A Conversation with Guerilla Opera’s Artistic Director, Mike Williams

Mike Williams in rehearsal for “Chrononhotonthologos” l Photo by Clive Grainger (2017)

Mike Williams is always up for a challenge. He loves to boldly go where none have gone before, to seek out new composers, with new ideas, to explore strange new sound worlds, and play them for us; to his and to our delight.

SL: Tell us about the unusual instruments you play in Andy’s new opera
MW: The score for Chrononhotonthologos includes an assortment of eclectic things. Not out of the ordinary for me in Guerilla Opera, however, in this piece all of the instrumentalists are asked to play something unconventional. For much of the opera the saxophonist performs on a sopranino, the highest (and rarely utilized) voice of the saxophone family. Both the violinist and clarinetist are asked to double on bass harmonica numerous times.

As for percussion, there’s an array of small instruments: ratchets, flexatones, vibrasplaps (the modern version of the Biblical “Jawbone of an Ass”), tin cans, a pop gun, as well as various drums and cymbals. The most unusual for me is the inclusion of a toy piano. None of these on their own are particularly unusual in contemporary music but taken together they make up a big part of the sound world of this opera.

SL: What are the biggest challenges in the score? How does this ensemble learn to play a score with so many ostinati and other complications?
MW: Most of Andy’s score is quite tonal and really beautiful, but always colored by his bizarre instrumentation. Some of this sounded peculiar at first, but it is totally in keeping with the libretto. So one challenge is performing lyrical music on instruments that are essentially noise-makers and sound effects. You’re forced to embrace that and find how this changes the nature of the material itself. Carey’s play is quite old (1734), but it has a surprisingly contemporary tone.

That said, the biggest challenge of this piece, as with any of our productions, is really the chamber music component—being attuned to each other and in sync with the cast. All of that comes from being super familiar with the score and knowing what’s happening musically all the time.

Photo by Clive Grainger (2017)

SL: What is the most fun and amusing thing you do?
MW: Aside from the minutiae of performing on my instrument, I have to say that my favorite part is always the process with Guerilla Opera. Especially in this piece, it’s great to see how the musical eccentricities connect with the libretto and how all of this marries with the production. The director and designers react to the music throughout rehearsals and these reactions end up on stage as part of the final product. Because we work with so many of the same performers and designers, we have developed a sort of shorthand in rehearsal. We’re able to achieve some things really quickly. It’s always amazing to work on a new piece of this scale with a group of regular collaborators.

SL: What are the pros and cons of the new space?
MW: The main distinction of the new space is that it’s a hall and not a black box theater. The obvious plus is that it will both sound and feel good to perform in—it’s a larger space while still being intimate. Guerilla Opera has produced so many works in one venue so this will be a new experience for us. The advantage is that we knew the opera would be performed there before it was written, which is a huge plus—we’re confident this production will work very well there.

Susan Larson is president of Guerilla Opera’s Board of Directors, performing artist and former music critic for The Boston Globe.

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