Such counter-conventional thinking has freed the new companies' inner circles to produce ever more challenging, even bizarre, work. Guerilla Opera's first production set a quirky precedent. Called Heart of a Dog, and loosely based not on a hangover remedy, but on a novella of the same name — in which a woman plays a dog that's been cosmetically enhanced to be . . . a woman — the production quickly established the ensemble's reputation for tackling complex contemporary stories, to brilliant effect. Take, for example, their recent production of No Exit, an operatic interpretation of Jean-Paul Sartre's theater-of-the-absurd classic, which proved that, while hell certainly is "other people," it's also trying to get through a Sartre piece without feeling compelled to stick your head in the oven before all hope for humanity is completely lost. Schwartz proclaimed No Exit composer Andy Vores "brilliant," and the production generally rocked the local opera scene.
"I think a lot of people, when they think about contemporary classical music, automatically associate it with modern music or art, as a strange animal that they're not going to understand or like," says de la Guardia. "There's a lot more than just the opera or just the production or the music or the actors. I think that we're trying to make this new repertoire accessible to people. It's something that's necessary today — to cultivate new works and not just reinvent the standard repertoire into new productions."
While not quite the revolutionary, anarchic reaction that punk was to classic rock (not yet, anyway), this new opera movement shares with punk a frustration with the status quo, carving out new attitudes along with new exploits. Not only is there more opera these days, but more, better, different opera. Sometimes, it takes a punk-rock mentality to breathe new life into a 350-year-old art form.
"Mozart is always Mozart," says de la Guardia, "but he's dead now — and he's not writing anything else."
Sara Faith Alterman can be reached at email@example.com.