Sarah Palin faces off with Joe the Plumber and Joe Biden. A chicken sings an ontological litany in a nonsense language. A fictional author fights to control his characters.
Boston’s experimental chamber opera company Guerilla Opera delights in stretching the boundaries of what opera can do, often playing with and subverting conventions of performance and presentation. The company celebrates its 10th anniversary on May 31 at Cambridge’s Club Oberon, with a showcase of favorite excerpts from productions past and future.
The world’s largest opera institutions are notoriously conservative. For example, the Metropolitan Opera’s 2017-18 season features only one work by a living composer, and it has performed just one work by a woman in the last century. Guerilla Opera takes the opposite path. In its decade of existence, every single show it has mounted has been a commission.
“I always saw Guerilla Opera as a new music ensemble that does opera more than I see it as an opera company,” said artistic director and percussionist Mike Williams, one of the Boston Conservatory graduates who formed the group. It draws from a pool of regular musicians for its productions, and it does not work with a conductor. Its commissions present opportunities for everyone involved to take chances and collaborate.
Composers who have worked with Guerilla love its intrepid model. Rudolf Rojahn (who cofounded the group) pointed to the troupe’s “raw, infectious energy,” and composer Per Bloland praised its “voracious intensity.”
“In my experience with them I found that this collective leadership made for a deeply invested interpretation of my piece in a way that was very special,” composer Hannah Lash commented in an e-mail.
“The members of Guerilla Opera commit themselves totally to each project, which necessitates being open to a very wide range of stylistic and aesthetic approaches to opera,” wrote Curtis K. Hughes, the composer of “Say It Ain’t So, Joe,” a political sendup about the 2008 vice presidential debates.
“It is very exciting as a composer to feel that you can let your imagination run wild because the musicians are going to be happy to try things they’ve never done before.”
For concertgoers who are used to operas with hummable arias, Guerilla’s repertoire may seem alien and confounding. Williams described Guerilla commissions as being in a plethora of styles, some more lyrical than others, but everything it commissions has a contemporary sensibility. Each production also requires great virtuosity from all involved, working from technically difficult scores without the aid of a conductor.
Aliana de la Guardia, a soprano and cofounder of Guerilla who works as its general manager, explained how connecting with the audience figures into her performances. “Some of the stuff we do is very bizarre, and if you don’t find those common things that thread the emotion of the character, then you don’t quite sell the contemporary music,” she said.
Most of Guerilla’s operas are staged in small, intimate spaces such as the Zack Box Theater at Boston Conservatory. De la Guardia is a fan of the “visceral energy” she says such spaces can create. “I think that’s really exciting for a performer, but also for an audience member to be so physically involved in what’s happening around them, in their immediate environment,” she said. Some of their past operas have even incorporated audience participation. In Ken Ueno’s “Gallo,” a journey into the relationship between humanity and the landscape that includes the singing chicken mentioned earlier, audience members helped de la Guardia fly a kite and were invited to lie down on a beach made of Cheerios (by Guerilla Opera’s director of design and production, set artist Julia Noulin-Mérat) to listen to a lullaby.
At its showcase, Guerilla will perform excerpts from past productions including “Gallo,” “Say It Ain’t So, Joe,” Rojahn’s “Heart of a Dog,” and Lash’s “Beowulf.” There will also be a teaser of an upcoming production, Andy Vores’s “Chrononhotonthologos,” which is based on an 18th-century farce on opera and spectacle. Noulin-Mérat and her frequent collaborator Allegra Libonati will host.
As the company moves into its second decade, radical exploration remains the cornerstone of everything it does. “Their first impulse is ‘yes’,” wrote Vores. “Everyone involved seems to have the same enthusiasm for stepping further out.”
At Club Oberon, Cambridge, May 31.www.guerillaopera.comZoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.