the other composers are doing. All the composers were, in a way, writing by themselves, and so yes, it is an exquisite corpse. When it comes to intent, I disagree, however. With the drawing [of an exquisite corpse], there is an intentional obscuring of the previously created art, which then produces wild juxtapositions in temperament. That wasn’t our intention with “Everything for Dawn.” We had our first workshop the week before lockdown one, and all the composers were in attendance. There was some awareness of what was going on, at least in a small part. Not enough working together, sure, but there wasn’t an intention to keep composers in the dark creatively speaking. It really had to do with limited time and resources.
OW: How does the work negotiate its own medium, considering the filmed, operatic vignette structure?
JC: Originally, the work was going to be a staged piece. We were nervous about this. Because of the length it would push into Wagnerian territory in order to pull off consecutive nights in a row. Because of the pandemic, we were rethinking our plan and started to conceive of the idea of filming the work instead. That actually works with the episodic theme and the original idea of a TV writers’ rooms. It actually made much more sense conceptually with what we had originally planned. In terms of shooting, we recorded the audio in a studio setting, so on the video, lip-synching is used, and any live audio was muted.
The filming occurred on a professional soundstage, much like a set for a TV sitcom. We used these rather on-location alternatives. This provides a bit of staginess, but overall we were trying to avoid using a stage atmosphere. I really didn’t want this to look like a recorded stage performance, a framework that almost always fails to deliver despite the best intentions. It has the look and feel of an old sitcom rather than filmed opera. There are three settings within the opera, and although they are static, they are developed during their usage. There is a family home, a mental hospital, and an art gallery.
OW: EiO defines opera as “the activity of telling stories through music.” Where did this concept come from?
JC: An opera is a form that has many characteristics. Namely, a type of singing and many other factors. Any one piece doesn’t define composition as an “opera.” Obviously, it’s good to have definitions. Of course, you don’t want to be limited by their constructs, but it’s helpful to have some type of anchor: a vocabulary to talk about the genre and stuff that lies outside of the genre. If we think about a type of singing, you could also think about an art song, but an art song isn’t opera! You also have to include narrative, sets, costumes, staging, and acting styles. Again, no one characteristic is the defining factor, nor does every opera have to include every characteristic.
The most important opera composer of the 20th century, in my mind, is Robert Ashley. A lot of his operatic works are really reaching in terms of what constitutes the operatic genre. Because I’m inspired by his works, I often have a broader understanding of what opera is and can be. But because of the word itself, this limits what audiences will recognize as “opera.” If it’s too experimental, audiences may not understand it as an opera in the traditional sense. If you say something is opera and audiences don’t see it, you’re setting up for failure.
OW: Given the flexible nature of the operatic genre, have you noticed any strong trends in experimental opera?
JC: With the unfortunate success of “Nixon in China” by John Adams—and I don’t say that lightly—there are now so many contemporary operas that are solely based on recent historical events. For some composers, when they get an opportunity to write opera, they tend to go to recent history, as there is the false conception that all opera is simply the rehashing of historical events and mythology. However, this isn’t really recent. It’s been around really since the dawn of opera, only getting worse in the early 2000s.
Biopic themes seem to be really popular as well. What will my opera be about? What figure can I choose? Of course, there’s also the modernist theme of total abstractionism. It’s not really a trend so much as an increasingly popular trend in the operatic world. Another trend is the tendency to use the description, “It is a meditation on (fill in the blank).” It’s not even a story but simply a general topic, with or without a topic.
OW: Having now worked on 85 works with 55 composers, what are EiO’s current projects and future aspirations?
JC: “Everything for Dawn” will be streamed on AllArts, available beginning October 7th and continuing indefinitely. There’s also a streaming service called In Series, which is located in the DC area, and they will be streaming the series sometime in the winter. After that, we have some works being prepared by Anthony Braxton, a composer and saxophonist who played many more instruments. He’s written several large-scale operas, all with the name “Trillium,” as well as a few pieces of theatrical, opera-like works which were written in the early 2000s and are based around improvisation.
We are also doing our third Writers Rooms, which will include me and four other writers based around creating a staged work of five non-serialized pieces with slight connections between them. This was our strategy with our podcast operas. We’ll have a through line, but you’ll have to wait and find out what that will be!