Experiments in Opera
by Jason Cady
Jason Cady in his own words...
I’m a composer, mostly of operas, and I also write the libretti for my operas. I perform on pedal steel guitar and modular synthesizer. I am the Artistic Director of Experiments in Opera.
Who are the people, organizations, communities that work towards advancing the type of music you make and good music in general?
Along with Experiments in Opera, other opera companies doing interesting projects include: Rhymes With Opera and ThingNY. Many of the performers on my podcast opera, Buick City, 1:00 AM, also have exciting projects of their own. The singer, Katie Eastburn, has her band, Katie E, which I’m a big fan of. The pianist Emily Manzo is also a singer/songwriter and has a wonderful band, called Christy and Emily. The bass player Shawn Lovato has an ensemble which is making innovative, new music in the Jazz tradition. And Aaron Siegel, the drummer, is a composer, and New Amsterdam just released and album of his clarinet and percussion ensemble piece, called A Great Many.
Who are the music experts whose work has made an impact in your own musical evolution?
Photo by: Nina Roberts
My colleagues, Matthew Welch and Aaron Siegel in Experiments in Opera, and other friends, like Mary Halvorson and Jessica Pavone have made more of an impact on me than the music I grew up listening to. Also, my wife, Ann Heppermann, is a podcast and radio producer, and she exposed me to the fantastic soundscapes of audio fiction and documentary which expanded how I approach opera. She had a new podcast on women’s history, in November, called, The Wings, “No Man’s Land.” Another recent podcast she produced was on the doomsday cult, Heaven’s Gate and she has a fiction podcast called Serendipity. Her work and the work of her peers continues to inspire me.
Do you see yourself disagreeing with what you witness in today's opera scene?
I am disappointed by most librettos written these days. There is an old-fashioned idea that the story doesn’t matter much, that opera is really about the music, so right there, that sets the bar really low. A symptom of that attitude is that so many current operas are adaptations. I recently saw Marnie at The Met, which was an adaptation of a Winston Graham novel, that previously had been adapted into a movie by Hitchcock. Not only was the story misogynistic, it was also not suited for the stage. For example, there were many scene changes, which is good for film, but on stage it was confusing; and more importantly, the novel got inside the mind of the eponymous character—which is what novels are good at doing—but in the opera, the audience had little insight or connection to the interior life of the protagonist. Why did they feel the need to adapt that incredibly dated novel instead of creating a work of new fiction? This relates to another unfortunate trend: so-called “CNN operas” and biopics in the mold of the operas of John Adams.
Again, artists fail to create something new and instead they “adapt” recent history. And finally, another manifestation of people not caring enough about librettos is the trend of librettos that are abstract, or incomprehensible in their vagueness. Many mistake that for being avant-garde. But there is nothing innovative in 2018 about failing to tell a story.
I believe that the first impulse in writing an opera is having something to say and then saying it in the form of a story for the theater.
A few words about Buick City, 1:00 AM...
My podcast opera, Buick City 1:00 AM, is a time-travel story which takes place in 1984. I thought of the basic plot of the story first and then later decided to set it in Flint, Michigan. This was partially just being practical. I grew up in Flint, so I know firsthand what it was like in the 80s in a way that I don’t know New York City. Though I still did tons of research to get my facts right. Plus, I believe that setting matters. There are too many movies and other stories that take place in LA and NY.
I have thought a lot about Flint since the water crisis happened. I went to a grocery store when I was there visiting my family and I saw all these people just filling their grocery carts with bottled water. That also made me want to write about Flint. But I didn’t want to write about the water crisis, I wanted to write about the history that led up to it. One of the things that was heartbreaking about it, was that though Flint had been ravaged by GM layoffs during the 80s and 90s, it was actually on the upswing when the water crisis struck. The University of Michigan had built a satellite campus in Flint which was revitalizing the city. Then the Republican governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint and stripped the democratically elected local representatives of their power and switched Flint’s water supply to the notoriously polluted Flint River.
Buick City, 1:00 AM, which you wrote and composed as part of Experiments in Opera, is the first-ever serial opera podcast. The 1st episode was released on November 6. All of it was presented in four weekly episodes, the last of which was on November 27. It is worth reminding everyone that the complete work will live n perpetuity on the web. Was the release date coincidental or not quite?
You’re right. The release date was not a coincidence. With it being a time-travel piece I wanted a symbolic date. The story is about a woman in the present going back to 1984 to try to prevent the murder of her father, Wayne, which had happened on the night of Reagan’s re-election.
One of the many themes in the work is the parallel between the 2016 election and the 1984 election. I don’t mention the name of our current president, but I most often hear comparisons between him and Hitler and Nixon, and I wanted to add Reagan to that list. Reagan was an inept, evil man who beat a smart qualified woman (Geraldine Ferraro, who ran as Mondale’s VP pick), and many of the problems we now face were created by the “Reagan Revolution.”
I love podcasts—especially fiction podcasts. And as much as I love live theater, I believe that recordings are important. And we are now in a time where the recording industry is dead, but podcasts are booming. Opera is an form that synthesizes the arts, so it is only natural to do a podcast opera.
Candy Corn, is another one of your works, a short opera-theater piece, premiered in early November at The Flea Theater in NYC. What is Candy Corn about?
Candy Corn is about a suicide and how it affected the loved ones left behind. I told it in reverse chronology. It’s in three scenes that happen in under 20 minutes with three set and costume changes. And along with the tragedy of the story a number of other themes are touched upon: social media addiction, memory, music, and what it means to be human, to think, and to be alive. The story is dark, but it also includes some humor, dancing and a trip to the beach.