Shaping the Indie Opera Scene

By Rebecca Gross
Man singing into a microphone
Production still from And Here We Are, a full-length opera by Experiments in Opera co-founder Matthew Welch. Photo by Peter Gannushkin
There is modern dance and modern art, indie rock and experimental theater. Within the opera world however, tradition has maintained a firmer grip, and most of us still expect the grand themes, grand scale, and grand voices of the art form’s original 16th-century roots. But for musicians and composers Aaron Siegel, Matthew Welch, and Jason Cady, whose collective influences range from experimental jazz to bagpipe playing to rock and roll to classical percussion, opera has proven fertile ground for artistic exploration. In 2010, the trio founded Experiments in Opera, a New York-based opera company that stretches and manipulates the ways that story and music can be paired. Among the 45 works that Experiments in Opera has presented, there have been video operas, radio operas, operas about zombies, one-act operas, choral operas, and operas about historical figures such as the Wright brothers and Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges. No theme, format, length, or sound is off-limits—the more innovative and genre-bending, the better. We recently spoke with Experiments in Opera co-founder Aaron Siegel about how his organization is redefining opera, misconceptions about the art form, and the benefits of collective creation. NEA: What was the impetus for founding Experiments in Opera? AARON SIEGEL: [My cofounders and I] came up in New York City at a time when the notion of entrepreneurs in the music world was a really big deal. There have always been art collectives and composer collectives—in the U.S., one of the most famous ones was the New York School of Composers with John Cage and Morton Feldman and Earle Brown and Christian Wolff. We learned in school about the impact that groups of composers were able to have when they pooled their resources and identified their work with each other in some way. Otherwise, being a composer is a super solitary activity generally speaking. Matt, Jason, and I figured that finding ways to support other composers would be an interesting way of building our artistic careers. At first we were a little hesitant about committing to opera in the name of our group. But we all felt like ultimately, part of what we could do was think about how we could re-set that word in a way to mean something different than it did when opera was created a couple hundred years ago. NEA: If you could, how would you re-set the definition of opera? SIEGEL: I always think about this question as if an artist wakes up in the 21st century, and opera as an historical art form didn't exist, what would you do? How would it look? Who would the audience be? How would you make it? What mediums would you use? I think some of the things would be very similar in a lot of ways: that it's an art about telling stories in some form or another, and using music to do that. As an organization, we’re really here to clean the slate and invite people in to have some interesting conversations and fun with the notion of what opera could be nowadays.  NEA: The operas produced by Experiments in Opera are wildly different from one another musically, vocally, and narratively. What is the common link that makes them all opera, as opposed to musical theater or some other hybrid performance art? SIEGEL: Despite the fact that that word is in the name of our organization, I don't think we're that interested in defining what is and isn't opera. It's a little bit of a provocative thing to do, to call yourself an opera company, because it automatically associates you with the history of the art form, and it automatically makes you think about what people in the world consider very traditional, classic, canonized works like Wagner and Puccini and Verdi. Can our works be compared to those? Generally not. Our general stance is not to dictate what it should be. When we pick artists to work with, we don't think, "Are they going to fit our definition of opera?" We think, "How are they going to contribute to the broader conversation of what you can do with music and story and words?" So in a way, it's about putting a lot of flags in the ground and continuing to push outward in terms of what is and what isn't opera.
Three men sitting at a table looking at camera
Experiments in Opera co-founders (from l-r) Jason Cady, Matthew Welch, and Aaron Siegel. Photo courtesy of Experiments in Opera
NEA: I know that Experiments in Opera discovers the projects it presents in different ways—through submissions, through your network, etc. Can you elaborate on what you and Jason and Matt look for when searching for new works? SIEGEL: Because we're a composer-led collective, it gives us a chance to really drive that conversation based on music. Sometimes that means we're really interested in the instrumentation that a composer has used, or the fresh approach that they've taken to a classic orchestration. Sometimes it's that a person writes for orchestra, but they also create computer music. Wouldn't it be an interesting experiment to ask that person to meld some of their work that they see as separate? I think that speaks to the kind of artists that we're really interested in: people who are engaging in a fuller world of music-making and art-making. We're interested in the polyglots—the people who are really interested in pop music, or really interested in opera, or really interested in chamber music, really interested in electronic music, really interested in music traditions from around the world. So that's what we look for in artists: that kind of curiosity, people who are asking questions about how to connect disparate sources of art-making in their own lives. NEA: As you mentioned, Experiments in Opera is a composer-driven collective. In a recent New Yorker piece on the organization, you said that as composers, your values are different than a singer’s. Tell me what your values are and how they're different from other opera professionals. SIEGEL: I led a conversation recently in New York as part of the New York Opera Alliance's New York Opera Fest. The New York Opera Alliance is a collection of about 40 independent opera companies in New York. It's a great way to see how different leadership impacts on the kind of work that small companies do. For instance, there are some companies that are led by directors. Directors are interested in the historical take or precedence for a certain piece—how can we recast it through the lens of design and conceptual framework? So it's very much about reading the text and trying to figure out where it comes from and what the intentions are. I find that producers who are making opera are making opera in a very different way as well. They're interested in making connections and making works that they can then share with different venues. There's a basic interest in portability of the work and accessibility from venue to venue. You're going to make different decisions about how tested a work is going to be and about how polished it is. When singers are leading a work, it tends to be very different as well. Some singers don't like to be asked to do extended techniques. They want to sing things that fit their voice, and make their voice sound great. As composers, we're really interested in writing music and continuing to write music, and the iterative process. What I mean by that is you write one piece, you try out some techniques and ideas, maybe some things work, some things didn't work. And you turn around and you write a new piece and you figure out what works that time. The values that we have are how do we get stuff onstage in as full a production as possible in a fairly short period of time? A lot of our programs are, from start to finish, six months. We ask composers to write a 13-minute piece and then we have our show six months later. That's a very different process and allows for different work. Some of the work is really successful, some of it not as successful. And that’s okay. That's part of the experimental nature of making work. NEA: At the NEA, we talk a lot about the relationship between innovation or experimentation and failure, and what the benefits of failure are. Can you talk about your personal or organizational relationship with failure? SIEGEL: I think failure is something that's fantastic, and is not talked about enough. As you get more and more advanced, the stakes get higher, people are investing more money, and there's a real concern about getting that return on the investment. I don't think that's necessarily about selling tickets or making money, but it's about is this going to be a groundbreaking piece of work? I love groundbreaking work, I would love to make some, and I hope that we support some in our life as an organization. But I also have a real honesty and humbleness that most work is not going to be time-tested great with a capital G. One of the things that we do is a lot of talking about what went right, and what went wrong. And if a concert goes really, really great and every piece is a huge success, we ask ourselves did we push hard enough? Did we take enough chances? I think we all value the idea that failure IS part of the process as long as you learn something from it, and I think that's really key. I'm a music educator at Carnegie Hall, and that's been a big part of my artistic career. I think any educator at any level will tell you that it's great to ask questions, it's great to try things, it's great to fail—as long as you can learn from what you're doing, and you can continue to build on that. As an organization, we set the bar of let's just keep growing from year to year, from piece to piece. We don't need to make the most amazing, life-changing work of art for everyone in the world. We just want to keep growing and building this community of creativity and pushing this notion of storytelling through music. NEA: What are some of the misconceptions about opera that you’d like to clear up? SIEGEL: One misconception is that good opera has to be long. I think there's great opera that happens in 15 minutes. Another thing is that is has to be serious. I think opera can be funny, and it can be light, and it doesn't always have to address issues of life and death, love and passion. My colleague Jason Cady has written about aliens and zombies. Other misconceptions are that it has to be big in scale. A small theater with 200 people or 50 people in it can be just as magical an experience as any 3,000-seat theater. I think the kind of singing that people do is also a huge misconception. Singers who are trained in the operatic tradition have a very specific vocal quality to their singing—that full sound, an amazing vibrato. That's traditionally been how people think about opera. But that's a really small box. I think opera can work with singers who have who have jazz training, who use their voices for sound, noise, textural type of work. I think amplified singing, which is a big no-no in a lot of opera houses, is totally legitimate as a part of opera. So if we keep thinking about opera in this very narrow way, it's going to feel like we're never getting anywhere with it in terms of generating new ideas.  NEA: Anything else you'd like to add or that you think is important for me to know? SIEGEL: Another thing that Experiments in Opera really believes strongly in is this sort of collective activity. It represents this idea that many people working together—talking about their work together, sharing their work, investing in work together—is a really powerful thing. As far as art-making in the 21st century goes, it feels like a much more sustainable and viable way of making art. We don't have the same kinds of financial supports as we did even 30 years ago, and certainly the patron system, which allowed opera-making back in the day to happen, does not exist anymore. So we're talking about a very different world where people have to build their lives and their careers in different ways. I think the collective model of banding together to work together, to learn together, to fail together, feels like a better and a more creative way to live our lives and make art.