Majel Connery ’01
Co-founder, Opera Cabal; Ph.D. Candidate in Music, University of Chicago
A community of the arts
Ending up at Princeton in 1997 represented for me a complete reversal of everything I thought I wanted. In high school, I focused exclusively on the fine arts, in particular, on theater and opera; I wanted to be an artist. But I was living in Papillion, Nebraska, and when my acceptance rolled in (I had applied on a lark), I began to worry that my perception of talent was no more than the result of a big fish, small pond phenomenon. I determined to drop acting and singing and shoot for something “higher.” I went to Princeton for its reputation for academic excellence and for its rigor, thinking I would train myself to fall in love with languages, or a science—something that would provide a more serious and sturdy direction than my artistic background had allowed. But what I discovered at Princeton was a devoutly intellectual theatrical and musical community. This is a rare thing—to find in any university the arts (which are, for me, the heart and guts of a life lived by impulse and intuition) present together with the intellect, the steady and cerebral life of analysis and scholarly deep-digging to which I have grown ever more attached. I discovered both of these things at Princeton, and in a sense I have spent the rest of my career trying to find my way back to this improbable collision of intelligence and passion.
I eventually found my way to the music department at Princeton where these two things lived easily side-by-side. My professors and friends there were not nose-in-book scholars, but nose-in-book scholars with a wild and imaginative side. I majored in composition, pairing my intuitive understanding of the dramaturgy of sound with a growing analytical understanding of how sound comes to be made and made meaningful. Through my passion for music on stage, I exposed a passion I never thought I had for the even finer arts: the underbelly of music-making, where the technologies of sound and its significance have their beginnings. I learned to have an opinion. Princeton didn’t teach me to be a composer, or to be a doctor, to emerge with a solidity and purpose under my belt. It didn’t teach me to herd all my interests into a coherent plan. It taught me to value my interests and to pursue them—all of them—for the sake of the pursuit.
Follow every impulse
Six years after graduating I find myself in a situation that has everything to do with Princeton, and everything to do with what came before it. I work with a composer, with whom I have founded a company called Opera Cabal, devoted to staging experimental combinations of theater, music, and the broader arts. In our most recent project, we presented three nights of eclectic collisions between opera, drama, film, dance, and visual art. Directing, acting, and singing for Opera Cabal feeds my desire to create new possibilities for theater and to develop new ways of mingling critical thinking and performance. I also worked for two years as managing editor of The Opera Quarterly, an Oxford University Press journal positioned to interrogate precisely this same intersection, and I am pursuing a doctorate in performance studies to develop a language for why I view this intersection as so necessary.
The most important thing I have learned over time—something that was staring me in the face during my years at Princeton—is that life choices do not necessarily involve cutting out the loose ends. It may be that one day I will call myself a director, a musician, a singer, or a hot air balloonist. But right now my feeling is that sometimes it is better to follow every impulse and to see how these loose ends cohere over time in a process of personal natural selection. I never would have guessed that refusing to choose any one path would provide such a clear sense of direction.