Opera's 'Island of Misfit Toys' takes its biggest stage yet

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Opera's 'Island of Misfit Toys' takes its biggest stage yet
Members of the American Modern Opera Company, from left: Bobbi Jene Smith, Zack Winokur, Julia Bullock, Or Schraiber and Conor Hanick after rehearsing a staged production of Messiaen’s “Harawi” at the Lumberyard center in Catskill, N.Y., May 22, 2022. The company, a collective of restless and enterprising young musicians and dancers, is preparing for the Ojai Music Festival. Lauren Lancaster/The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone

CATSKILL, NY.- At the Lumberyard center here on a recent evening, more than 15 artists gathered outdoors around a long banquet spread over several picnic tables that had been lined up and topped with tea lights, bottles of rosé and accouterments for a feast of roasted pork lettuce wraps.

The group — mostly members of the American Modern Opera Company, or AMOC, a collective founded five years ago by some of the most restless and enterprising young people in the performing arts — locked hands around their place settings. “Close the circle,” one said, nodding toward a remaining gap. Bobbi Jene Smith, a dancer-choreographer, arrived with her toddler, a multilingual mega-fan of “Frozen,” to fill it.

There was no prayer or any kind of speech. Just a pause, before they all smiled and said in near unison, “Thanks.” Then dinner began.

As friends caught up and musicians mingled with dancers, Rebecca Sigel — the company’s manager for its Lumberyard residency — relayed pandemic safety measures like daily testing, and asked for help cleaning up after dinner. Cooking, something of a competitive sport in AMOC, had been planned in advance; but dishwashing was handled just as easily. The night before, the honors fell to Julia Bullock, one of the world’s great sopranos, who had happily volunteered.

That is how AMOC operates: with an all-in-it-together, egalitarian spirit. And that’s how its members insist on offering themselves to partnering institutions and presenters — the latest of which is the Ojai Music Festival in California, where the company will have its largest platform yet, programming and performing four days of events, beginning June 9. As at any AMOC show, anything goes; with disciplines colliding, a violinist may dance, or a concert may turn theatrical. Regardless, novelty and experimentation will reign.

The company’s role as this year’s music director at Ojai — a festival overseen by a different guest each year, in collaboration with artistic director Ara Guzelimian — is a testament to the precious space it occupies. Endlessly adventurous, it is also a magnet for major support; its members have performed on high-profile stages, been commissioned by the likes of the Paris Opera and even won a MacArthur “genius” fellowship. In March, it received a $750,000 Mellon Foundation grant.

Despite such prestige, AMOC is “an island of misfit toys,” said bass-baritone Davóne Tines, who like everyone in the company balances his work with it and a busy outside career. “I don’t know what the ‘misfit’ means, but I know that part of it is a yearning for a different sort of way.”

That type of yearning is how the company was born, over a lunch between composer Matthew Aucoin and stage director Zack Winokur in 2014. The two had grown up in each other’s orbits, overlapping at camp and the Juilliard School, but never really had a substantial conversation until then. They talked about the frustrations of getting a project done quickly with a group of strangers, and wondered what would happen instead if a small network of artists were brought together for intentional, enduring relationships.

Over the next couple of years the idea grew more earnest, and Aucoin and Winokur began to invite some of their favorite colleagues from the worlds of music and dance to join. They also sought recommendations; Aucoin asked violinist Keir GoGwilt, a member, “Who is the violinist you respect the most?” Miranda Cuckson, GoGwilt responded. So she came on board, too.

“There was a very particular profile that we were looking for in the artists, which is people who are virtuosos in their area and therefore are appreciated by institutions, but sometimes chafe at the limitations,” Aucoin said. “It was the people who had the chops to excel in the capital-C classical versions of these art forms but didn’t want to live there all the time.”

One such artist was Paul Appleby, a tenor who appears regularly at the Metropolitan Opera. When he heard from Aucoin, he recalled, he had been looking for more new-music projects. “How many times,” he said, “can you do ‘Magic Flute’ before you start to glaze over a bit?” Tines felt similarly, describing repertoire like Schumann’s “Liederkreis,” for all its beauty, as “a straitjacket.”

During the more nebulous days of AMOC, its artists found refuge in the rural town of Stamford, Vermont, where they were regularly hosted by the dancer Marta Miller on an idyllic property with a vegetable garden, pool and rehearsal studio. (Aucoin and Winokur have also bought houses nearby.) It’s now a tradition to meet there in August.

“Usually the Vermont time has not been about creating a project as much as working on stuff,” Winokur said. “Or workshopping ideas or totally experimenting. And there’s a level of social engagement: You’re living together, eating together, doing dishes together.”

Vermont is where the ritual of giving thanks at dinner started. It’s also where, between the meal and dessert, AMOC members tend to give impromptu performances — a private entertainment that inspired “Family Dinner,” a modular set of miniature concertos by Aucoin that will premiere at Ojai.

When they get together, artistic disciplines blur in an open-minded manner redolent of Black Mountain College — the short-lived liberal arts college where Merce Cunningham, John Cage and Anni Albers, for example, freely experimented alongside their students. With AMOC, Smith said, “One thing feeds another.” She continued: “Why would Keir pick up a violin to play, and why would I dance to it? It’s amazing to understand the why, and so much gets answered from there.”

Less formal cross-pollination has been productive, too. One night, Bullock danced with former Batsheva company member Or Schraiber after dinner, and the casual fun led to Schraiber joining a staged production of Messiaen’s song cycle “Harawi” at Ojai, directed by Winokur and choreographed by Smith.

When the company formally announced itself, in 2017, it had a mix of instrumentalists (including JACK Quartet cellist Jay Campbell, the exhilaratingly versatile pianist Conor Hanick, genre-blending flutist Emi Ferguson, bassist-composer Doug Balliett, and Jonny Allen, of Sandbox Percussion); vocalists (among them the ubiquitous countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo); and dancers (in addition to Schraiber and Smith, Julia Eichten — though cellist Coleman Itzkoff has convincingly pulled off this role as well).

At first, the company really had only one project on the calendar: a small festival at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where it had an early champion in Diane Borger, the theater’s executive producer. She already knew Tines and Aucoin — their talent, she said was obvious and extraordinary — and committed to three years of hosting them for an event that, she recalled, had to be called Run AMOC!, because “how could it not?”

It was essential to the company that its members receive equal pay for their work. “All of these people are at the same caliber, yet their pay is so different based on their disciplines,” Winokur said. “Musicians make more, and dancers make less.”

So they set a precedent of a high minimum pay for performance and rehearsal weeks. “It’s less, obviously, than what Anthony or Julia can make in a night,” he added, referring to Costanzo and Bullock’s star status in opera, “but it’s not chump change, either.”

The policy is built into the company’s contracts. Sometimes, it’s too expensive — most often at dance institutions, which tend to be chronically underfunded. So when it can, AMOC makes up the difference with subsidies. (That Mellon grant will help.) In the end, Winokur said, “everyone enters the room feeling the same way.”

Usually, Winokur said, partners are fine with AMOC’s pay standards. One reason could be that most institutions would be willing to support the company’s artists anyway. Many of them have been regulars at Lincoln Center; during the 2018-19 season, Bullock was in residence at Metropolitan Museum of Art. Costanzo was instrumental in bringing the New York Philharmonic back from its pandemic hiatus. “We have,” Tines said, “earned our stripes.”

That puts the company in a position not enjoyed by many avant-gardists, or young artists generally. They have freedom, and means.

“The way AMOC engages with institutions is, we are happy to utilize the resources of the hardware,” Tines said. “We need the spaces, we need the financial support. We do not need the artistic ideals or ideas even. Just allow people to be their full selves and artists to create, and hopefully you will allow an ecosystem for beautiful things to be made. The provider of resources cannot also be the arbiter of them.”

When AMOC is left to its own devices, it operates in a disciplined, democratic way. It has a “small but busy staff,” Winokur said, consisting of him, managing director Jennifer Chen, producer Cath Brittan and company manager Mary McGowan. The company is also made up of committees, such as the one overseeing Ojai.

Anthony Cheung, who composed one of the festival premieres, “The Echoing of Tenses,” said: “I’ve never seen an organization like this, where even in the planning stages people involved or not in the project are so invested.” Guzelimian laughed while recalling the sight of a shared Google Docs file for Ojai, where changes from all members were happening in real time. “Even editing documents,” he said, “is a collective effort.”

During the pandemic lockdown, the company met regularly on video calls in which members had long, seminar-like discussions about AMOC’s mission and future. Group decisions, they learned, don’t come easily. Cuckson said, “There’s a lot of work you have to put in,” while Appleby put it more bluntly: “Democracy can be a pain in the ass.”

But at their best, the artists achieve what Guzelimian described as “Brownian motion,” adding: “They exert creative pulls on each other that just make more energy. I’m still scratching my head, because conventional wisdom would say that the larger the committee, the more it becomes leveled. In their case, the interaction seems to push them.”

When they do push one another, it’s often friendly. At Lumberyard, they were preparing a dense slate of Ojai programming, including new works, a tribute to long-overlooked composer Julius Eastman and dances including the premiere of Smith’s “Open Rehearsal,” based on her film “Broken Theater.” Days are long, and sometimes hot, with one of the spaces cooled only by open doors and fans. Winokur had the most aerial view, moving from room to room with his dog, a young mutt named Henry (one of three on site, joining Sigel’s senior beagle-terrier mix, Ollie, and new puppy, Otis).

Even amid struggle — repetition of a single passage, say, for an hour at a time — the mood stayed light. With Costanzo in New York singing in “Akhnaten” at the Met Opera, Tines playfully sang his part in falsetto during rehearsals for Aucoin’s setting of poet Jorie Graham’s “Deep Water Trawling,” newly arranged for AMOC. And the artists were quick to compliment. Appleby told Cheung that he felt like “The Echoing of Tenses” made him “see the Matrix.” In a break from the thorniness of “Deep Water,” Bullock told Aucoin, “I like this music, Matt,” to which he said, “Thanks, Jules; it’s nice to hear every once in a while.”

As she spoke, Bullock rubbed her baby bump. Her coming parenthood is a reminder of the life events that loom over AMOC. They all have independent careers, and some already have families. Winokur said that the company’s structure — more of a relationship network than an organization with regular programming — could protect it from committing to a future it can’t maintain. AMOC’s sustainability, Tines said, is a “big philosophical question.”

“I’m interested in understanding what we look like in our next phases of scale,” he added. “Does it mean inviting new people? Does it mean modeling what we’re doing for other groups?”

For now, the company’s institutional support continues apace. Winokur said the coming year, after the wave of work created for Ojai, will entail a lot of touring. “Harawi” is going to the Aix-en-Provence Festival in July. “Comet/Poppea” — which blends Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” with a new opera adaptation of W.E.B. Du Bois’ story “The Comet” by George Lewis — will premiere at the Spoleto Festival USA next spring.

And that future, as open-ended as it is micromanaged, is currently taking shape at picnic tables in the Hudson Valley, alongside expressions of thanks, songs from “Frozen” and dinner recipes explained in great detail.

“I only refer to AMOC as a group of my closest friends and colleagues,” Tines said. “When I’m doing any other project, this is home.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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