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VOL. 125 | NO. 11 | Monday, January 18, 2010



Opera Memphis to Spice Up ‘Orpheus’ With Vocal Options

By JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Memphis News

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IF YOU GO

Tickets for Orpheus are $30 and can be purchased by calling 257-3100 or by visiting www.operamemphis.org.

Opera Memphis’ coming production of Gluck’s “Orpheus,” opening Friday, presents audiences with an unusual decision to make. With three performers in three vocal ranges cast in the lead role, audiences can choose from three very different versions of the same production.

“It’s a lovely opera by itself, but to spice up the whole thing we decided to do it with three different voice types at the same time,” said Michael Ching, artistic director of Opera Memphis. “I can’t think of another place that’s done it this way.”

And that’s right up Ching’s alley. Opera Memphis’ season opener, “Cosi Fan Tutte,” was set in 1920s America with a full orchestra on stage behind the scenery.

Ching explained that in an era in which New York's Metropolitan Opera capitalizes by broadcasting live performances in movie theaters around the country, regional operas must work hard to dramatize their live performances.

To that end, Ching cast two men – a tenor and a countertenor – and one woman – a mezzo soprano – as Orpheus, the singing youth of Greco-Roman myth, whose beautiful voice persuades the gods to allow him to go into the Underworld and retrieve his beloved wife, Eurydice.

Each of the three Orpheuses will sing one of three shows for each of the production’s two weekends, Jan. 22-24 and Jan. 29-31.

THREE IN ONE: Tenor Marc Schreiner, countertenor Nicholas Tamagna and mezzo soprano Kathryn Cowdrick all star in the lead role of Opera Memphis' production of "Orpheus." The three will perform on different nights opposite soprano Kearstin Piper Brown as Eurydice. -- PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE ARTISTS

Countertenor Nicholas Tamagna will sing the role on Friday nights, traditional tenor Marc Schreiner will perform Saturday nights and mezzo soprano Kathryn Cowdrick will perform Sundays.

“It’s definitely not the easiest job I’ve ever had, but I love the flexibility of it,” said Kearstin Piper Brown, who plays Eurydice in all performances. “There’s a different energy with each of them and I’ve learned a lot about my own acting abilities.”

Gender bending in opera is not uncommon, but Piper Brown noted that when singing with Schreiner, she must sing higher than with Tamagna or Cowdrick to match Schreiner’s vocal range.

“As a lyric soprano it’s in a good place for my voice,” Piper Brown said. “I love this type of music and I love the love story, the fiery love story of a man willing to risk his life to get his wife.”

“The piece is totally different in Marc’s voice, but even between me and Kathryn you hear differences, so it’s not just the range of the piece, but it’s the sound and the character that ultimately make it exciting,” Tamagna added.

Ching said Mid-South audiences, which aren’t as familiar with countertenor voices, are in for a treat. Countertenors sing in a range that is comparable to a female alto and very feminine in sound.

“We’ve been trying to explain that falsetto or head voice singing is so common in pop music that we’ve all heard it already,” Ching said. “Justin Timberlake sings that way sometimes.”

Cowdrick described playing the youthful, heroic character of Orpheus as “a gift.”

“For me at this stage in my career, I’m mostly singing crazy gray-haired ladies,” Cowdrick said. “Orpheus is such a good character. He’s a hero and he’s flawed, but aren’t we all?”

“Part of the shtick is to try to see if people are interested enough to come more than once,” Ching added.

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