Party like hell
Orpheus in the Underworld
Reno, NV 89501
If you’ve written off opera as “not your thing,” now may be the time to reconsider.
Forget the stereotypes of fat women in ridiculous costumes and drawn-out death scenes in foreign languages. Instead, think naughty cheerleaders and hot love scenes with insects.
Orpheus in the Underworld is not your grandfather’s opera. This weekend, Nevada Opera becomes the first professional opera company in the country to bring this rendition of the Jacques Offenbach classic to the stage.
Nevada Opera’s executive director Bill Russell calls Offenbach “the class clown” of opera. A Jewish native of Cologne, Germany, Offenbach grew up in France and considered himself French through and through. In the French tradition of bawdy satire (think Molière), Offenbach rarely took anything seriously.
Orpheus in the Underworld is based on the classic Greek tale of Orpheus and Eurydice but with a twist. In Greek myth, Orpheus, a young musician, is in love with Eurydice, a beautiful nymph. Their love is so strong that when she dies, he goes to hell to bring her back. It’s romance at its zenith.
But as Offenbach tells it, Orpheus (Eric Van Hoven) and Eurydice (Sheila Murphy) are a bored, squabbling married couple. His incessant fiddle-playing drives her nuts, and he’s fed up with her constant nagging. Meanwhile, she’s having a torrid affair with a local beekeeper (John Hammel), whom we soon learn is actually Pluto, the god of the Underworld, in disguise. He plots to keep Eurydice all to himself by placing a snake in his field. The snake bites her, and she dies, which suits Orpheus just fine—that is, until Public Opinion rears its ugly head.
Public Opinion (Jennifer Roderer), a character whom we can only assume is Offenbach’s take on an overly restrictive society, is a real battle-axe who pronounces that Orpheus must go to hell and retrieve his wife.
Eurydice, however, is thrilled to finally be with her beloved Pluto—and away from her annoying husband—forever. Plus, here in the Underworld, Eurydice gets to have tawdry, meaningless sex with a god in disguise (this one has to be seen to be believed); and Bacchus, the god of wine and intoxication (played by local actor and model Chris Palmer), and his conclave of nymphs (the naughty cheerleaders, played by dancers from AVA Ballet Theatre) are having one hell of a party. What’s not to love?
The story may not make sense, but it doesn’t matter. Aside from being outrageous—not really family fare—and really funny, the music is far from your average opera. Offenbach, a cellist, is credited with adding a beat to a minuet and creating the Can-Can, which makes an appearance in Orpheus, as do many other fun, recognizable tunes. The show’s also performed in English, which might be a selling point to non-opera regulars. Russell hints that in the spirit of spoof, audience members will spot some unexpected, but well-loved and hilarious, special guests.
According to Russell, Offenbach’s original version has, through the years, been tampered with, modernized and excessively lengthened. In this version, all that has been stripped away. Yet while it’s closer to the original, Nevada Opera has added unique costumes and sets—all designed and made here—to give it a twist.
“It’s not about high moral thoughts or uplifting the spirit, any of that,” Russell says. “This is really about having fun with a lot of great music.”