A new opera company takes aim at industry norms and spreads its wings at the Berkshire's scenic Clark Art Institue.
“How many are there?”
We are in Williamstown, MA walking up a sloping carriage path along a green-gold pasture. Below, the Clark Art Institute sits nestled and gleaming. All around, the Green Mountains tower in lush Berkshire majesty.
And, chewing lazily in the shade, are about a dozen dairy cows.
“It’s like a Jane Austen novel,” someone in our group remarks.
Less than half a mile from the ivy-walled halls of Williams College, the scenic 140-acre campus of the Clark is one of many artistic crown jewels of the Berkshires. It boasts miles of rustic walking trails and stunning views, accented by iron fences and art instillations like Thomas Schütte’s Crystal, a hollow amethyst-like wooden sculpture that gazes down on the Clark.
And if trekking the raw, largely bovine-mowed landscape is not for you, then perhaps enjoying the Clark’s carefully manicured tree-dotted lawns, sprinkled with Adirondack chairs and anchored by a large, Tadao Ando designed reflecting pool, might be. Not to mention the thousands of square feet of gallery space, dedicated largely to French Impressionists like Renoir, Degas, Manet, Monet, and Camille Pissarro.
I am here at the Clark on this hot summer morning not only for my own enjoyment, but to speak with composer Matt Aucoin and director Zack Winokur about their new collaborative performance venture, the American Modern Opera Company (AMOC). Self-described as “an opera company based on a new model,” AMOC will highlight their organization's unique approach to music making in an afternoon of mini-concerts all around the Clark’s diverse campus on Sunday, August 26.
As we wander the hills and get a tour of the performance locations, Matt, Zack and I chat about their new company.
“It’s funny,” muses Matt, as we climb the 'Pasture Trail' to Crystal, “we call ourselves an opera company because that’s the only term for a company that brings together all the performing arts in this way. But the reality is [that] three-quarters of what we do is not opera."
AMOC takes a broad definition of Opera, with roots in the art form's very first days. In the 16th century, a group of Florentine intellectuals, frustrated with the direction the music world was taking, began meeting in the plush rooms of Count Giovanni di Bardi’s palace to discuss a new direction for music. They called themselves the Camerata, and their belief was that all good things originated in Classical Greece. For many (what I imagine to have been) wine-soaked nights, they debated the performance practices of Ancient Greek theater and the humanist virtues of music and how to achieve them. By the late 1500s, the Camerata concluded that the Greeks must surely have sung their plays, and that this was the ideal way to communicate through music to a deeper, more universal human experience. They promptly set about creating their own sung plays, and gave them the Italian word for "works": opera.
Like the Camerata, AMOC is looking to build a deep, collaborative approach to music making, and reimagining what an opera company looks like in the process. "We take the term ‘opera’ in its original, or deepest, or broadest sense, which is an art form where many art forms, or really every performing art form imaginable, meet,” says Matt.
To draw comparisons between the Florentine Camerata and the American Modern Opera Company is of course tremendously premature, particularly for a company founded less than a year ago. Indeed, the comparison is likely to draw eye-rolls from the company's young founders when they read this. But there is something to it, and at the very least the origin stories of both stem from a common place: frustration at industry norms.
“A number of us began questioning why, in the world of mainstream opera, the companies were structured the way they were. The way they’re structured doesn’t give artists all that much freedom: the orchestra and chorus are set; singers move from company to company, they’re not able to choose their colleagues; directors and conductors work with different people from production to production. And so it’s very difficult to — and indeed almost seems designed to prevent — the forging of really deep artistic partnerships the way that any rock band or dance company would, where artists work together day in, day out for years.
“So we started thinking, why is that not the model [for opera], and could it be the model? And so we’ve created this company that is made up of equal parts singers, instrumentalists, and dancers, plus Zack is a director and I’m a composer, and we work collaboratively to create new pieces of music, and theater, and dance, and of course pieces that bring all those forms together.”
The new model is not without its challenges. “[Our company] depends on three of the most expensive commodities in the world: people, time, and space... and we desire a lot of all of it,” chuckles Zack. “Scheduling is a challenge, because we’re building a company with people who already have careers; so it's balancing their time with us, and trying to formulate this as a sort of artistic home that people keep coming back to, that we take long periods of time to work on.”
And, unlike most opera companies today (and like the Camerata), AMOC is building their repertoire from scratch — writing, composing, and choreographing their pieces internally, for the people and performance spaces directly in front of them.
Unlike the Camerata, AMOC's founders have no illusions that their new company will become all the rage, as opera did after the Camerata's first performances in the 1590s. "I don't think [our model will become mainstream] because it gives too much power to artists!" says Matt, ruefully. "It don't think economically in this country it's ever going to make sense to turn this kind of communal power over to artists, except for on a chamber scale. We started this company because we didn't see anything that resembled it out there."
AMOC’s new take on opera will be on full display on August 26th. The afternoon will begin at 2pm on the edge of the Tadao Ando reflecting pool with a preview of a new work by dancer and choreographer Bobbi Jean Smith and violinist Keir Gogwilt. With Care is an “exploration of the concept of 'care': what does it mean to care about something, and what happens when you care too much? What's the difference between being careless and being carefree, and how do you realize that in the human body through dance and through music?”
From there, audiences will walk the short distance to the Clark’s original, neo-classical entrance for Old and New, a program for countertenor, cello, and percussion that spans music from the baroque to the twenty-first century. Then, it’s off for a hike up the hill for Duos in Crystal, violin duets by Telemann and Bartók that use the Schütte installation and pastoral hillside as a natural megaphone (as Zack describes it). Finally, the afternoon concludes in the main Clark building for an intimate hour of Aucoin’s music.
While the duo are careful not to let their company become the "Matt and Zack show" (as Zack puts it), the day will nonetheless feature a lot of music from AMOC's founding composer. Aucoin is somewhat of a classical music headline maker, particularly as he tends to fuel one of the classical world’s favorite pastimes: comparisons to Mozart. Stories of an 11-year-old Aucoin in a hotel lobby playing Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro at the piano from start to finish from by memory, having never seen the score, flame comparison to that most famous of prodigies. And as a dynamic, charismatic composer, performer, and conductor, others are quick to compare him to his fellow Massachusetts native, Leonard Bernstein.
All of which makes him bristle.
“I tend to think that the kinds of comparisons that sprout up like weeds in the classical music world are an obvious symptom of something that’s a problem in the classical music world: when a young playwright is emerging, no one says ‘this is the next Shakespeare!’ And when a young novelist is emerging no one says ‘this person is the next Charles Dickens!’ Why is that? Well, because the assumption is that those are living art forms.
"[The comparisons] imply a cutesy, museum quality to my music that I don’t find flattering, and so I try to see through it and poke as many holes in it as possible.
“And honestly, this is why I’m involved in AMOC, and why we’ve created this company, because I don’t want to aim for this gilded, old-school classical music career. I’m a composer, but I’m also a collaborative artist, and I feel most comfortable and most myself artistically when I’m able to work with people in this kind of experimental way. Being part of AMOC has been so artistically important and so liberating, and I’m excited to see what comes of it.”
And what does success look like for Matt and Zack, as they look to the future of AMOC?
Zack is pragmatic. "This endeavor takes time," he says. "One of the things we're really committed to is moving at the speed that AMOC needs to move at. Over the next couple of years [we hope] to build a body of work where each member of the company has something that they feel [ownership] of.
And for Matt? "I think success looks like having enough activity every season, so that it can be 40-50% of what any of our artists do. And that we have the kind of trust from audiences, listeners, presenters, donors - the whole community - trust that there will be enough support for projects, such that our artists can bring whatever their most ambitious projects are to the table, and that we can execute them.
"That's the goal."