Opera Becomes Cutting-Edge Contemporary Art in a Gallery’s Experimental Showcase

'Hot with Excess' is a singular season of live events at London's Zabludowicz Collection, exploring the long and yet overlooked influence of opera in contemporary art.

A Rendering of Trulee Hall’s forthcoming opera presented in ‘Hot with Excess: A Season of Contemporary Artists’ Opera at Zabludowicz Collection. Zabludowicz Collection

Visual artist Trulee Hall describes her first-ever opera composition in the most technical of terms. “There’s a lot of gobbledygook kinds of singing,” she says, noting that half of the four main female singers in Tongues Duel the Corn Whores, an Opera, which debuts on Thursday at London’s Zabludowicz Collection, only sing in Pentecostal glossolalia. The other two will be riotously celebrating and yelling—all while a rapper narrates the struggle between the two groups to take command of a giant, golden ear of corn.

Hall’s one-night-only, eight-act event marks the only new commission for “Hot with Excess,” a singular season of live events through March at the Zabludowicz Collection exploring the long and yet overlooked influence of opera in contemporary art and featuring works by Hall, Sam Belinfante, Richard Kennedy, Benjamin Orlow, Marijke de Roover and Alexandre Singh.

Hall is known for her campy, feminist installations and videos that seek to reclaim patriarchal language and symbols. “When I say whores, I mean it lovingly,” she says of her opera’s title. And when it comes to the phallic corn ear, “it’s a symbol of power, specifically female power in this work—a tool of self-pleasure,” Hall says. The Los Angeles-based artist grew up in the southern state of Georgia, where she says corn has a more gender-neutral connotation. “It’s common country kitchen decoration. It’s a romanticization of plenty,” Hall says.

Beyond kitchen kitsch, Hall uses other symbols—like gilded snakes in the form of large-scale puppets that will protrude onto the dual-level stage and sculptural dance costumes, some in the shape of boobs. Topped off with bombastic theatrics (including a confetti cannon), these elements bring Hall’s psychosexual feminist dramedy to light. Her characters include a naked pregnant woman who will be “immaculately” impregnated on stage, alongside queer opera mainstays like the Madonna-whore figure of Carmen from Georges Bizet’s classic and the evil mother embodied in the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute.

Fusing the structure of opera with beatboxing, rap, gospel, pop and minimalist noise, Hall composed the entirety of the opera’s original score, which is accompanied by live instrumentation on the night of the performance. “I wanted the work to be surprising, to keep people on their toes,” Hall says. To that end, she welcomes improvisation during the performance and notes that there will be a surprise audience participation element. She also designed the set in direct response to the architecture of the art collection’s former Methodist chapel surrounds, riffing on the central knave’s Neoclassical moldings and pediment.

Even if the artist has no formal training in opera, she is certainly no stranger to church or, for that matter, musical performance. Her grandfather was a Southern Baptist minister and her mom played piano during services while Hall performed in the choir. Before her parents divorced, she was part of the family’s bluegrass band in which she played mandolin. And when she first moved to LA in the early 2000s, she set out to make it as a rock star, releasing three albums as a recording artist before enrolling in the California Institute of Arts (CalArts) to pursue a master’s degree in fine art.

Hall describes her musical career as “Bjork on acid,” with a lot of DIY noise mixed with pretty, traditional harmonies. This same high-low audio aesthetic informs Tongues Duel the Corn Whores, in which viewers will be lulled by angelic choral music in the beginning before reckoning with a vacuum cleaner noise medley midway.

Contrast is key to the feminist critique embedded in Hall’s work, who explains that the 1980s-era feminism she was first introduced to “didn’t allow for prettiness—you were either feminine or masculine and it took me a while to figure out you didn’t have to choose. You can blend those energies.”

She encountered a similar arbitrary delineation in art making when she entered grad school, explaining that she felt “a little embarrassed” by her previous pop-rock musical career. It too was “too pretty” for the heavily conceptual visual arts program, in which Hall was experimenting with performance and video. “If I was going to drag a chain across the floor, they were all for it. But if I was going to make a work out of beautiful sounds and singing—no, absolutely not,” she laughs.

Visual art and Western opera have often been easy bedfellows throughout the 20th century, but the relationship is often confined to set and costume design. Pablo Picasso famously created the set for the original production of Erik Satie’s Parade in 1917. One of the best known living artists, British painter David Hockney began making backdrops, props and stage curtains for the venerable Glyndebourne Opera in 1975 before being commissioned to do stage designs for the Metropolitan Opera, the LA Music Center Opera, the Royal Opera House in London, Chicago’s Lyric opera and the San Francisco Opera, among others.

Since 1998, the Vienna State Opera’s “Safety Curtain” series has turned the venue’s illustrious stage into a temporary exhibition space for specialized commissions by contemporary artists like Joan Jonas, Jeff Koons and John Baldessari. More recently and slightly more radically, Austria’s Salzburg Festival invited contemporary artists like Shirin Nashat and William Kentridge to direct operas.

What the Zabludowicz Collection’s “Hot with Excess” series attempts to reveal, however, is the fluidity between visual art and opera. “There are so many artists using operatic tropes who simply haven’t been able to find the right space to realize these works,” says Antonia Blocker, the collection’s curator of performance and engagement. “These are people that, even just 20 years ago, may not have even been considered visual artists,” she says, noting that given the conservative bent of opera and the field’s notoriously high production costs, such artists would have not been able to bring their work to the stage.

Alexandre Singh’s The Humans, Digital film, 173 mins, 2013. Courtesy of Sprüth Magers, Metro Pictures, Art Concept, Monitor

“Opera is perhaps one of the few mediums where realism, or kitchen sink drama is not completely dominant,” says the New York-based artist Alexandre Singh, who’s 2013 opera-inspired performance The Humans is based on the comic writings of Aristophanes and tells the story of two spirits who would rather see the Earth not created (A filmed version on the critically acclaimed work will be shown as part of “Hot with Excess” on March 15.)

Singh describes himself as a longtime opera fanatic. “Alongside cinema, [operas] are the true gesamtkunstwerk. There’s a potential union of dramatic action and aesthetic form that is exquisite. It’s unparalleled in the emotions it can draw from its audience. There’s a wildness to opera.”

Other re-staged live performances in the Zabludowicz’s series include Black Rage: Negro Songs From a New Age Depression, an opera by Richard Kennedy that explores the frustrations of being African American in the 21st century as well as Benjamin Britten’s mashup of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

For Hall, experimenting with opera has allowed her to reclaim her musical career—“work that I was ultimately really proud of and for a long time I felt like I had to hide”—within her visual art practice. A film version of Tongues Duel the Corn Whores, an Opera with added Claymation and CGI effects will be presented at the Zabludowicz Collection in September as part of the artist’s first institutional solo show.

Opera Becomes Cutting-Edge Contemporary Art in a Gallery’s Experimental Showcase