classical music

For this new opera company, ‘company’ means friendship

Co-artistic directors Zack Winokur (left) and Matthew Aucoin with managing director Jennifer Chen.
Co-artistic directors Zack Winokur (left) and Matthew Aucoin with managing director Jennifer Chen. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — This weekend in Harvard Square, the American Modern Opera Company will lift the curtain on its first offerings. And co-artistic directors Matt Aucoin, 27, and Zack Winokur, 28, want you to know that when they say “company,” they mean friendship and camaraderie.

What they don’t mean, they say, are the kind of relationships found at most major opera companies around the globe.

Typically, such companies might bring in “different artists, different directors, different conductors for each production. The curious thing is that the artists themselves don’t have much say in who their colleagues are. Every production is kind of an island that forms and then evaporates after five weeks,” said Aucoin, on speakerphone at the Loeb Drama Center, where he called in from Los Angeles to speak to the Globe together with Winokur.


“The expectation is to make something of a very high quality very quickly, with a group of essentially strangers,” added Winokur.

Winokur and Aucoin, who both grew up in the greater Boston area, already have considerable experience in the field despite their young ages. (The word “wunderkind” repeatedly gets thrown around with their names.) Winokur has directed and choreographed at opera houses and festivals on multiple continents. Aucoin has worked as a composer and conductor at institutions including the Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His 2015 opera “Crossing” was premiered by the American Repertory Theater in association with Music-Theatre Group, receiving wide acclaim.

Attending a 2015 concert in Aix-en-Provence by conductor Teodor Currentzis and his MusicAeterna ensembles was a transformative experience for both AMOC artistic directors. “There was a whole section where Currentzis actually ducked, so that no one could see him, and the chorus kept going and having the most perfect tuning, the most perfect cutoffs imaginable,” said Winokur.


“I think that Zack and I both felt that this was so-called classical music being performed the way a rock band operates,” added Aucoin, who is the son of Globe theater critic Don Aucoin. “Essentially living together, touring together, committing to a deep artistic relationship.”

“The biggest thing is how much creative time we are able to spend with each other,” said managing director Jennifer Chen, 28, a Shrewsbury native who previously worked in an administrative position for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. “The type of collaboration we’re seeking is, I think, very special.”

To kick things off, this weekend’s ART-presented “Run AMOC!” Festival is presenting boundary-busting programs on a small scale.

“A Study on Effort” is an hourlong dialogue in music and movement between violinist Keir GoGwilt and dancer Bobbi Jene Smith. “Cage Match” features artists facing off in a “bonanza of super-virtuoso duets,” said Winokur. And “Were You There” is a multimedia piece that meditates on police killings of black men and women, featuring baritone Davóne Tines singing spirituals and songs.

This past summer, company members spent a month living and eating together at a former dance camp in Stamford, Vt., and the artistic directors hope that such residencies will become a vital part of AMOC’s future. Aucoin said he and his boyfriend are buying a house nearby, to expand the accessible rehearsal space.

“That is kind of essential to the deeply fermented collaborative relationships we’re looking to have. There is so much work that happens outside of the studio in scenarios like that,” Winokur said.


When searching for members, the artistic directors looked for people who were “already chafing at external limitations of their work,” said Aucoin, and the company includes some of the most intrepid young performers on the scene. The core ensemble includes such names as cellist Jay Campbell of the JACK Quartet, violinist and violist Miranda Cuckson, pianist Conor Hanick, and soprano Julia Bullock, who dazzled Symphony Hall in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s opening night all-Bernstein program this fall. “These are people who kind of blow my mind every time I see them rehearse,” Winokur summed up.

Many have connections to the Juilliard School or Harvard University. In fact Tines, Chen, Aucoin, and AMOC board member Matt Bird were all involved in Dunster House Opera Society’s 2009 production of Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress,” making the festival a sort of homecoming for them.

Perhaps their familiarity helps give the artists confidence to explore new possibilities. “A Study on Effort” was born from a surprise collaboration between Smith and GoGwilt, and at one point cellist Coleman Itzkoff and dancer Or Schraiber paired off to explore what they could dream up. “When we came back to look at what they’d made, it was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen . . . it’s not dancing and it’s not playing the cello,” said Winokur. “It sort of defines the aesthetic where there are two people working at the highest possible level of their disciplines, and they’ve come together and just made a third thing.”


Speaking by phone, Tines expressed his appreciation for the attention given to the visions of company members. “‘Were You There’ is very personal,” he said. “It’s a way for me to contextualize my experience with the African-American song literature, but also with the current social injustice climate that we deal with.”

AMOC residencies are already scheduled for next year at Harvard and New York City’s Park Avenue Armory, with a nebulous goal for a full-length Aucoin opera with the whole company in “a couple of years.” But what actually will develop is anyone’s guess. “Part of the idea for this company was for it not to be the me and Matt show, but to shape-shift around other people’s ideas to bring them into the world, and to give them as much space and time as they needed to do that,” said Winokur.


Presented by American Repertory Theater. At various locations, Harvard Square, Cambridge. Dec. 15-18. 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org, www.runningamoc.org

Zoë Madonna can be reached at zoe.madonna@globe.com. 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.