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Meadows Opera Theatre Puts a Modern Spin On Opera Cult Classic Orpheus

This year's irreverent production makes opera both relevant and accessible

Amanda Presmyk (B.A. '14-Film and Media Arts & Journalism)
If you’re looking for tabloid scandals, high fashion, hilarity, and a party so out of control that it can only take place in Hades, head to the opera.

Although many people believe opera to be a highbrow art form not readily accessible to the masses, with Orpheus in the Underworld the SMU Meadows School of the Arts Opera Theatre turns this assumption on its head. In fact, by reworking Offenbach’s original operetta and making it into a modern show that is extremely relatable to this generation, they practically redefine the genre.

Previously, the department has featured operas of all styles, from those by Mozart to those by twentieth century composers. “It’s important to offer students a wide range of experiences,” said opera director Hank Hammett. With that idea in mind, Orpheus in the Underworld became an obvious choice for this year’s show.

Jacques Offenbach released his original satiric operetta Orpheus in 1858 amidst the celebrity-centric society that existed in Paris in the 1800s. The piece mocked the outrageous culture of the time as well as the very Greek myth it was derived from. Such a scathing lampoon caused extensive public outcry, so, naturally, audiences couldn’t get enough and Orpheus became an almost instant cult classic.

SMU’s version of Orpheus was rewritten – in English – by Kelley Rourke explicitly for the department, enabling them to do their “own kind of thing that’s never been done,” said Hammett.

The tale centers on Orpheus and Euridice, a Hollywood “it” couple who can’t stand each other and are mutually unfaithful. Orpheus, though, must ignore his desires to leave Euridice and listen to the advice of the savvy Public Opinion and do what’s best for his career.

Meanwhile, the young gods atop Olympus are bored with their lavish lives marked by blue skies and ambrosia and yearn to rebel against their parents. All the characters’ paths inevitably cross when they all end up in the underworld, resulting in “an explosion of absurdity where nothing is as expected,” says J.J. Wickham, the costume and set designer for the show.

The visual design fuses a range of influences, from media culture to modern art installations, making for a visually stunning and complex aesthetic. A three-and-a-half- story steel structure serves as the setting, which, according to Wickham, “exposes the theater in a controlled way.” Hollywood trends inspire the costumes that boldly grace the stage.

Members of the Meadows Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Paul Phillips, provide live accompaniment for the vocal performances in Orpheus. With choreography by renowned jazz dance professor Danny Buraczeski and upbeat music like the Galop – today known as the can-can – the show possesses a vibe that’s more like a musical than an opera.

By fusing Offenbach’s original work with modern elements like iPhones and iPads, reality television sensations, talk show goddesses and celebrity gossip wars, Orpheus in the Underworld hilariously reflects today’s obsession with the same superficial, voyeuristic values that were rampant in Paris two centuries ago. Not only does Orpheus call into question these obsessions, but it also asks the audience to consider the difference between what is actually seen and what is assumed and the concept that earth, heaven, and hell are not quite as disparate as one might think.

Catch the Meadows School of the Arts Division of Music’s performance of Orpheus and the Underworld Feb. 3-6 in the Bob Hope Theatre. Tickets are $13 for adults, $10 for seniors and $7 for students, faculty and staff. For more information, call the Meadows Ticket Office at 214-768-ARTS.

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