When most people think of opera, they imagine a red-faced, sweating man or woman on stage, belting out unintelligible lyrics. Think Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in “What’s Opera, Doc?” or maybe even Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep in the eponymous biopic).
While much of opera isn’t this, it does carry the burden of its stereotypes in common conception.
But the American Modern Opera Company (AMOC) isn’t like the stereotypes or the reality of traditional opera. Summarizing the group in a few words is difficult at best, so the founders and co-artistic directors, Zack Winokur and Matt Aucoin, have taken to explaining it with a hodge-podge of descriptors.
“It’s opera company, part rock band, part traveling theater troupe,” Aucoin said. “It’s a collective of singers, dancers, and instrumentalists.”
The trouble with traditional opera is that its production can be very frustrating.
“For every production in a given city, you know, basically you fly in a bunch of artists who don’t know each other and they’re forced to do this incredibly intense, deep work at a very high level extremely quickly,” Aucoin said. “So many other art forms like dance or rock music or jazz have a different model—the model of a group of artists who actually work together long term.”
This idea appealed to Winokur and Aucoin as a way to create a new, more lasting kind of opera company. The two artists had each been toying with this idea separately over the last few years. Last year, they got together to make it happen.
But they needed more people to fill out their company—people they could work with for a long time, longer than the typical opera run.
“We brought our favorite collaborators and a group of artists who are all incredibly talented and all have big careers, but also have real mind and stories to tell,” Winokur said. “We wanted to provide a kind of incubator and executor for all of those people’s most interesting and ambitious ideas that otherwise wouldn’t have a place to go.”
This process culminated in their first Run AMOC! Festival at the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) in Cambridge. Both Aucoin and Winokur have experience working at the A.R.T.—Aucoin wrote Crossing, which was performed in 2015, while Winokur directed The Black Clown, which opened the theater’s current season. Now, AMOC is returning for the second (and now annual) festival from December 14-16. AMOC is filling this year’s festivals with a number of small performances—instead of one multi-hour opera as might be performed at the Boston Opera House. And many of these performances won’t even be opera, strictly speaking.
“I think often people think of opera as something dusty and old-fashioned, which it often is,” Winokur said. “It can be this vital, urgent thing that looks nothing like what you thought it was, and our first show is really representative of that.”
With Care is one of AMOC’s pieces in the upcoming festival. Instead of an opera filled with singing, With Care is a combination of dance and violin playing. Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber will explore the ideas of care and caregiving alongside violin music from Miranda Cuckson and Keir GoGwilt.
AMOC tries to push the boundaries of what opera can be and With Care might be the perfect example. But Aucoin anticipates a wide array of audience reactions to the piece.
“Our dance pieces, I think, provoke the strongest reactions a lot of the time possibly because Bobbi Jene Smith’s work is very much about going to extremes, of putting herself in extreme positions and using her own body as a laboratory in a way,” Aucoin said. “In our piece, A Study on Effort, Bobbi is naked for part of the show, not in a merely sexual way, but as a means of displaying the extremes of her effort.”
This piece, and others in the festival, are designed to subvert operatic expectations and to provoke questions and feelings in the audience.
“It never bothers me when people say they didn’t understand something, as long as they felt something,” Aucoin said. “And nobody’s ever told us they didn’t feel anything.”
A secondary effect of this festival is that it gives the company members more time to get to know each other in different configurations. With this, AMOC can begin gearing up toward full-length operas that will be written by Aucoin and directed by Winokur. These full-length operas will utilize the entire company in new and different ways, just like these shorter performances in the festival.
RUN AMOC! FESTIVAL. 12.14-12.16. LOEB DRAMA CENTER OF AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATER, 64 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. AMERICANREPERTORYTHEATER.ORG