Composer John Eaton stages his “pocket” operas with a handful of instrumentalists who wear costumes, sing, and act out the parts. Rather than hiding in the orchestra pit, the group performs onstage.

“In a way the impetus for this came from watching an opera like La Boheme and looking down and seeing the flutist waking up the oboist for his solo, or watching the horn section playing cards in the orchestra pit,” says Eaton. “It came from seeing how bored instrumentalists are in an opera performance.”

The Eaton Opera Company was formed in 1993, when the New York New Music Ensemble asked the University of Chicago music professor to write a piece in which the musicians could do more than play their instruments. The result was a performance of Peer Gynt, Eaton’s opera based on the Ibsen play.

“Our idea was to do the best possible and most interesting performance with the fewest people and the least expense we could,” he says. “After we did a premiere we could throw everything we used in the back of a van and go anywhere. The idea is have opera, will travel.”

The current incarnation of Eaton’s company uses all local musicians; Eaton says he chose them for their personalities as much as for their playing ability.

“The biggest thing is to get them to say their lines or sing their lines with real conviction and take the part of the actor. So far they’ve really come out,” he says. “My feeling is that if the audience got caught up in what people were doing and what they were representing, they wouldn’t mind if a flutist might not be a Kathleen Battle or the cellist not be a Luciano Pavarotti. They might forget that the people are not great actors, but that everything they do–sing, speak, act out, dance–is an extension of what they’re playing on their instruments. For example, in Don Quixote, the clarinet or the violin bow could become a sword.”

Eaton has composed 15 operas, nearly all involving electronic music. He coinvented the Eaton-Moog Multiple-Touch-Sensitive Keyboard, which is said to be the most sensitive instrument next to the human voice. Electronic music and a group of professional singers back up the six instrumentalists in Golk, Eaton’s opera based on the novel satirizing television by the University of Chicago’s Richard Stern. His other new opera, Don Quixote, features just the six instrumentalists.

“A lot of people are wary of opera,” Eaton says. “They think it’s an artificial form. In some ways it is one of the most basic I can think of. In a way, the most natural thing is to put the arts together, not to separate them. And this is what opera does.”

Don Quixote and Golk, both directed by Court Theatre founding director Nicholas Rudall, are each an hour long and will be performed back-to-back Thursday through next Saturday, June 8, at 7:30 in the Harold Washington Library’s auditorium, 400 S. State. Tickets are $22. Call 663-1628 for more.

–Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.