Translating Innova: The New Opera Work of Object Collection

Translating Innova: The New Opera Work of Object Collection

There are no typical divas in Object Collection’s operas, no heroines or heroes in the traditional sense. This is opera that, while distinguishing itself as such, takes into account the cross-pollination of media and art forms following the radical aesthetic transformations that began over half a century ago.

Written By

G Douglas Barrett

Four actors take the stage. Opposite an ensemble of four musicians, they pace briefly, waiting with self-assured ease, readying themselves for the impending procession. Rolling up his sleeves, Avi Glickstein picks up a pair of boxing gloves, puts on a wig and grabs hold of a broomstick. Fulya Peker puts on a pair of sunglasses and pulls out a compact. Wearing a pair of safety goggles, Deborah Wallace holds a wooden hammer and stands in front of a glass screen. Small ceramic toys sit on a table nearby. Meanwhile, Eric Magnus, wearing a frayed, half-torn tuxedo, sits at a table holding a spray bottle and a tool used for sanding drywall.

Innova cast
The Innova cast in action.

Music and action begin together abruptly. One hears a rhythmically disjointed bed of thudding electronic drum sounds against the chugging of distorted détaché cello and feedback-drenched guitars. Glickstein starts to convulse fervidly, shaking the broomstick in a kind of maniacal trance, while Peker enacts a series of majestically choreographed rock star poses (recalling the stage persona of Dead Kennedys’ one-time frontman Jello Biafra), at times twisting at the waist to view audience members in the mirror of the compact and then pointing violently at each chosen observer. As Magnus rips, tears, and bites at his tuxedo, the overall flow of action is punctuated by Wallace’s ritualistic smashing of the ceramic figurines, each of which she inspects with scientific scrutiny before and following their destruction. Glickstein drops to his knees. On all fours and still wearing the boxing gloves, with his right hand he begins to stab at the floor with a fake knife around the perimeter of his left hand planted on the ground. In front of Glickstein and continuing her intoxicated invocations of punk rock stage antics, Peker sings, or, rather, shouts at the top of her lungs, “Get in there. Come on. / Come on, coward, move. Get in there,” rapping in spurts of hysteria, urgently delivering the text first in Turkish, and then, following more posing, again in English.

A special preview trailer for Object Collection’s full performance of Innova, May 13-22, 2011, Abrons Art Center in New York City.

The scene described above opens Innova, the latest large-scale opera production by the New York-based music and theater performance group Object Collection. Throughout the piece, the audience is presented with a seemingly relentless barrage of text, action, sound, taste, and smell. (In one scene, performers eat a whole tray of sandwiches prepared beforehand by one of the performers; another scene involves the drunken conducting of an ensemble of applauders following a careful sequence of ritual beer pouring and drinking.) Initially a seemingly unparseable overload of the senses, upon closer inspection the work appears as a nuanced collage of interlocking tableaux; language, music, movement, and image commingle to create a unique tapestry of experience. Presented first in an hour-long preview version at New York’s Incubator Arts Project, January 6-11, 2011, Innova will be presented in its full three-hour grandeur May 13-22, 2011, at Abrons Arts Center in New York City. The music is performed by cellist Jessie Marino, guitarist Taylor Levine, bassist Kevin Farrell, and Travis Just performing computer and percussion; the actors include Avi Glickstein, Eric Magnus, Fulya Peker, and Deborah Wallace; my own role in the opera begins as a guitarist and ends performing alongside the rest of the actors.

Object Collection comprises theater director and playwright Kara Feely and composer/performer Travis Just. Since their founding in 2004, the group has been authoring, directing, and performing large-scale productions conceived as multi-media operas, performance installations, and evening-length concerts. Coming out of traditions of the experimental performing arts, the group’s background includes substantial knowledge of the work of Robert Ashley, Christian Wolff, and Richard Foreman, though they cite equally as influences the Volksbühne Berlin, John Cage, the Situationists, Swiss-German visual artist Dieter Roth, and Prince.

The group’s inaugural performance was a realization of John Cage’s Song Books created at Kunst Station Sankt in Cologne in 2004. This work of Cage’s would become somewhat emblematic of Object Collection’s special layering of musical and theatrical elements, their embracing of various kinds of notation systems (traditional, graphical, textual), and their collaging of texts taken from various authors (in the case of Song Books, Cage used texts by Thoreau, Duchamp, Marshall McCluhan, and Buckminster Fuller). The following year Object Collection premiered its first major work authored as a group, Is this a gentleman? (2005).

In May of 2006, Object Collection presented their second large-scale, self-authored theatrical piece, Evoke memories of a golden age. In this work, four characters (a wolf-man, a talkative corporate traveler, a sword-wielding businessman, and a woman who begins the performance wearing a bathrobe while soaking her feet in a bucket) each perform a series of semi-narrative vignettes that unfold over the course of an hour, often overlapping and communicating with one another. Occasionally the performers engage the audience directly. At times the sound of a broken chromatic cluster performed on melodica fades into the texture; at others, a delicate electronic drone sustains throughout an entire section. An audience member notices the strange quality of the characters’ level of casualness—both with respect to their address to one another and the audience—which seems somehow at odds with the austere sonic atmosphere and the bizarre situations that unfold on stage.

In Object Collection’s first full-scale opera work, Problem Radical(s) (2009), actors used a variation of speech-song to recite text Feely had collaged from speeches and writings of political activists, artists, and thinkers. An elaborately sprawling set made of found objects, trash, piles of clothing, and sets of temporary walls was continuously re-arranged, while miniature blimps floated around the performance space. The sound consisted of squelching slide guitar, sample-and-hold computer stuttering, and sludgy distorted bass guitar riffs, all accompanying the uncannily arousing proclamations, rants, and chants delivered by the actors. Strands of coherence and confusion seemed to enter and leave the work freely. Was this the music-theater of a distant phantasmagoric dystopia? The opera of an imaginary future?

Perhaps even following the operas of the recent greats of postwar European art music (Stockhausen, Berio, Ligeti, Penderecki, Nono), or the notable recent operas by Glass, Picker, and Corigliano, one might greet the notion of a “new opera” with a slightly raised eyebrow. Opera: a genre that began in the early 17th century when a society of musicians, poets, and philosophers from Florence—the Camerata, as they were called—decided to recreate antique tragedy based on the false premise that ancient Greek drama was sung the whole way through. According to cultural theorists Slavoj Žižek and Mladen Dolar, opera died long ago. A resuscitation of opera in the present-day, however, may prove to be of critical value. And Object Collection’s reconsideration of the first truly multi-media art form comes at a time when, especially in the context of contemporary art, the peculiarities of specific art forms tend to dissolve into what art historian Rosalind Krauss has called the contextless “international fashion of installation and intermedia work.” What is the status of opera when virtually all of cultural production is absorbed, specific contexts neutralized, by the Gesamtkunstwerk that is Facebook, when the total work of art is equivalent to the latest pop music video, doubtless replete with dramatic narrative, divas, heroes and heroines, a sound effects track, and musical numbers? What might a truly contemporary opera look like?

Object Collection’s work involves the re-articulation of opera as a vigorous, dynamic art form. Dolar argues that if opera is ever to achieve its original objective, it can’t simply function as “a concert in costumes,” nor can it serve as ordinary theater with musical accompaniment. Rather, opera must “stage the power of music itself.” With Object Collection, the meeting of music and theater occurs on a level more substantial than the staging of music that only serves to further the unfolding of dramatic narrative. In Innova, translation plays a special role in this intersection both as metaphor and real operation, functioning on the levels of notation, media, and language. Doubtless the opera is no stranger to translation. Innova‘s libretto is collaged from no less than seven languages (Spanish, Turkish, German, Mandarin, French, Hebrew, and English), each chosen based on the abilities of the actors, however refined or not. The text itself is appropriated from the work of an exhaustive list of artists, politicians, art historians, political and cultural theorists, theater directors, filmmakers, and philosophers, all taken from throughout the 20th century. The appearance of language as a visceral, sensible medium in Object Collection’s work contrasts with the citational mode of the libretto. In addition, the group’s use of the musical score emphasizes language as communication.

Throughout Object Collection’s body of work, notation is used as a prompt to action for both actors and musicians. While actors primarily receive stage direction from Feely, they also work from scores containing variants of music notation (and, as mentioned earlier, even follow the cues of a conductor in one scene). On the other hand, the musicians, while ordinarily reading from different kinds of standard and extended music notation, are at times given instructions in the form of text scores. This interweaving of particular modes of instruction creates subtle differences in performative qualities, demanding special attention from an audience member.

Referring to the epic theater of Brecht and Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, contemporary French philosopher Jacques Rancière argues that the spectator of a performance “must be confronted with the spectacle of something strange, which stands as an enigma and demands that he investigate the reason for its strangeness. He must be pressed to abandon the role of passive viewer and to take on that of the scientist who observes the phenomena and seeks their cause.” The cause of the musical and theatrical phenomena presented throughout the unfolding of Innova becomes the subject of intense curiosity for an audience member. Just how did that situation arise? What prompted that particular set of sounds, actions, or apparent psychological states? In a recent conversation, Feely explained that, while ordinarily “theater is about perfecting moments of climax, moments of revelation,” her work in Object Collection involves frustrating that focus, privileging “aesthetic complexity” over the lucid straightforwardness found in traditional theater. Interestingly, Rancière’s argument does not rely on any one particular form of performance. In fact, he uses the term “theatrical spectacle” to refer to art forms which “place bodies in action before an assembled audience,” by definition then, a category that must encompass dance, performance art, sports, public speaking, music, and theater proper. It is on this level that the meeting of musical and theatrical modes of performance typified in Object Collection’s work deserves analysis. What follows is a look at some of the various “causes,” the performative prompts to action used in the creation of Innova.

Both the actors and musicians in Innova read from somewhat similarly notated “scores,” texts which incorporate elements of traditional music notation (rhythms, pitches, dynamic levels), along with graphical elements and descriptive components specifying certain aspects of performance while allowing flexibility with others. Actors generally receive stage direction from Feely in a process known as theatrical blocking, in which detailed instructions are given regarding stage positions, emotional states, movement, and action. Actors are also given notated scores for “arias” containing text for performers to speak-sing (a variant of the Sprechstimme brought to life by Schoenberg in his classic chamber work Pierrot Lunaire), along with other musical elements. For example, Figure 2 contains a fragment from the score for the vocal section described in the beginning of this essay, an aria sung by Fulya Peker during the opening scene. Rather than precise pitches, actors receive relative “shapes” which outline approximate pitch ranges and illustrate contours of other parameters of sound.

Come on coward fragment
Figure 2: “Come on coward” fragment

Figure 3 contains a section of call-and-response between actors Avi Glickstein (Performer 2) and Deborah Wallace (Performer 5). A unique effect is created by the elongated, phrase-length glissando Glickstein performs on the line, “And even smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller.” The glissando occurs along with an extended ritardando, which altogether function as a kind of word painting; the delivery and meaning of the text seem to correspond to its musical figuration.

Tear It Down Partially
Figure 3: “Tear It Down” (click to enlarge)

Rhythms are handled in a manner similar to pitch indications: some elements are left open to chance or the decisions of the performers, while other passages contain precise “hits” coordinated through more conventional means. Generally, however, much of the textures occurring in Innova involve various kinds of syncopation and other kinds of rhythmic diversity: multiple tempi, overlapping arrhythmic parts, and deliberately out-of-sync passages are not uncommon features throughout the work. For example, in the music that accompanies the opening section of the opera (Figure 4), each of the musical parts operates at a unique tempo, coalescing together with the computer part at times of concerted pause, or in the reappearing series of accentuated chords marked marcato in the score.

Figure 4: “Introduction”

Object Collection uses notation as a medium through which different actions are communicated; in addition to conventional and extended musical functions, notation provides various performative frames, windows of interaction between director and actors, composer and musicians. Importantly, the group differentiates between the types of performance required for a “heightened dramatic situation,” and the “do a task” mode, the latter not unlike the style of performance called for in the scores of Fluxus and experimental music, and some of the performance art of the 1960s and ’70s. Interestingly, these task-oriented performances often result equally in sound and action, and come freely mixed with more traditional modes of drama.

For example, as an actor in Innova I was instructed to recreate a staged version of one of several Dutch still life paintings by assembling items selected from a basket of everyday objects (a hat, a fake bird, a container of Wite-Out, a fake flower, a mirror). The audience, though presented with a projected video feed of the evolving mise en scène of objects, never sees the actual visual score from which I read. They are left to their own inquisitive devices. Figure 5 contains a score fragment from a section in which the musicians, each holding a stone, huddle around a set of contact-miked ceramic tiles arranged contiguously on the floor. Individually, they perform different combinations of tapping and scrapping, spelled out as descriptions in the various textual cells contained in the score. The result is an internally complete visual, gestural, and sonic texture, one delicate thread stitching together a moment within the entirety of the music-theatrical fabric of Innova.

There are no typical divas in Object Collection’s operas, no heroines or heroes in the traditional sense. There’s no narrative as such. Theirs is an opera cobbled together from a refined arsenal of musical and theatrical elements; a music combining acoustic and electronic sources, detailed, fleshed out notation alongside unpredictable, indeterminate sound and performance events; a multi-linguistic, pan-cultural libretto collaged from the words of a cross-sectional sliver of modernist and postmodernist history. This is opera that, while distinguishing itself as such, takes into account the cross-pollination of media and art forms following the radical aesthetic transformations that began over half a century ago.

Perhaps what makes Innova an opera is neither simply the presence of arias, nor the combination of music, theater, and the expansive plethora of other media appearing throughout the work. Rather, what becomes important is the kind of interplay between media. It’s as though music and theater “learn” from one another: the techniques, effects, and logics distinct to each art form mutually inform one another as integral parts of the work’s creation and performance. Sure, for most of Innova‘s full three hours of action there’s a band on one side of the stage and actors on the other, but what is provocative is the crossing Object Collection’s work proposes: between the communicative and sensual dimensions of language; the physical qualities of music-making into the inherent musicality of theater; the medial and disciplinary contexts of performance against contemporary culture and the historical specificities of art forms.

G. Douglas Barrett
G. Douglas Barrett

OBJECT COLLECTION’S INNOVA (2011). Writer/Director: Kara Feely, Composer: Travis Just, Set Designer: Peter Ksander, Lighting Designer: Miranda k. Hardy, Costume Designer: Stacey Berman, Sound Designer: Jamie McElhinney, Video: Daniel Kötter, Performers: G. Douglas Barrett, Avi Glickstein, Eric Magnus, Fulya Peker, Deborah Wallace. Musicians: Travis Just, Kevin Farrell, Taylor Levine, Jessie Marino.


  • Slavoj Žižek and Mladen Dolar, Opera’s Second Death. (New York: Routledge, 2002)
  • Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator. (New York: Verso, 2009)
  • Rosalind Krauss, “A Voyage on the North Sea”: Art in the Age of the Post-medium Condition. (London: Thames & Hudson, 1999)

G. Douglas Barrett is an artist, composer, and writer. Drawing equally from the contemporary gallery arts and the performing arts traditions, his work has been exhibited, performed, and published throughout North America and Europe.