Noise & Cardboard: Object Collection's Operaticism

The set is made of painted cardboard. Four performers grab clothes from a large pile and feedback emanates from a guitar off to the side. Television sets flicker on and off. A performer sings, or perhaps declaims, an aria of collaged texts about community service in a slippery, atonal scale. In the background, another performer lip-syncs in a mirror, while the others stalk around the set, painting and fiddling, entranced by the gestures their own bodies can make. As he finishes, the cast comes together to ‘sing’ the remainder of the text while waving racing flags. This is a scene from Object Collection’s Problem Radical(s), performed at PS122 in 2009. In this piece there is text, there’s music, there are actors, but where do ‘narrative’ and ‘character’, de facto, some would say essential, aspects of theatre, fit into this?


There has always existed a stylistic flux at the heart of opera, and the ever-fluid interplay between composers, patrons and audience has pushed this hybrid genre into many permutations over the years. These days, due to the mounting cost of opera production and diminishing audiences, major opera houses tend to stick to the tried and true, and a commission for a young composer is quite rare. Active since 2004, Object Collection is one of the groups pioneering new ways of interfacing music and theatre, a forum for the operatic and yet an exercise in the genre’s fluidity.


Founded by composer Travis Just and director Kara Feely, Object Collection mounted their first original piece in 2005. While music is central to their practice, their decision to describe their works as opera is practical as well as aesthetical. Feely says they ‘started calling them operas in 2007 or 2008. Partly because it’s difficult to try to describe to different producers and presenters what we’re doing exactly. We’re trying to do this very intricate, precise theatre thing, but there’s a huge music component to it as well, and they’re in balance. So sometimes when people from a theatre background see the show they don’t realise that there’s a score.’[1] Genre confusion runs in both directions: ‘But also then, from the music perspective, people don’t think of it as music because there’s all this theatre going on […] “Opera” seemed to get people on the same page as to which parameters we’re working with.’


As Just says, ‘As soon as all the text was scored, that was when it started feeling like something different. Continuous music, that was all one piece.’  While opera is a convenient term, Just takes the implications seriously: ‘As a composer it was pretty weird because opera was “that thing” {…} if you’re calling it an opera how do you square it with Mozart and Schoenberg? If you’re going to use the term, use the term.’ Much can be said to the tiredness of the classification ‘experimental’, but for Object Collection, the designation ‘experimental opera’ both grounds their work and liberates their practice from the confines of its own form.


Object Collection’s piece Problem Radical(s) is undoubtedly one such experimental opera. Instead of traditional orchestral grandeur, Just has merged the sing-song recitative of the piece with walls of harsh noise, sculpture, radicalism and alternating sparse rumblings. As in traditional opera, Problem Radical(s) is spectacle, but in a much more prescient way – instead of grandeur, we are left with piles of clothes, decay. As evidenced by the title of the piece, the group is well aware that the political content of their pieces makes the marketing difficult.  Just: ‘It’s overt. We’re working on a piece right now about radical political speech {…} Our work is probably not going to generate an October Revolution, but our hopes are that aesthetically it inhabits that space.’


Composer Robert Ashley is a foundational influence on their work, and in 2011 the group toured with a staged version of Automatic Writing (1979). Like Object Collection, Ashley’s career involved a number of experimental works that also utilised the notion of opera as a starting point. Similarly, Ashley featured small ensembles of performers, and his works often took place in unconventional venues for opera. Luigi Nono’s works Intolleranza 1960 (1961) and Al gran sole carico d’amore (1975) also set a precedent for fusing opera with an auto-undermining radicalism, also employing slides to create a ‘moving collage’, like a precursor to video.

Innova was their next opera, debuting in 2011. Five singers accompanied a small group of musicians. Two video screens would sparingly provide a transcription of the rapid-fire of words, and sometimes provide a counterpoint, or show a live feed of the action on stage, and sometimes pre-recorded footage. Much of the action focuses around a central table. The musical palette feels expanded, with clattering percussion joining the fray as well as a cello. Rather than using any element of the stage setup, the music, or the text as didactic, they rather have carefully curated a group of diverse materials.


The open-endedness of the work is an important feature for both Just and Feely. As Feely puts it: ‘I think of it more in terms of spectacle {…} I like to use text that’s pre-existing and then rearrange it into a new thing, because that’s a way of distancing myself from it. It never feels familiar, and I feel like I don’t fall into ruts, or personal tangents’.  The text they use in Innova is dizzyingly diverse, from Debord, Zizek and Derrida, to punk lyrics or Peckinpah dialogue. The collaged text creates a libretto that is elusive in its meaning, but continuously evocative. Its second act is even more minimalust: vocalist Fulya Peker sits at a mirror applying and removing makeup, putting on and removing a series of wigs. At the same time, she speaks to herself, punctuated by near-rhythmic laughs, coughs, and whistles. The text revolves around activism, translation theory, Brecht and Marxian politics. Jumping topics without transition, her voice is processed to create a layer of echoes. It is reminiscent of a performer getting ready for a performance, but never settling on a character. Instead, this instance is undoubtedly a locus for their entire operatic project: a breakdown of form into constant flux.

Their latest opera, NO HOTEL, premiered in New York in 2013. In contrast to a piece like Problem Radical(s) where modularity is key, NO HOTEL hinges on a complex structure. As the live performers casually begin to ‘murder’ each other repeatedly on an empty stage, a screen shows them arriving in a hotel room. Their dialogue is formed of the same sort of textual cut-up process and touches on movie tropes, bourgeois ennui, political ideology, etc. The performers onstage seem to represent various movie tropes – the boxer, the cowboy, the femme fatale. A live band, consisting of electronics, drums, violin, and guitar, provides a visceral counterpoint to the headily intellectual text, providing a textural underpinning to the dialogue and bursts of noise in the breaks between text. 


The hotel room on the screen begins to demolish itself – a couple of actors deliberately begin to deconstruct the illusory hotel room. At the same time, the live actors are carefully beginning to assemble the same set a piece at a time.  As the piece crests, Daniel Nelson Allen, one of the performers begins to sing a duet with his on screen persona – ‘I am a film extra’ – ‘I am not a film extra’ – ‘I am not famous’ – ‘I am famous’. Some declarations are intimate, some banal, and all in direct contradiction. As the set begins to entrap the performers on stage, it continues to disappear on screen. The palindrome is not exact – rather than peaking in the middle, the intensity only grows until the denouement.


Object Collection are attentive to their forebears but effectively develop their own vocabulary, accumulating themes, concerns and, most importantly, strategies that effect the fluidity of their project. Meticulously stylised, yet utterly chaotic; full of introspection yet devoid of any traditional semblance of ‘narrative’; fiercely political, but not didactic. Their body of work is an aggressively singular art-object but nevertheless operatic. Drawing on a tradition rooted in capitalist and aristocratic spectacle, and re-imagining it as a method to subvert convention and awaken the consumer, they exemplify a radicalism despite the lack of narrative or didacticism.  Typical of opera’s history, the tensions of the marketplace and the often uneasy relationship between artists and institutions supporting them have forced Object Collection to find new ways of playing with genre and marketing their object. By employing a deep understanding and at the same time healthy criticality of the tropes that sit at the foundation of their operas, their work uses the friction of these ideas to reinvigorate the art form at its core.


[1] All direct quotes throughout are from personal interviews, conducted in October 2012.


is a composer and sound artist living in New York City. Her work encompasses installation, improvisation, and sound for multimedia works. She is an assistant designer at The Office For Creative Research. 

was founded in 2004 by writer/director Kara Feely and composer/musician Travis Just. Based in Brooklyn, New York, the group operates within the intersecting practices of performance, experimental music and theatre.



May 2015

Interview with Maggie Nelson


The White Review Short Story Prize 2015



August 2013

The External World