‘As the Così Crumbles’ subverts classics for new spin


Chautauqua Opera Company Young Artists, from left, Yazid Gray, Kelly Guerra, Chasiti Lashay, Jared V. Esguerra and Michael Colman rehearse for As the Così Crumbles: A Company-Developed Piece in the Performance Pavilion on Pratt. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Operatic arias are beautifully sung and written, but what if, in the middle of one, it broke out into an electric guitar solo?

In As the Così Crumbles, Chautauqua Opera Company’s self-produced opera, which continues its run at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 3 at the Performance Pavilion on Pratt, the composers-in-residence and fellows thought outside the box for the musical accompaniment in the show.

“Our whole job as composers was to get a sense of the different players’ musical aesthetics and make sure that was represented in the piece,” said Frances Pollock, composer-in-residence. “From day one, we were asking them questions like, ‘What music do you like outside of opera?’ ”

Essentially, they took classic arias from a multitude of other operas and got the chance to incorporate stylings across genres like jazz, R&B and rock.

“It was super fun to be able to play around with the standard repertoire and then find ways to have it shake hands with contemporary American rap,” said Pollock. “… (I) love the standard repertoire. It definitely has its place in the canon, and it had its own cultural moment. But we’re in America in 2021, and we’re in a different place.”

While Pollock has premiered her own opera and written pieces for chamber and choral groups, her influences from outside of opera are just as important as the famous composers.

“I’m able to write trap because I know Missy Elliott,” Pollock said. “If I didn’t know the music of Atlanta, then I would not be able to take what (the Opera Young Artists) were asking us to do and figure out how to make (classic arias) shake hands with that aesthetic. All of my favorite composers come into this piece, (but) I studied Dolly Parton. I’ve studied Missy Elliott. I’ve studied them in the same way that I’ve studied Beethoven, and knowing their repertoire helps me take a piece and contemporize it.”

Composer Fellow Jasmine Barnes is also loving the opportunity to put a spin on some of the most well-known arias in the genre.

“It’s the weirdest process, but it’s also the coolest because we are getting to create art in real time,” Barnes said. “In opera specifically, that is not a thing. I think in classical music that’s not a thing. Everything is decided for you, everything is already set up, everything is planned and super meticulous and you never have autonomy over your own voice.”

The collaborative process of the opera is refreshing to Barnes, as the production valued the opinions of every person in the company.

“I think that is what the beauty of this process is,” Barnes said. “We all have our different thoughts; one little nuance could be what’s perfect or needed.”

Tenor Jared V. Esguerra initially wanted to perform as a baritone, but when he began singing opera, realized his voice fell more in the middle. When he was asked what trope he wanted to subvert for As the Così  Crumbles, he wanted the chance to sing baritone arias.

“There are always things that you’re bound to —  whether it’s text, whether it’s music, whether it’s time limits, whether it’s voice type, even with gender,” Esguerra said. “We were trying to break as many boundaries as we could.”

Esguerra finds it frustrating that the confines of opera do not allow room for flexibility of choice.

“We singers are trying to take more control of our destiny,” Esguerra said. “If that means you want to sing (something different) you (should) try to do that, and no one should try to discourage you.”

He was comfortable in the fact that in breaking the boundaries of opera, he had a team who supported him and challenged its own preconceived notions of what opera could be.

“My favorite part is that it wasn’t just me,” Esguerra said. “I was one small part of this huge ensemble that we ended up creating. I think the final product is something really cool, and we have something to be proud of.”

Barnes, Pollock and the other composer fellow Sage Bond all came together as a team to rearrange and create something new out of something borrowed.

“The finale is probably the closest thing to a perfect synthesis of the three composers that we have here that (will be) on the program all summer,” Pollock said.

As the Così Crumbles is a show for lovers of opera, but it can also serve as a perfect introduction for what the medium can be to new audiences.

“If you love opera, you will recognize (the pieces). If you don’t know opera, then you’ll hear a lot of great opera,” Pollock said. “But you’ll also get a sense of the ways in which American contemporary opera can push the boundaries a little bit. It’s not in an abrasive way in this piece by any means, but look at (the) possibilities. Opera can be trap music, opera can be Latin, opera can be gospel, opera can (have) electric guitar. Opera can be all of these things, and still be opera.”

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David Kwiatkowski

The author David Kwiatkowski