October 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann, Aetherplough, and Scott Bookman

The winter solstice seems the ideal date for a mittens-and-music caroling party. However, when the Aethertones gather for a performance in the Old Market Passageway on December 21st, expect a decidedly “anti-caroling” caroling event.

The musical ensemble is an offshoot of the performance company Aetherplough and, like a certain team of eight tiny reindeer, they do their thing for only one magical evening each year. At press time, this year’s playlist was still double-super-secret, but the repertoire from previous Contemporary Caroling gigs—this will be the sixth annual event—sports such eclectic oddities as a campy homage to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” an appropriately raspy rendition of Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” and a humorously cloying version of Katy Perry’s sugar-coated “Firework.”

“It’s about the simple joy of singing on the longest, darkest night of the year,” says Aetherplough co-founder Susann Suprenant, who recently retired as Dean of Communications and Humanities at Metro Community College. It’s also Aetherplough’s way of perhaps countering prevailing culture. “Our intent is building community through singing,” she adds before pointing to the “potentially crass, commercialized music piped incessantly throughout the holidays.”

The Aethertones’ formula is a simple one. The program is secular. The voices are a cappella. Sometimes they toss in an acoustic guitar.

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“Contemporary caroling is a reboot of the traditional folk form,” says Thom Sibbitt. He’s the education coordinator at The Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Art who, along with Suprenant, founded Aetherplough. “People have always come together to sing. It’s something that’s just natural, something we’re drawn to. Communal song has a power that is central to who we are. It’s an important part of being human.”

Aetherplough, which took home an Omaha Entertainment and Arts Award for best original script with their 2009 performance of Knives Out at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, has carved out a niche sometimes far beyond the fringes of the local theater scene. The company is known for work that is often of the heady, intoxicating, and deliciously noggin-scratchin’ variety. They’re the kind of artists who believe that if a scene is good, it’d probably be even better if the actor performed it perched atop a ladder.

So it should come as no surprise that the boundary-busting Aetherplough has now added an operatic voice to its talented ensemble of actors, dancers, poets, composers, musicians, and visual artists.

Credit-Scott-Bookman

Hitting the high Cs on caroling night will be soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett. An Omaha native, she recently returned home after launching a career that found her floodlit on stages across three continents.

“I started out as a straight-ahead opera singer, but met a lot of really interesting people along the way,” DeBoer says of the contemporary composers and other artists who helped fuel her interest in new, often experimental modes of creativity. “I can talk to the composer about the music being made. I can talk to the poet about the lyrics. You can’t do that with dead guys like Mozart and Beethoven. It becomes music of my time, music about all of us.”

Specializing in contemporary vocal literature and project-based performances that integrate classical music into modern social contexts, DeBoer has performed with such disparate names as minimal music legend Phillip Glass and the idiomatic noise pop band Deerhoof. Earlier this year DeBoer released her first solo album, I Vapor Breath, and will record a full album with Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble in 2014.

DeBoer also performed in August at Omaha Fashion Week. And, yes, that’s her on the cover of this issue of The Encounter wearing some of the dramatic Omaha Fashion Week pieces created by local designer Jenny Pool.

The 28-year-old artist is a member of Chicago’s Ensemble Dal Niente and a co-founder of the Color Field Ensemble and Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble—both based in New York City. She is also a co-founder of Omaha’s Ars Cantus Antiquitas, which is known for its modern interpretations and unique presentations of early music.

“When I came back to Omaha I looked for opportunities for collaborative experiences,” says DeBoer. “At first I felt like I was shouting into a void. It was like, ‘Is there anyone out there?’ Susann and Thom’s voices were the first to echo back. So I sat in on a rehearsal of theirs, and my head just began swirling.

“Aetherplough allows artists to bring their own experiences to create something completely new and completely personal,” she continues, “but it’s all rooted in a shared tradition that makes it universal and accessible to all.”

Even when it comes to opera?

“Especially opera.”

The Aethertones will perform their 2013 Contemporary Caroling program Dec. 21 at 7:30 p.m. in the Old Market Passageway; 417 S 11th St. The event is free.

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