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VOL. 126 | NO. 10 | Monday, January 17, 2011

Ching Gives Bard Operatic Twist

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Daily News

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The highly anticipated premiere production of Opera Memphis’ “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Michael Ching is a confluence of vocal styles, artistic designs and Shakespearian characters in a setting that may change the way audiences view opera.

Kyle Huey as Puck and Laura Stracko as Hermia in the Playhouse on the Square and Opera Memphis co-production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” (Photo: Courtesy of John Horan and Playhouse on the Square)

Like the magical forest of Shakespeare’s play in which Athenian nobles, mechanical workmen and testy fairies collide, the stage at Playhouse on the Square will see the uniting of efforts from three artistic groups with three individual styles performing in concert.

“It’s very rare that an opera company and a theater company collaborate and I don’t know why because they each do music drama,” said Ching, whose handcrafted version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” opens Jan. 21 at Playhouse and runs through Feb. 13.

Ching, the former artistic director of Opera Memphis, left that position last May to devote himself full time to writing new operas. Opera Memphis previously performed his works “Corps of Discovery” and “Buoso’s Ghost.”

For “Midsummer,” Ching said he wanted to give audiences a true taste of Shakespearian language in operatic form.

“There’s a lot of Shakespeare that’s been turned into opera,” Ching said. “I’ve always felt for one reason or another that I’d like to take a shot at it.”

The trouble with Shakespeare in opera is that it usually ended up written in Italian such as Verdi’s “Macbeth,” thereby removing Shakespeare’s words, which are arguably as important as the plots of the plays.Ching wanted to keep the beauty of the original words intact.

And in this particular work, the easier to understand the better. Although “Midsummer” is one of the more well-known Shakespearian works, there’s a lot to keep up with. Two pairs of Athenian lovers, thwarted by their parents’ desire to keep them apart, run away to the forest where they become innocent bystanders to the domestic arguments of the king and queen of the fairies.

Meanwhile, a group of laborers, called “mechanicals,” assigned to put on a play for a duke’s entertainment, struggle with getting their show together.

Then there’s the problem of making the libretto understandable. Even in English, operatic singing tends to distort the sounds of words to the point that subtitles are needed. So Ching wrote his opera to be performed a capella, voices only, and he brought in some friends who are adept at singing without instruments.

“The Delta Capella people were very enthusiastic about it,” Ching said, referring to the vocal group he began coaching about three years ago. “Though initially the idea of having to learn two hours of music was daunting. By working with them, I really fell in love with a capella as a vocal art form.”

Most of the group will be singing in a “vocal orchestra” from the pit, using their voices as instruments and percussion as well as supplementing the libretto. Some will even appear on stage.

Playhouse also is contributing singers/actors who will be singing in musical theater form along with operatic singers from Opera Memphis. If it sounds artistically risky, well, it is. Ching said he has received interest in the piece from across the country but no commitments for new productions yet. Everyone seems to be waiting to see how this one turns out.

“This will definitely have more of a pop sound to it than any Opera Memphis production that had ever taken place,” Ching said. “That’s not to underestimate the classical nature of other parts of it.”

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