By Susie Allen
Photos by Lloyd DeGrane

In the spacious second floor of a converted warehouse on Chicago’s North Side, Majel Connery and Nick DeMaison chat amiably, remarkably serene for two people about to debut a complex opera production.

In a few hours, Opera Cabal, the avant-garde opera company they co-founded, will perform Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. As dancers start stretching and musicians warm up for the performance, Connery and DeMaison stay calm amid the hubbub.

Being low-key is part of Opera Cabal’s appeal and part of its approach to pushing the boundaries of art, says Connery, a PhD candidate in Music.

“We’re pretty loose, and that’s a model that’s worked so far,” Connery says. “One of the things I’ve discovered is that if you’re in a tiny space with 20 people who are riveted, that is way more rewarding than a proper venue with lighting, where you’re sitting and being formal.”

Indescribable and intimate productions

There are no easy descriptions for Opera Cabal’s performances. Even DeMaison admits he can’t quite describe the company’s work. He often tells people, “I direct a small opera company,” and explains, “It’s not what you think. It’s theater with music, but both intimate and unlike anything you’ve seen before.”

Connery puts it this way: “We do crazy stuff in unlikely venues.”

“Crazy stuff” includes staging Lamia, a new opera about a mythical, child-eating demon, and once relocating a production from one venue to another in eight hours because the host gallery didn’t have a performance license and the Chicago police shut them down.

High Concept Laboratories, a former warehouse that now serves as a loft and performance space, is Opera Cabal’s most recent venue. There, Connery and DeMaison spent the summer developing Pierrot Lunaire and two other pieces, and they prepared for a recent performance benefit that was held at the home of physics professors Young-Kee Kim and Sidney Nagel.

Connery, a classically trained opera singer, says she’s struggled at times to balance her graduate education with her passion for performance. “I couldn’t figure out a way to make those two meet,” she says, but Opera Cabal provides an outlet for both her intellectual and artistic interests. The company recently staged Vesalii Icones by Peter Maxwell Davies, whose work is the topic of Connery’s dissertation. “I try to do work in the academy that is as creative as possible, and work outside the academy that is as smart as possible,” she says.

‘Everything but the kitchen sink’

Connery and DeMaison formed Opera Cabal in 2006, after seeing a musical performance of Pierrot Lunaire by eighth blackbird, the University’s artists-in-residence. “We were so tremendously blown over,” Connery says. “We talked about starting a company that explicitly produced its own works like this.”

They applied for University Theater’s Summer Incubator residency program, in which they spent two weeks developing the libretto for Lamia with support from students in University Theater and the Theater Arts and Performance Studies program.

“[It happened] how anything else happens,” Connery says of the company’s early days. “You ask, ‘Who are my friends?’” Connery and DeMaison soon assembled an ensemble of talented, young musicians and artists, including pianist Vicky Chow, flutist Amelia Lukas, and artist Rose DiSalvo. “One of our default qualities is ‘everything but the kitchen sink.’ If we have a video designer we want to work with, we make a video component.”

Egoless and informal

For Lukas, there is a definite advantage to Opera Cabal’s informal style. “There are no egos here,” she explains.

The absence of egos is immediately apparent during the dress rehearsal for Pierrot Lunaire. DeMaison, the director, listens attentively when the performers or technicians have a concern. Connery and DeMaison attend to the mundane details, setting up chairs for the performance without complaint. And everyone has a sense of humor. Before the dress rehearsal, DeMaison quietly sings, “I’m too sexy for my Schoenberg,” to the tune of “I’m Too Sexy,” by Right Said Fred.

While the mood is relaxed, the artists—many of whom travel from New York to perform with Opera Cabal—take the work seriously.

“We all have to commit to each other in a way,” DeMaison says of the ensemble. “Because what gives an ensemble staying power—it’s not one person who holds the name, acting as the administrator and making it go. It’s really having a communal atmosphere.”

Both Connery and DeMaison have staying power on their minds these days. “When I get out of grad school, I’m going to run this the right way,” says Connery. “We’re going to become a nonprofit and take the next step to becoming something like eighth blackbird plus opera.”

DeMaison agrees. “If people are willing to support us playing in this land of make-believe, I will play as long as there is support.”

Originally published on November 16, 2009.