Gods hit the highway to Hades

When Frenchman Jacques Offenbach put his spin on "Orpheus In The Underworld," he transformed the tragic Greek love story into a madcap comedy. Tacoma Opera will present the opera, sung in English, as its first performances of the 2007-08 season this weekend.

Kathryn Smith, general director of Tacoma Opera, takes the entire season into account when selecting operas. Many comedic operas follow a boy meets girl story line, with humor generated by characters adopting disguises. This is the case with "Barber of Seville," which will be presented in the spring. Seeking a comedy with a different plot for the fall show, Smith opted for "Orpheus In The Underworld."

For the fourth year, the fall show is in the Rialto Theater, which has limitations not found in the larger Pantages Theater, site of the spring show. There is no orchestra pit, for one, and no way to alter scenery during a performance.

The Rialto calls for something unusual and creative, and Smith feels "Orpheus" fits the bill.

This was a very popular opera in Offenbach's time, Smith noted. He altered the plot considerably. In his version, Orpheus is no longer trying to save his wife, Eurydice. Rather, he is eager to get rid of her.

When she dies and goes to Hades, the nymphs urge Orpheus to go there to make a case for her return to the living.

His wish is granted. Smith noted that the couple hasn't split up because they fear the character of Public Opinion, which might say bad things about them if they did.

When she runs off with a new lover, Public Opinion demands Orpheus bring her back.

Meanwhile, the gods are getting bored hanging around Mt. Olympus. They request a vacation in Hades, and things really heat up from there.

"Offenbach was skewering a lot of things, such as people in power and societal morals," said Smith. Especially the latter, with people having affairs with no apparent disapproval from society. "It was certainly scandalous, but it was a very big hit."

Smith describes the costumes Tacoma Opera will use as "mythological with a twist." For example, Mercury will wear high tops with wings. The gods will wear feather boas in Hades, a nod to the hedonistic theme. While some opera companies have placed "Orpheus" in a modern setting, Tacoma Opera, like Offenbach, keeps it in ancient Greece. "It is classically set, except we twist it," Smith remarked.

It will feature much dancing, including the can-can, cakewalk and waltzes. "Everyone seems to be in constant motion, which is not what people expect from opera," Smith commented.

Because the Rialto lacks the infrastructure to change scenery, the set will be the universe throughout the show. By the very nature of the venue, Smith said performances in the Rialto are unusual, and force the staff to be more creative. "It poses a challenge, but it means we can do what we want," she said. "Our Rialto pieces are different. They are some of the more fun and creative shows we produce."

Several vocalists will make their Tacoma Opera debut with their performances this weekend. They are Holly Boaz as Eurydice, Amanda Brown as Diana and Jared Rogers as Aristaeus/Pluto. Two veterans who made their Tacoma Opera debut in 1991 will join them: Ellen McLain as Public Opinion and Barry Johnson as Jupiter.

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