How could we say no when Julieanne and Katy asked Chicago Opera Vanguard to take part in Pivot Arts’ new incubator program? We were being offered a week in a rehearsal studio, and the only requirement was to use the time and space however we needed. No looming opening night, no critics, no predetermined final result.
For a group of artists who combine music, performance, visual art and literature to create new performance pieces, this was a breath of fresh air. We constantly struggle to find the time and funds to work on our material before putting it in front of an audience. Usually when a theater, dance, or opera company enters a rehearsal process, they have a clear idea of the finished product. They have to. There is only so much time to work on the show before it opens. But when the goal is not a tangible product, when the goal is to explore an idea or experiment with different disciplines or simply to see where inspiration leads, that’s when the most interesting, groundbreaking work can be created. For years our composer Eric Reda wanted to set to music a libretto by playwright Philip Dawkins. So with the support of Pivot Arts, we gathered a group of artists – director Matthew Ozawa, music director Christopher Owen, soprano Rebecca Prescott, and baritone Justin Adair – and we went to work. Our goal for the incubator was to realize the musical and visual language to this new piece, nothing more substantial or tangible than that.
In addition to space and time, our work over the week was greatly enhanced by the talents of soon-to-be-stars from Loyola University Chicago’s fine arts program – Adam, Angela, Brian, Caitlyn, Corrine, and Ryan. These young singing actors had no idea what they were getting into (since we didn’t know either), but they jumped in to our process wholeheartedly. Matthew taught them the basics of Suzuki and Noh so they could improvise movement. Christopher turned them into a tight, “Shape Note” singing ensemble.
Very quickly they became our ideal partners in collaboration. In the second rehearsal, everyone sat down to read through the opening scene. Working together, we investigated its form, shared our opinions of the characters’ intentions, and tried out different approaches to the scene. At one point during the rehearsal, Eric pointed at Brian and asked him to improvise a melody to the words. Without hesitating, Brian sang the line. Then Eric pointed to Angela and asked her to sing a different melody, which she did. This repeated through all six students through several rounds, until the melody was refined and dramatic enough to allow for improvised harmonization within the scene.
By the end of that rehearsal, we had built a musical structure for the scene that gave Eric the raw material he needed to begin composing. By the end of the week, we had two choruses and two arias completed along with some staging ideas. These are huge first steps towards the completion of the piece. But it’s very possible that none of that material will end up in the final work. And that’s OK. What will remain are the discoveries we made together, the things we learned about our material, and the working relationships forged between 12 artists, most of whom had never worked together before.
Art is messy and inspiration is unpredictable. It doesn’t always fit neatly into a production calendar. These are the realities that working artists navigate everyday. What the Pivot incubator provided us with were the basic elements to make our artistic creation possible: a little space to breathe and time to create.
Dan Cox is the Managing Director of Chicago Opera Vanguard.