Majel Connery ’01, rear, played the socialist Rosa Luxemburg in her opera company’s latest production. (Photo: Lara Kastner)

Although Majel Connery ’01 calls the experimental company of artists she co-founded Opera Cabal, its productions often have little that an audience might identify as traditional “opera.” There is conflict and drama, with scores by emerging and established composers, but there also might be huge projected, moving video images that seem to interact with the actors on stage, chairs smashed, and recorded voices instead of live ones. Story topics have ranged from a legendary saint who was martyred along with 11,000 virgins to a mythical, child-eating demon.

“We are expanding the definition of opera,” says Connery, a classically trained opera singer who formed Opera Cabal in 2006 with composer and conductor Nicholas DeMaison in Chicago, gathering Chicago- and New York-based musicians and interdisciplinary artists bent on the creation of experimental opera, music, and theater.  

USW, the company’s latest production, staged in February, is a 35-minute, one-act, multimedia chamber opera based on the life, times, and writings of the Polish-born, German socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. She was imprisoned and killed by the German army in 1919 after a failed uprising. The show features an austere, menacing score by Lewis Nielson, chairman of Oberlin College’s composition department, and performed by a seven-piece chamber orchestra.  

Connery, the company’s artistic director, plays Luxemburg and is one of two silent actors on stage. Using songs recorded by Connery, images and video of people and events of the time, and the words of Luxemburg and other socialists and poets, the production explores Luxemburg’s love life, the power struggle in the socialist movement, her disdain of capitalism, and her death.  

Connery, who is finishing her doctorate in contemporary opera performance at the University of Chicago, started Opera Cabal to marry her varied interests in singing, acting, writing, academia, and directing. “Opera Cabal came out of an impulse to have it all,” she says, and “has become my way of integrating all those things.”