Lorne Dechtenberg admits that the name Bluegrass Opera has been a little problematic.
"Every time somebody asks me, 'Do you do bluegrass music?' that irks me," says Dechtenberg, who says he thinks about changing the company name "daily."
"We were looking for a name that wouldn't limit us to Lexington ... that would allow us to reach out."
But the geographic part of the company name might not be the most problematic part of the moniker.
"Right now we're keeping the name 'opera' because I think it does say that we are musically astute and not just a theater company," Dechtenberg says. "But we are quick to say, 'It's not just opera.'
"Yes, it is contemporary opera. But that label can turn some people off, and it really is contemporary theater. It's all musical theater in the grand sense of the word. It uses music, and it's a theatrical experience. I don't know of a better way to describe it. I wish there was one.
"Right now, the limits of our language are such that it's either opera or it's musical theater. The key is that it's not a museum experience, and that's the most important thing for folks to know."
Dechtenberg, who has a doctorate in musical arts from the University of Kentucky, is steeped in the great operatic works of composers including Giacomo Puccini and Giuseppe Verdi. But it was in graduate school at the University of Houston that he was turned on to the idea of opera as a continuing, living art form.
First he conducted a performance of John Corigliano's late 20th-century piece The Ghost of Versailles, which referenced older works in an avant garde style.
"It brought the whole thing to life in a way I had never thought of," Dechtenberg says. "And I said, 'Wow, if we could bring any set of characters to life that way, we could take the audience on a real journey. It said to me, this wonderful thing that we call the stage needs to come out and touch people the way these operas used to, when they were fresh.
"Even smaller pieces we've done in the last few years, if we can infuse them with that same kind of energy and say to the audience, 'Hey, there's some relevance to your world in this stuff up here,' then I think we can do a service to our audience."
Through Bluegrass Opera, Dechtenberg and other cohorts, including stage director Bill Barto, are trying to build an audience for contemporary opera, particularly world premieres submitted from composers around the world. The pieces have included stories about space aliens, quantum physics and plastic surgery.
Face Value, an original opera by Dechtenberg, will be the company's biggest undertaking to date, with a cast of 14 singer-actors and an orchestra of 30 players, plus sets and costumes.
They conspire to tell the story of the wife of a Donald Trump-esque man who is "stolen" by a professional thief and then conspires with the criminal to take her husband to the cleaners. Along the way, it takes the audience through the worlds of modern media and fashion.
The history of the piece illustrates the sometimes conflicting ideas of opera and musical theater. Dechtenberg wrote it while he was in graduate school and was instructed to take it in more of a high-art direction.
"We've taken it one step away from this hard operatic place that it was and made it more theatrical," he says. "The addition of all these wonderful actors has really helped. It's gotten my head out of that academic place, and I've been able to say, 'You know, I know what I would want to see if I were in the audience and what I'd be alienated by. I want to take them from a place where before they might have said, 'That was interesting,' to place where they'd say, 'That was hilarious.'"
Since launching Bluegrass Opera, one thing Dechtenberg thinks he has had on his side is an audience that hasn't been alienated by modern opera, particularly mid-20th-century opera that championed academic rigor over all. Dechtenberg recalls, with some disgust, composer Milton Babbitt's infamous 1958 essay for High Fidelity magazine, "Who Cares If You Listen?"
"That did not help things at all," Dechtenberg says with a grimace. "We care. We care. We really do care. I have played to empty rooms before, and it is not a pleasant experience."
Audiences can call the music whatever they want, but Dechtenberg wants people to listen.