Trading Cantos with the Deseret Experimental Opera Company

Posted July 30, 2013 in , ,

Opera isn’t exceedingly common in Salt Lake—especially experimental opera. There are few performances aside from the conventional high-brow opera the fancy folks dress up to attend. For the average Jill or Joe, the cost of the tickets and even the language in which some performances are performed might be a barrier, and the idea of attending an opera might seem a little too upper-crust for someone more interested in a rock n’ roll performance.

That’s where The Deseret Experimental Opera Company comes in. The group writes, composes and performs narrative works set to music, featuring a cascade of visual and auditory elements combined into a big performance with many contributing artists.

I met with two of the founders and primary composers Jesse Quebbeman-Turley and Logan Hone at Kilby Court just before they played a set as part of another band, Bright Whistles. The duo was eager to talk about their upcoming opera, but first they shared a little about how the group got started.

They began as friends who played jazz music together in Provo. As they learned and grew as musicians, they eventually met experimental opera composer Christian Asplund, who teaches at BYU, and whose work with The Seattle Experimental Opera Company is a major influence for them. Under the mentor-ship of Asplund, Quebbeman-Turley and Hone, along with Librettist Luke Swenson, became interested in contemporary opera and put the group together, modeling their efforts after Asplund’s opera company.

The term “opera” often brings to mind puffed sleeves and fat ladies, but according to Quebbeman-Turley, that’s not quite what they offer: “We’re using the term ‘opera’ loosely. We don’t use the term in the sense of Wagner or Mozart opera. For us, it’s a work that’s visual, narrative, musical and theatrical all at the same time.”

Their upcoming performance of A Parking Lot for Hyacinths isn’t their first foray into opera, but it is the first performance by the company as a whole. Prior to this, Hone composed a small chamber opera called Strawberries in the Hive, which featured only two singers and two musicians. Their next performance is much bigger in scale. “Instead of having small productions all the time, we’re going for something bigger and trying to use all the resources we have available to us,” says Hone. “We want to make a work that’s bigger than just a show, bigger than just an art exhibit or dance piece.”

Quebbeman-Turley explains that the upcoming performance has it all, “[Logan and I] are composing, I’m performing and Logan is conducting. We also have musician friends for the orchestra, we’ve got a team of four artists that are helping us with sets, costumes and props, we have a lighting designer, we have a director, a choir, and we have the opera singers who are doing the singing and acting.”

The piece itself, which promises an astounding array of elements, is epitomized by its name, A Parking Lot for Hyacinths. As Quebbeman-Turley puts it, “The name is just an image that’s hopefully representative of the piece; nothing literally—it’s more like a short poem. We think it’s indicative of the work.”

Ultimately, the group has put together a stimulating narrative work, supported by a broad collection of talent that should surprise and intrigue viewers, and as Hone explains, the open-minded will be rewarded: “It’s definitely strange and odd, but somebody that’s into the experience and has an open mind will really enjoy it.” Quebbeman-Turley also notes that they want it to be unique, without casting out any potential viewers: “We don’t want it to be purposefully opaque or alienating in any way. There will probably be things people haven’t seen before or techniques that people haven’t seen before, but I think it’s an inviting piece. I think if you’ve never seen experimental music or opera before, it’s still compelling.”

The duo explains that audiences can look forward to seeing incredibly virtuosic musicians and compelling stage-performance with interesting visual elements, “Everything will be beautiful,” says Quebbeman-Turley, “Expect the unexpected.”

Although the group acknowledges that there aren’t many people performing experimental opera pieces in Utah, they hope to see that change. Their goal, according to Quebbeman-Turley, is to see experimental opera grow. “Anybody that wants to write an opera is welcome in,” he says, “[The Deseret Experimental Opera Company] is a club that anybody is welcome in. We want people to write [opera pieces], we want them to perform interdisciplinary works of music. We want to see as many operas in Utah as we can in the next couple of years.”

The idea of writing an opera might seem daunting to the uninitiated, but as Hone says, it doesn’t have to be large; opera can be done on any scale. “Opera is basically just a narrative set to music, with a theatrical performance,” he says.

Quebbeman-Turley also notes that there are all different types of opera, and even mentioned that his next work will be smaller, and probably Sci-fi themed. An opera, he says, can be a lot of things, “To us it could be a house show, or something that fills a 300-person theater, or it could be something you do with your friends in your living room. We want this to be another way for people to write and play music, and hopefully it’s a compelling way. It’s the most fun thing we’ve done.”

The Deseret Experimental Opera Company performs A Parking Lot for Hyacinths on August 9 and 10 in the Nelke Theatre-Harris Fine Arts Center on campus at BYU. You can buy tickets online. For more information about The Deseret Experimental Opera Company, or to express interest in being a part of The Deseret Experimental Opera Company, visit their Bandcamp page or Facebook page, or contact Jesse Quebbeman-Turley at jessequebbeman[at]gmail[dot]com.