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'USW': Not Your Parents' Opera

By Alexander Hough in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 19, 2010 6:20PM

Image from "USW" courtesy of Opera Cabal
Here's some attire-based perspective on Opera Cabal's "USW": We recently mentioned the relative adventurousness of Chicago Opera Theater compared to the Lyric Opera. Both companies consistently deliver wonderful productions, but COT tends to explore less mainstream opera, particularly works by American and modern composers. Well, Chicago-based Opera Cabal makes COT look like a blue blazer and loafers.

"USW" premiered at Oberlin College last weekend. Besides being the home of the opera's composer Lewis Nielson (he heads Oberlin's composition department), the small liberal arts school to the west of Cleveland also happens to have a terrific - and progressive - music conservatory. Opera Cabal will move its show to other places that are similarly receptive to experimental art, performing twice this weekend in Chicago and then hitting Brooklyn on Monday.

The opera is about Rosa Luxemburg, a communist theorist and activist in early 20th-century Germany. It's a one-act, multimedia piece - stage direction (provided by Habib Azar) relates to nothing literally, and, in any case, most of the visual elements are presented on a series of large screens (produced by Alex Overington) - and the text is non-narrative, consisting of excerpts from the works of Luxemburg, Marx, Engels, and other socialist theorists, as well as bits from turn-of-the-century poets like Georg Trakl and F. Scott Fitzgerald. This is abstract art not for the faint of heart; check out the trailer.

Whether you'll enjoy this performance is not based on how much you like opera - "USW" is less "The Marriage of Figaro" and more "Einstein on the Beach," although even more abstract (and, mercifully, not five hours long). Whether you'll enjoy "USW" will be based largely on either how much you like contemporary art or how open you are to new things. If you're at all curious, give it a whirl; you live in one of the few places in the world with access to boundary-pushing art like this.

Tonight (sold out) and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Curtiss Hall, 410 S. Michigan, $20 general admission