operaSHOP review by Mike Maizels

Check out this on-point critical review of operaSHOP by Mike Maizels, scholar in residence at High Concept Laboratories! We love you, Mike.


As one of the only national performance troupes with what founder Majel Connery describes as a “scholarly imperative,” Opera Cabal is exploring the complex territory between musical, dramatic and choreographed performance in order to interrogate the future of opera. Responding to the growing demand for performative scholarship, Connery and Cabal have dedicated themselves to the notion of scholarly performance. They have placed new emphasis on the dramaturg who, typically relegated to an advisory role, attends every rehearsal in order to continually ground the work in pressing scholarly concerns. With the upcoming launch of the Cabal Quarterly, Opera Cabal is set to become the only opera company with its own performance studies journal. And earlier this fall, Opera Cabal introduced operaSHOP, a residency series for experimental artists from fields outside the purview of traditional opera. High Concept Laboratories is pleased to partner with Opera Cabal to host the inaugural recipients, cellist and dancer Teddy Rankin-Parker and video and mixed-media artist Alexander Overington.

Rankin-Parker and Overington collaborated to produce an inter-media performance known as Die Kunst ist Super! as well as by its alternate title, This is an Opera We Made. Layering a dizzying array of source material including a Michelle Kwan gold medal figure skating performance alongside stock screen-saver photography, Die Kunst pits the live Rankin-Parker and his partly-improvised performance against the array of recorded media wielded by Overington from his command station in the center of the space.

The work opens with Rankin-Parker battling for audience attention with what might be described as a video mash-up from Hell: the opening scene from Claudio Monteverdi's L'Orfeo laid over a 1960s infomercial touting the benefits of futuristic plexiglass, while a computer-generated voiceover attempts to read Gertrude Stein's Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights with subtitles derived from an admixture of Oscar Wilde's interpretation of Salome and text purely out of Overington's imagination.This visual-auditory-textual cacophony is only the opening salvo in an ongoing struggle between the live performer and the digital media; Rankin-Parker continually attempts to speak, dance, or play his cello in a way that can overcome, or at least attenuate, the deluge of sensory information and source material.

The overall thematic of the work is of two young artists struggling with the ponderous weight of operatic history. How, as the alternate title seems to ask, can one make an opera? How can opera be made vital and relevant in the 21st century when its history is so oppressive and its immediacy so thoroughly supplanted by film, television and a panoply of personal entertainment? The gnawing fear that the work will fail to live up to the (crumbling) legacy of opera surfaces repeatedly in the performance; Rankin-Parker confesses to his fear that their use of digital video will be seen as “copping out,” while in a moment of dejection Overington suggests they simply make a work “talking about how we don't know what we are talking about.” This metastasized version of what literary critic Harold Bloom famously described as “the anxiety of influence” has informed a significant strand of the late 20th century avant-garde, from the Conceptual art critique of originality to the ironic revival of history paintings in the 1980s. Further afield—though equally symptomatic— the sculptor and installation artist Bruce Nauman has made an entire career out of distilling the anxiety of the artist in his studio agonizing over the existential decision of what to make.

This proliferation of overbearing predecessors led art historian Craig Owens to formulate a theory of postmodernism based on the notion of allegory constructed as the opposite of representation. While in a representational situation an image refers to a thing out in the world, allegory forecloses the possibility of moving outside textual reference. Allegorical images, tropes or characters always refer only to other images, tropes or characters. Owens' closed world of postmodern allegory speaks to the condition of working under the crushing weight of history. As Rankin-Parker and Overington become acutely aware of their work as operatic, they are mired into thinking in terms of precursors with which they cannot hope to compete. These prior works turn into a nightmarish jumble in Overington's montages, crowding each other out as they combine to push Rankin-Parker off the stage.

Nevertheless, the struggle continues against both the noise and the silence of history. Like Lucky and Pozzo in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Overington and Rankin-Parker grapple with the bleak chaos and the burden of their responsibility, and strain in search of meaning. It is this search that frames not only the performance Die Kunst but also the mission of Opera Cabal, to envision a theoretically engaged future for operatic performance.


This interpretive text comes courtesy of HCL's new scholar-in-residence, Mike Maizels. A PhD Candidate in the History of Art at the University of Virginia, Mike's research focuses on the emergence of postmodernity in the art and thought of the late 1960s and early 1970s. More of Mike's critical and curatorial projects are available on his website,

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