Buick City, 1:00 AM (2018)
Buick City, 1:00 AM is a podcast opera. Through spoken dialogue, sound design, and music, it tells the story of a woman traveling back in time to 1984 to prevent the murder of her father.
Music & Story by Jason Cady
Annie-Sage Whitehurst, Elena Collins
Joshua R. Pyne, Wayne Collins
Nathaniel Kent, Skip Collins
Halley Devestern, Tammy Collins
Scott Watson, Bud
Anya Krawcheck, Joy Whitaker
Allen Enlow, Gordon Whitaker
Katie Eastburn, Vocals
Elyse Kakacek, Vocals
Eric McKeever, Vocals
Emily Manzo, Piano
Shawn Lovato, Bass
Aaron Siegel, Drums
Jason Cady, Modular Synthesizer, Piano, Pedal Steel Guitar
Jeff Cook, Engineer
Ann Heppermann & Martin Johnson, Recording & Sound Design
Thanks to Nadia Bernstein, Perri di Christina, Erin Flannery, Carl Schmuhl, Mohamed El Abed, Marsha Cady, Dennis Cady, Dennis McGarry, Jonathan Mitchell, and Kerry Kastin.
Buick City, 1:00 AM was made possible by support from the Casement Fund and by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and was supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.
Shortly after going to the opera this weekend, I listened to the first episode of Buick City, 1 AM, an experimental opera podcast. A woman time travels to try to prevent her father’s murder, while a kind of Greek chorus sings in between major scenes. It’s got my attention, and not just because the protagonist shares my name and one of my last names in a creepy coincidence.
Notes on a murder: the world’s first serial podcast opera
“Buick City 1am, which seeks to freshen up the form, is relatively short, accessible anywhere and free
Buick City 1am is an intriguing concept, addressing several of the traditional form’s shortcomings in relation to the modern world: it makes no undue demands of one’s attention span (four 25-minute episodes), it is accessible (anywhere, 24/7, via one’s phone), and it is free. One can see that this might make it much more appealing to some people than sitting through a three-hour opera at Covent Garden or the Met, with a ticket price of a week’s family grocery bill. Forgetting for the moment the question of personal taste, this could be lamented as one more nail in the coffin of community rituals, akin to preferring Netflix to going to the movie theatre — or theatre in general. But so far none of these traditional forms has yet perished, and new forms of artistic expression are devoutly to be wished for.
Cady has two self-confessed obsessions, modular synthesisers and time travel, and both are in evidence in Buick City 1am. A murder mystery set in Flint, Michigan, in 1984, the story involves a woman who travels back in time in order to prevent the killing of her father, a car worker who gets laid off and is persuaded to open a shop that sells books, records and guns. The narrative is well developed within the time constraints: there’s plenty of good period detail, both of the US in general during the era of Reagan, Mondale and Ferraro and of everyday life in a town dominated by a giant manufacturer, complete with social and gender politics, greed, infidelity, messed-up teenagers and stay-at-home mums — all the essential ingredients of a good soap-opera.
Underscoring the dialogue (and monologues) is a rich tapestry of sounds from Cady’s beloved synthesisers. This adds to both the period feel and the otherworldliness of the time travel, as well as the suspense of the murder mystery. But here’s the rub: in the 100 minutes of this opera, there are just nine songs (plus the sung tagline of the title) for a total of about 25 minutes. The rest is spoken, albeit with musical background, plus sound-effects such as door slams and footsteps on gravel.
The songs themselves carry little of the narrative as far as I can tell. Compositionally there is a sameness to them, mostly involving long, slow, simple vocal lines over busy bass lines, frenetic drum patterns and shards of instrumental countermelody. The lead singer, Katie Eastburn, has a pleasingly breathy voice that combines with the music to create a kind of cool period pop-noir. But wait, this is an opera, so the other two voices, mainly used for back-up except for the cheating spouse duets, are classical voices, whose operatic vibrato stands out like a tiara on a lumberjack — nice try at variety, but musically very distracting.
I beg to differ with Cady, at the risk of being labelled a dinosaur: what he has created here is, in fact, a serial radio drama, with songs. There is much to recommend it, but it ain’t opera.”
5 classical voice podcasts to try
4. For Storytelling: Buick City, 1:00 AM
Experiments in Opera (which produced my favorite show of 2017) is launching a four-episode, serialized, time travel, murder mystery opera written by Jason Cady and engineered by radio-royalty Ann Heppermann. This is the first straight-to-podcast opera I've encountered and it's about time. Cady's work, geared towards anyone with a commute and a good set of earbuds, suits the current, à-la-carte, digital download era.
The pilot episode is available now. It shares thematic material and plot structure with Cady's 2016 video-opera "I Screwed Up the Future", but Buick City's storytelling is more sophisticated and comprehensible. Spoken texts drive the plot not songs, which function more as transitional interludes or shading. Some musical numbers falter: a closely miked operatic baritone flounders over compactly grooving drum and bass; vocal ensembles sound under interpreted, rigid like notation on a page. But composing for a recorded medium has advantages. Musicians can hop into a studio and produce a raw product without months of workshops and rehearsals. At its best, the music is spontaneous and fresh like new music should be.
Buick City 1:00 AM
It was 1984, 1:00am – a gunshot rang out in the parking lot of Flint’s Buick City. Wayne Collins was murdered and the killer was never found. The Collins family was left devastated. Wayne’s son, Skip, would commit suicide and his daughter, Elena, would forever ask what her life would have been, had the tragedy never occurred. Elena, however, would get the chance to change the past. In the future, she is gifted with a chance to travel back in time, and if she can find her father’s killer before that fateful night, she can perhaps make a better future for her family. Will she succeed? Who killed Wayne Collins … and why?
“Buick City 1AM” is a serial podcast conceived and written by Flint native, Jason Cady. The delightful and thought-provoking murder mystery is set in the city of Flint in 1984, during the second Presidential election of Ronald Reagan. Cady combines the feeling of a 1920s crime noir, with the expression and emotion of opera music, which creates an enchanting and unique experience for listeners. The podcast is truly one-of-a-kind.
“The city is synonymous with my childhood,” Cady says of growing up in Flint. “Writing this brought me a little bit of homesickness.” Cady moved from the area before middle school to the state of Arizona. He attended Arizona State University, graduating magna cum laude with a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Arts and Performance. He next received an M.A. in composition from Wesleyan University and then moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he has resided since 2001. Flint will always be a part of his life, however, and the city was the obvious, perfect setting for the story that would become “Buick City 1AM.”
“The basic plot idea came to me while completing another piece I did concerning time travel,” he explains. “I created a piece called ‘I Screwed Up the Future’ about a woman going back to the ‘90s to prevent the calamity of Y2K. When I got the idea for ‘Buick City’, placing it in 1980s Flint was the right answer. Both my parents worked and met at Buick City. When I was a kid, everyone worked there.” Cady’s parents still live in the Flint area and the story recalls not only Jason’s memory of Flint in the ‘80s, but that of his parents, as well. “I got so much feedback from my father and his auto-working friends while writing this. They made sure that I got all of the union and shop lingo absolutely correct,” Cady says with a laugh. He also found a friend who ended up working in HR for General Motors to provide an opposite plot perspective. “He really helped me to fill out the personality of Gordon – the story’s white-collar character.”
As soon as Cady began to write, the elements of the story simply fell into place. The four-part story is full of intrigue, subplots and hints as to the identity of Collins’ murderer. It really keeps you guessing, and figuring out the murderer’s identity before it’s revealed is definitely a fun aside. As the story bends and turns, Cady takes listeners in and around the city of Flint in a way that can be gratifying for the current residents. “I wanted to include as many Flint and Michigan landmarks as I could, but not be too heavy-handed with it,” he shares. “Sadly, I had to leave a few things out. For example, my first draft had a Vernors soda reference that I had to omit because it just didn’t fit.” Not only did Cady write the plot and dialogue for the podcast, he also composed all of the music and songs. “I use a modular synthesizer for all of my compositions. I had a lot of fun with it,” he says. Cady did something unique with the music for this composition. A behind-the-scenes secret: he assigned a musical note to each of the seven main characters, and that note drones subtly in the background when that character speaks. Each song relating to a particular character is keyed to that characters note. For example, the main character of Elena Collins is assigned the note of “A” and the main character of Wayne is assigned the note of “E.” (Can you figure out the rest?) Another unique touch: the songs in “Buick City, 1AM” are thematically related to the characters and create as much a mystery as the plot. The story leaves you guessing after each character interaction.
Voicing the character of Wayne Collins is actor, Josh Pyne, who says he loves all the subtle touches in “Buick City, 1AM,” especially the local Flint flair. “It’s so much fun to listen to, because you get all of these nice, little ‘Easter eggs’ in the music and the dialogue,” he shares. The Owosso native grew up in and around Flint. “My mother worked for Flushing schools and I spent a lot of time with her in the city at places like The Torch,” Pyne adds. “Working on this project was a perfect fit for me.” He started acting as early as seventh grade working with the Owosso Community Players, and went on to study at Western Michigan University. Upon graduation, he moved to Brooklyn, New York. He had never met Cady, until he happened upon a backstage listing for voice actors who could speak with a mid-western dialect. Pyne was a shoe-in for the role. “It was kind of the most inside-trader thing I’ve ever done,” he says, laughing. “Most people don’t understand how nuanced a Michigan dialect is. Many people think it’s Canadian,” he explains. “I had been away from the area for a while, but it didn’t take me long to fall back into it – only about a day.” Pyne’s portrayal of Wayne Collins is based upon a faceless Mid-Michigan man. “Wayne is the everyman of his time for the area,” he states. “He cares for his family and wonders about the future. The story is kind of built around two trains of thought: those who think GM will be there forever, and those who see signs of the future. In many ways, the story is about the fall of the working man in the Midwest. Setting it in Flint in 1984 during the Reagan administration is absolutely great.”
Pyne enjoyed recording his part, particularly the scenes with dialogue between Wayne and his friend, Bud, in their store. “I had such good rapport with the actor playing Bud. We got to have some fun with improvisation,” he claims. The show was recorded “on location” which provided another fun element for Pyne. “We recorded inside cars and at sites outside, to get that kind of realistic background ambience.”
After recording “Buick City 1AM,” Pyne planned to take some time off to travel to Michigan and be with his family for the holidays, before heading back to New York. Currently, he is part of “Live in Theater,” where he performs in live audience-participation murder mysteries, and he loves every minute of it. (See liveintheater.com for more information.)
As for Cady, he will continue working with his production company and is excited about many upcoming projects. “We just performed an opera of mine titled ‘Candy Corn’ as part of our Modularias showcase, and in February of next year, our production company will perform three different operas: ‘Rainbird’, ‘Chunky in Heat’, and ‘Warka Vase’.”
Jason Cady is proud of “Buick City 1AM” and he hopes listeners will be, too. “I wrote the piece to let our listeners know about Flint’s rich history,” he says. “Flint was a place where you could have a solid middle-class life. People outside of Flint have really reduced it down to the water crisis and the city deserves much more than that. The people of Flint are resilient, and their history proves that.”
“Buick City 1AM” is available at iTunes, Spotify, and everywhere else you consume your audio online. The podcast is also available for listening at experimentsinopera.com and jasoncadymusic.com.
“Buick City 1AM” is produced by Experiments in Opera (EIO), a company started in New York by Jason Cady and his partners, Aaron Siegel and Matthew Welch. With a focus on re-writing the experience of opera, they create fun and adventurous new operas using intimate storytelling and experimental music. They have produced wonderful performances since 2010, and have no intention of slowing down. For more podcasts and stories produced by EIO and Jason Cady, visit experimentsinopera.com or jasoncadymusic.com.
— Peter Hinterman, My City, December 3, 2018
FLINT NATIVE WRITES FIRST OPERA ABOUT THE CITY
Buick City, 1:00 AM evokes a Flint that no longer lives except in our memories, the Flint that existed when the auto industry was just starting to founder. Created and composed by Flint native Jason Cady, the four-act avant-garde podcast opera takes place in 1984, opening with a newscast of the Mondale-Reagan presidential race. This edgy whodunit concerns a time traveling woman named Elena. She goes back to the Flint of 1984 to save her father’s life.
“The whole project was a sort of homage to my best friend from childhood,” Cady says. “He died when we were teenagers and he was buried with a VHS copy of ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ and a hockey stick. So there are a lot of personal references in the story that no one would be able to pick up on, but I hope it adds to the emotional resonance of it.”
“Buick City, 1:00 AM” definitely has emotional impact. Better set aside a couple of hours once you start listening to the podcast – you’re likely to be drawn in and want to find out who, among the half dozen or so suspects, actually “dunit” and why.
“When I first imagined ‘Buick City, 1:00 AM,’ I only thought of the time travel and murder mystery plot,” Cady says. “But I believe that setting is important and too many stories take place in NYC and LA. I wanted the character to travel back in time to the 80s, so it just made the most sense to set the story in Flint where I grew up. Once I decided that, the rest of the story clicked into place.”
‘Buick City 1:00 AM’ is the first podcast opera. Cady says he got his interest in podcasts from his wife, Ann Heppermann, a producer of radio shows and podcasts who teaches writing for radio at Sarah Lawrence College.
“While she won’t let me actually attend her class I’ve been kind of a full-time student of hers for the last 11 years,” he says. “Even before creating a podcast opera I was inspired by fiction podcasts to bring in such things as sound design into my operas.”
Cady has crafted dialogue that sounds like we’re back in the days before the Flint plants closed, before the internet, before 9/11 and before smartphones. The actors’ delivery is pitch-perfect down to that flat Flint nonaccent that only people not from Michigan can hear.
“I believe theater is perfect for exploring ideas from multiple perspectives. Images are crucial whether they are visual or sonic. For example, in ‘Buick City, 1:00 AM’ the father, Wayne, has an aortic valve replacement, which makes an audible tick, and that ties in the fact that his days are ‘numbered,’ as well as time in general and time travel.”
Wayne, played by Flint-area native Joshua Pyne, opens a store selling guns (as well as books and records) that evokes Flint’s head shops that posed as record stores, of which there were several from the 1970s until 2011, when Wyatt Earp Records closed. Cady drew on his own family background for the portrayal of Elena’s family.
“I’ve always been bothered by stereotyped portrayals of working-class people,” he says. “My entire family worked at Buick. My parents met on the assembly line. There’s a misconception that only privileged people pursue a career in the arts. But when I decided to devote my life to music I assumed I would always be poor, so doing what I loved made the most sense. Most of my family members had artistic or intellectual pursuits. My father used to work fast on the assembly line and stop to read a book for a few minutes, and my mother now takes ballet classes.”
Since his parents still live in the area, Cady returns at least once a year. He’s familiar with a lot of the ways in which the city has changed but the project needed research too.
“I read ‘Rivethead’ by Ben Hamper, ‘Teardown’ by Gordon Young and ‘Here Comes Trouble’ by Michael Moore, as well as re-watching ‘Roger and Me,’” he says. “I interviewed family members, visited various spots in Flint and looked through the Flint Voice archives. Probably the funnest thing was having my father and his friend Dennis McGary read a scene and give me feedback.”
Wayne, Elena’s father, is a working-class intellectual who reads Bertrand Russell, Madalyn Murry O’Hair and Eugene V. Debs. He discusses religion and nihilism. The idea of fate returns frequently in “Buick City, 1 AM.”
“In ‘Buick City, 1:00 AM’ the time travel is reflected by ideas about destiny, free will versus determinism and the New Age,” Cady says. “I like using a premise that situates my stories as speculative fiction or sketch comedy, but I’ve realized I identify more with literary fiction. I thought the death of the father would embody the death of the working class. At the same time it would be the death of the innocence of childhood for the protagonist, so I could conjure my own childhood.”
Cady says that by nature he is “naively optimistic, but also pretty dark.” Despite the grim aura that surrounded Flint in the 1980s, he doesn’t blame his existential approach on Flint.
“When I write I try to tie as many things together as possible,” he says. “Whenever something appears I make an effort to bring it back in another way.”
Music has been Cady’s lifelong passion. “When I started as a composer I wrote instrumental music, but right before grad school I started composing for the voice,” he says. “That got me in touch with my earlier interests in punk and pop and led to my interest in opera, but I don’t exactly have a traditional opera background. I wrote my first opera before I had even been to a real opera house. What attracts me to it is the opportunity to put lyrics in the context of character and story. For example, in ‘Buick City, 1:00 AM,’ there are songs about atheism, infidelity and suicide. I would never write standalone songs about those topics.”
If you want to see more of Cady’s time travel ideas, check out the opera video “I Screwed Up the Future.” It deals with Y2K – and how things might have been different had it actually come to pass. You can hear “Buick City, 1:00 AM” and learn more about Jason and his work at experimentsinopera.com and jasoncadymusic.com.
—Meredith McGhan, On The Town Magazine, January/February 2019