Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local women artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2017. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
Majel Connery has achieved the practically impossible: she makes contemporary opera feel both accessible and hip.
The Nebraska-born, Berkeley-based vocalist, composer, director, and producer is a relentless ambassador for the art form. The New York Times called her world-premiere staging of George Friedrich Haas’s monodrama ATTHIS (with her company Opera Cabal) “one of the most searingly painful and revealing operatic performances in recent times." Meanwhile, after Connery's 2017 album Passionate Pilgrim, recorded with with her composer collective Oracle Hysterical, the The Wall Street Journal praised her voice as “uninflected and vibrato-free, alternately borrowing from the interpretive sophistication of jazz or musical theater and the deliberate naiveté of folk-rock.”
Oh — and Connery is also a scholar. She holds a Ph.D in musicology from the University of Chicago and has held positions at Stanford University, UC Berkeley, Wellesley College, and Princeton University.
Why did you decide to found Opera Cabal?
The idea occurred to me sitting in the nosebleed section of a production of Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire in Chicago. The opera was a collaboration between the ensemble Eighth Blackbird and puppeteer Blair Thomas. Eighth Blackbird wore these stiff white commedia dell'arte costumes that made it almost impossible for them to play their instruments; meanwhile, Blair's invisible puppeteers were weaving around the stage, hoisting up a giant pink Pierrot puppet the size of a parade float. Pierrot is a dark, obscure opera, but here was this production that balanced beauty, cheek, and shock value. I remember thinking all art should be this interesting. I went off that night with my then–co-founder, conductor Nicholas DeMaison, and we started throwing spaghetti at the walls -- figuratively speaking. The company has gone through mutations since then, but it's always about trying to recapture that same impossible combination of imagination, loveliness and sheer nerve.
How and why did you go about bringing other vocal styles like jazz and indie rock into your work?
In my late teens and early twenties, I passed through the conventional opera mill. I studied at the right institutions with the right people. But learning traditional operatic bel canto singing is a lot like going to medical school -- there's a prescribed path to specialization, and for me it got claustrophobic quickly. Singing the "right" way felt like pulling on a suit of armor. On the other hand, singers like Judy Garland, Carole King and Billie Holiday offered me a different kind of education. These are performers who teach you how to sing and mean it.
So Opera Cabal allows me to have my cake and eat it too: I do opera, but I do it in a way that feels authentic to the voices I identify with. The inclusion of alternative voices is, I think, the final frontier that opera has yet to cross. The art form is getting better at intimate spaces, shorter duration and cheaper ticket prices. But there's still the expectation that at the end of the day you're getting the heavy-hitting operatic voices. I just did an opera with the composer and throat singer Ken Ueno. Most people wouldn't call that opera, and that's precisely the stereotype I'm fighting.
In addition to your artistic career, you are also a scholar. How do those two worlds intersect, for better and for worse?
An "artist-scholar" isn't yet a recognized identity, and I often end up wearing one hat or the other because wearing both confuses people. Artists are often shocked to hear I have a Ph.D., while my colleagues in academia are, like, "what, you sing?" I'm trying to model a professional identity that puts pressure on the arbitrary separation between theory and practice. Academics tend to forget how creative their work is; they're writers! And artists spend more time rationalizing than they admit; they're researchers! For me, universities are the perfect place to unlearn this divide. When I teach, I try to help my students understand that we're unpacking theoretical texts to become better artists, and making art to become better thinkers.
What do you most adore -- and find most challenging -- about being an artist in the Bay Area?
The Bay Area is inspiring in a way that's new to me. Most of my life I lived in grungy, arty neighborhoods in Chicago or New York where the vibe is, "we're artists, get with the bohemian program and start suffering." In Chicago, it was winter eight months of the year, and I lived in a gang-controled neighborhood where my boyfriend's car got set on fire. And we accepted that as normal. When I got to the Bay Area, my jaw hit the ground -- the fog, the seriously steep hills, the massive, beautiful plants. It was like stepping into the real Jurassic Park. The downside is that it's harder to lock yourself in a cold, dark studio furiously making art when there are cool hills to climb. Moving here, I lost some of the desperate intensity that's useful when you're trying to create. But I might live longer because of it.
In your work with Opera Cabal, Oracle Hysterical and elsewhere, you gravitate towards contemporary music projects. Why do you choose to focus on new work in particular?
The easy answer is that there are lots of presenters offering La Bohème for the 999th time. Far fewer are laying the groundwork for a generation of new work. But there's also something deep in me that just loves the process of bringing new things into the world. When I was little I used to construct elaborate lego castles. But then, once they were built, I didn't play with them; I just wanted to build more castles. I like being in the creative trenches, and there's nothing like the "Eureka!" moment when a good idea first begins to take root. Waiting for those moments takes patience. I gamble on new collaborators and new spaces, and I confront the real possibility of failure way more than I'm actually comfortable with. But the payoff is that there's a lot of music in the world today that wouldn't be there if I hadn't created the conditions for it to exist.
What does your ideal future look like for women artists in the Bay Area?
There's a mysterious diffuseness about the Bay Area arts scene. But the right banding together of talent, resources, and big ideas could become a movement. There are so many ways the Bay Area could really take off: with a new performing arts space, a branded network of artistic professionals, a consortium of non-profits, a Sonoma Summer Music Festival -- or, who knows, an annual KQED Women to Watch public brainstorm!