This month, the Cherry Artspace will play host to “Apple : Tree,” a mixed-media “rolling cabaret” by Ithaca resident and performer Caitlin Mathes. As Mathes describes, it’s a passion project a long time coming for the actress.
Mathes is a nationally acclaimed opera singer turned cabaret performer originally from Connecticut. She said she’s always loved all kinds of music, to the point that when she attended Ithaca College for her undergraduate degree, she didn’t know if she wanted to major in musical theater or ethnomusicology, the study of music from a variety of cultures.
After IC, Mathes attended University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, largely pursuing opera. For her last year of academics, she performed her first cabaret in Italy. That’s when things started to change.
“When I did my first cabaret, it really felt like I was in my parents’ basement, and I was making puppets and I was making things and sharing it, and it was just so refreshing to get to flex my creativity in different ways beyond just singing [opera],” Mathes said. “That’s kind of what cabaret has kept on being for me, … an outlet that speaks to allowing me to go crazy and develop and make and share.”
Her journey took her to Portland, Oregon, to sing with an opera company out there, and six years ago, she came back to Ithaca as a sabbatical replacement at IC, where she has been ever since. Mathes said that the big thing that drew her back, aside from meeting her husband here, was the weather.
“It’s similar to where I grew up in a way,” she said. “I liked the West Coast, but I felt like I missed being invigorated. I do like a good winter. I like a good, hard winter, a wrapping your scarf around your face. … I came back to the East Coast to feel the weather again.”
In Ithaca, Mathes works part-time at Plenty of Posies in Newfield while also continuing to pursue her love of cabaret and theater. Mathes described her artistic style as trying to paint a full scene and story for her audience.
“I tend to approach the cabarets like collages, so there’s some kind of sense of story that I want to tell or a general message, and then, all of the elements – the set, the banter – go into this stew for that project,” Mathes said.
That element and style can be seen in her upcoming “Apple : Tree,” Mathes said. “Apple : Tree” will feature Mathes singing a palette of music from Baudelaire, Brecht, Piaf and Björk, paired with an immersive environment of her father’s (Al Mathes) visual art. The art will be around the room, with the audience on rolling chairs to travel from piece to piece with the performance. Caitlin said this is meant to make the audience “encounter” each piece as she performs each song.
Caitlin described the show as dealing with all kinds of love and relationships and the journeys they take people on.
“The show, the more I’m running it and living with it, seems to be about love in different arenas, like romantic love and passion for your career or your approach to self-care,” she said. “There’s all kinds of things that we encounter in life as far as developing a love relationship with anything. … You love your career but you hit these roadblocks or you love this person but you hit these roadblocks.”
The largest element, though, is most certainly her father. Caitlin grew up seeing her father’s art and has always considered it a part of home, she said.
“When I was an opera singer and traveling a lot, I could take a painting with me and immediately make my space feel like home because it was so big and so all-encompassing, and it was done by my dad,” she said.
Eight years ago, Al had a solo art show, featured in a film featurette by her brother. Watching that film, Caitlin said, made her see her father’s work in a new light.
“It was really eye-opening because if I didn’t know him, I would say, ‘What good ideas. I’ve got to go see that show,’” she said. “And so, I think that was maybe the start of wanting to do a show that involved my dad’s paintings.”
And the idea of incorporating shifting perspectives into her cabaret came from this show as well.
“My dad was talking about shifts in perspectives, and that was one thing that really stood out to me,” she said. “Because everybody’s moving to encounter this art, we’re all kind of shifting our perspective.”
As for the use of rolling chairs, Caitlin said that doesn’t have as clear of an origin story.
“I honestly do not know where that idea first came from of wanting rolly chairs,” she said. “I think it’s just fun. When you’re in a room by yourself and you have access to a rolly chair, you usually have a good time.”
The show will feature 14 of Al’s paintings, which are large, abstract pieces on Mylar, a type of polyester resin. Caitlin said he’s glad to have been able to collaborate with his daughter on such a project.
Caitlin said this show wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the Cherry’s willingness to accept something out of the ordinary.
“One of the reasons that I haven’t done this show with my dad for a couple years is we needed the right space to do it and a company that would be excited enough to have something a little weird come in,” she said. “This is my first collaboration with the Cherry, and it’s been awesome.”
“Apple : Tree” runs two weekends on Jan. 18-19 and 23-25 at the Cherry Artspace, 102 Cherry St. in Ithaca, at 8 p.m.
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