There is a change happening in opera. Once the province of coloratura sopranos and heldentenors belting at the top of their lungs, opera is beginning to embrace all sorts of singing and instrumentation, including colloquial styles you might associate more with Music Hall of Williamsburg than the Met. Du Yun's Angel's Bone, which just won the Pulitzer Prize, weaves together everything from plainchant and Renaissance music to screaming punk rock songs (sung by Elysian Fields' Jennifer Charles.)
Ken Ueno's AEOLUS, which had it's premiere last Friday at National Sawdust, is a series of impressionistic scenes cobbled together from Greek mythology, literary fragments and Ueno's own hazy memories. Ueno appeared throughout, both in ponderous voiceover and in person, wandering around the stage mumbling and throat singing through a megaphone, occasionally playing a drum sample on his iPhone. FLUX Quartet played music that alternated between eerie dissonance and Morton Feldman-like drone.
But, the clear standout of this performance was Majel Connery, who sings in a sultry, low voice that sounds like a cross between Fiona Apple and Portishead's Beth Gibbons. Connery's stylized voice is many things: intoxicating, exotic, hypnotic (as in the song/aria/whatever "There is No One Like You"). What it is not, by the narrowest of definitions, is operatic, though Connery did demonstrate moments of lyricism as she navigated AEOLUS' higher ranges.
In addition to being a talented singer, Connery is the brainchild behind the Chicago-based Opera Cabal which, in addition to AEOLUS, has commissioned and produced new works by Caroline Shaw, Phyllis Chen, and Georg Friedrich Haas, among others. According to Opera Cabal's website: "In an era of rapidly changing audiences and shifting musical genres...Opera Cabal reaches into the neighboring visual, theatrical and technological communities to broaden the audience for and the definition of opera in a new century, reviving the integrity of a revered art form."
Of course, there are others who've been doing this for quite some time now - most notably Beth Morrison Projects - picking up the slack for the bigger houses who've mostly lost the appetite for staging new work. But, it's one thing to sound new, it's another to sound relevant. If that means changing the sound of opera from what we've known to what we're familiar with, that's an exchange I'd gladly make.