Onstage in a theatre in Rotterdam, a gorgeous Oriental diva with a Louise Brooks bob is dressed in a classic silver space suit of Cold War, pre-space-race vintage. As, too, are her crew. The score of Cavalli's proto opera, based on the Greek myth of Dido and Aeneas, is played live by a small band on one side of the stage. At the back of the stage, footage from Planet of the Vampires, Mario Brava's kitsch-looking 1965 science-fiction movie, is projected.

As the actors step into what could be different time zones, from the seventeenth-century Italian stage to some shiny film-set future, the audience's imagination is led into a twilight zone, occupied by the Wooster Group, New York's premiere avant-garde theatre troupe led by director Elizabeth LeCompte for more than a quarter of a century.

Given the company's pioneering use of video, film and multi-layered pop cultural narrative cut-up, which century that is remains anybody's guess.

Planet of the Vampire's story is roughly the same as Dido and Aeneas. Even so, with the performers one minute emoting operatically, the next lip-synching the film's dialogue, sometimes doing both at the same time, it is a typically jarring experience for Wooster Group watchers. And when a big electric guitar crashes in where harpsichords and lutes were before, the time-warp effect goes fully into orbit.

Its antecedents are many. The Wooster Group's La Didone does what the film Forbidden Planet did with Shakespeare's The Tempest. Where that story of stellar shipwreck was further reinvented in the rock'n'roll musical of Return To The Forbidden Planet, La Didone looks to the roots of its classical past. Then there's avant-rock band Pere Ubu's live score to The Day The Earth Stood Still, which took that B-movie's theremin-led score and blasted it into the 21st century, with X-Ray Spex to boot. Malcolm McLaren plundered Puccini's Madame Butterfly and put it together with New York street rap at the time the Wooster Group were just starting to flex their own cut-and-paste muscles.

La Didone is a typically audacious rendering of a classic work by the Wooster Group, which will no doubt irk the purists, even though the group retain every single note of Cavalli's original, and deliver it as written. Composer Bruce Odland has merely contemporised and embellished things, not in a classical-pops sort of way that trivialises rather than legitimises both forms, but in a way that brings a potential museum piece out of suspended animation and back on to a Star Trek-like bridge. Illogical, as Mr Spock might observe. But this is still opera. Just not as we know it.

"Opera was just beginning when Cavalli first wrote La Didone," says Odland, who previously worked with the Wooster Group on their production of The Hairy Ape. "So it's the perfect match. When you think about all the Wooster Group's adventurous work with technology and emerging art forms, it's the same as when baroque opera was emerging. If you treat it as an emerging art form and not as something hidden under glass, it's perfect."

Odland is working on a book on hearing, and has previously made installations that pull together everyday sounds from urban spaces. La Didone, though, takes on other worlds.

"In our age of noise," he points out, "we've lost the ability almost even to hear the resonances of most spaces. We're so visually bombarded we don't pay any attention to them anymore. So the first question was what sort of space could we create this piece of work for."

A traditional Victorian theatre such as the Royal Lyceum may seem a little out of whack compared with the less formal spaces the company are more associated with. Then again, it's just one more counterpoint for the Wooster Group to play with. It's 21 years since the group first appeared at the Edinburgh International Festival. Then, it was with The Road To Immortality Part Two, which played the even more conservative Church Hill Theatre in Morningside.

Later titled LSD, Just The High Points, the show featured a meticulous recreation of a collective acid trip the company had filmed, and a lysergically charged high-speed reinvention of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Among its cast were LeCompte's then partner, Willem Dafoe, and a young Steve Buscemi, who returned when the Wooster Group took the entire trilogy to Glasgow's Tramway a few years later. Since then, they've developed a fan-base in this country in thrall of the company's hi-tech sensory overload.

In the flesh, LeCompte and actress and company veteran Kate Valk are the living embodiment of the Wooster Group's contrary and dynamic approach. With a quarter of a century of shared history, gaining an audience with them is at times as dizzying and bewildering as their work.

"We didn't choose to do this opera," Valk relates. "It was a commission for a festival in Basle, and Liz said no several times, because she didn't want to work under certain assumptions of how Europeans perceive opera should be done. Liz asked what if she wanted to run the whole thing backwards, and was given carte blanche."

"This is the third time we've worked like this," says LeCompte, sitting beside her. "I was reluctant to do it, partly because I had a German CD of it, with full orchestration that's three hours long, and it was very monosyllabic to me. It had a sameness which I couldn't hear, and I thought it was second-rate Monteverdi. Then I went to the original manuscript, and hearing it the way Cavalli would have done it, I fell in love with it."

As women used to working with often contrary material, LeCompte and Valk were intrigued by the two different endings for La Didone, one of which was grafted on.

"In one she dies," Valk says, "in the other they all live happily ever after. Some people thought we'd perverted it, but he had."

"Then we started thinking about space," LeCompte continues, "and this very male idea of a journey in a rocket ship which was very similar. I think anyone would have reached a similar conclusion."

"That's where all the great old stories went," Valk shrieks. "They went to Star Trek."

It's an all too true observation of how science-fiction has always taken ancient myths, dressed them up in Bacofoil and recontextualised them in tales of heroism, loyalty and adventure. It's these metaphysical aspects which interest LeCompte, whose retelling of La Didone is both serious and throwaway.

"We haven't knitted all these different components together," she insists. "It's interesting that we're perceived as this state-of-art company, and I don't know what we've done here, but this is me at my dumbest. It's dumbness that transcends dumbness, and that's really dumb."

  • La Didone is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, August 18-22, 8pm.