On High Concepts

Since August of 2009, Opera Cabal has been the Ensemble in Residence at High Concept Laboratories. Following the success of the USW performances and prior to Majel settling in at HCL again for her Vesalii rehearsals, I've been pondering the unique and invaluable relationship that exists between these two organizations.

By now, anybody reading this probably knows (generally) what Opera Cabal is up to. Unfortunately, because of the nature of their work and its inherent visibility, HCL is a bit less of a known entity. Their mission is to partner with Chicago-area artists and performers to foster the creation and development of new artistic works.

Sounds simple, right? But what happens when a wide eyed young composer / conductor / would-be-director / reluctant producer approaches you and says, "I have this idea for a piece...but at the moment all I can tell you is that there's a scrim in the beginning and it gets ripped down and used to strangle a comedia dell'arte character...the same character that was just...well...birthed from that scrim about 6 minutes earlier. And there's video. But of what, I don't know. It'll be great."

If somebody approached me with that kind of nonsense, I would probably just laugh and tell them to come back when they had a slightly more well formed vision. As it turns out, however, it was me feeding that line to Kevin Simmons, HCL's Artistic Director, who said, "Tell me more." and eventually, "So who and what do we need to do this?"

Three months later, we'd shown three brand new productions, all about 40 minutes, of some very complex and challenging repertoire. Six months after that, we'd assembled a budget three times as large as anything we'd previously assembled and executed a three-city tour, premiering a new chamber opera (Lewis Nielson's USW). Again, it all sounds so simple. (Of course, we who are sorting out the grit of the day sometimes forget to step back and recognize the simple beauty of the whole.)

What HCL provided was the ability to take the first step. In that horrific, endless cycle (a cycle that conductors and composers in particular know all too well) wherein one can only prove oneself via documented experience, and lacking the experience, can't gain experience to prove oneself because one's got no experience, HCL is there to stop the feedback loop.

It goes without saying (although we'll keep saying it) that we are enormously grateful to EVERYONE who has supported the company, particularly in the last year and a half (donors, volunteers, interns, and any number of artists willing to work for less than their talent is really worth), but without our relationship with HCL developing as it has, USW simply would not have happened in February. End of story. The work that Kevin, Molly, Joe, Bea and Co. are doing is an invaluable resource to the creative community in Chicago. Here's hoping that both we and many other young companies continue to grow from the thoughtfulness, sincerity and generosity of this amazing institution.


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