Orpheus: Opera meets frat

What to do when there’s boredom on Olympus? Party it up in Hades.

“Orphee aux Enfers,” or “Orpheus in the Underworld,” Jacques Offenbach’s 1858 answer to the solemnity of Greek mythology, is going up this weekend in a new production performed by students in the Yale School of Music’s opera program. The gloomy title of the opera belies its amusing take on the revered gods of Greek legend, and in opera bouffe style, it uses elements of satire and farce to turn the tragic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice into a riotous comic opera of epic proportions. Created by director Pier Francesco Maestrini, artistic director Doris Yarick-Cross and music director Mikhail Hallak, the Yale Opera’s production updates the story even further by setting it in the hallowed halls of a college fraternity, School of Music spokesperson Vincent Oneppo said. It’s opera gone “Animal House.”

Even though the idea of crossing the genres of 19th century opera and 1970s gross-out comedy may seem offbeat at first, Maestrini said, surprising connections exist between the two. Struck by the famous screenshot of John Belushi wearing a toga and crown of laurels, he said, he began seeing parallels between the opera and the popular movie.

“[Both stories concern] what’s good and what’s bad, or more accurately, what is considered to be good and bad,” Maestrini said.

The Yale production expands on these thematic similarities. The original opera includes a procession of gods from heaven down to hell, where things are a lot more fun. This production transforms the mythical locations of Olympus and Hades into rival fraternities, mixing the heavenly milieu with characters inspired by Saturday Night Live sketch comedy from the 1970s, Maestrini said.

“To make fun of authority,” he said, “it’s always a blast … whether it’s gods or deans.”

Even though Yale’s “Orpheus” may seem subversive to the opera-goer accustomed to traditional productions, the updated setting is appropriate both for the spirit of Offenbach’s opera and for a university production, Maestrini said. With “Orpheus,” Offenbach created the great satire of his time, he said, while the humor of “Animal House” was the great satire of its time.

Yale’s production uses a small ensemble rather than a crowd of chorus members and dancers, as is common in big city opera companies.

Lauren Libaw ’09, the production’s only undergraduate performer, said she felt lucky to be working in a professional atmosphere and that rehearsing for the performance has been exciting. Undergraduates should take advantage of the opportunity to see opera productions while at Yale, she said.

“There’s such a great community of opera singers and opera lovers here,” Libaw said.

Offenbach’s satiric opera will be performed in French song with English supertitles and spoken English narration. “Orpheus in the Underworld” is playing at the Morse Recital Hall on April 20 and 21 at 8 p.m. Student tickets are available for $5, while general admission tickets are available for $12.

Comments

  • JTolle

    Not that I vigorously disagree with what Shamsie is saying, but if the novels, stories, or authors she’s specifically discussing and referencing aren’t mentioned, then what we hear is someone vaguely denouncing something about American literature that we, basically, already know.

    I mean, does she acknowledge the work of William T. Vollmann, the poetry of Jay Wright, “Homebody/Kabul” by Tony Kushner, all of which – though not representing, perhaps, the current “trends” of American literature – are the product of Major authors dealing with exactly the sorts of issues Shamsie seems to find lacking in our literary output? Or does she simply take note of what Roth, McCarthy, Pynchon, Oates **don’t** do, and resent what DeLillo, Foer, and Franzen do badly?