Rock opera

Local musicians and dancers bring the Decemberists’ album Hazards of Love to life

Audience members are able to get comfortable while being close to the stage and the band at <i>Hazards of Love</i>.

Audience members are able to get comfortable while being close to the stage and the band at Hazards of Love.

photo by Audrey Love

Months before the 2009 release of the Decemberists’ fifth album, frontman Colin Meloy admitted to Paste magazine that the songs were originally written for a musical. But halfway through writing them, he realized the music wasn’t meant for the stage. He later abandoned the project, rewrote the songs and released a rock opera album instead, The Hazards of Love.

Two years later in January, Reno resident Jill Marlene was driving in her minivan to San Francisco with her son and his girlfriend. He handed her a CD with the words “The Hazards of Love” scrawled on the front. She hesitated but dropped the CD in the stereo anyway.

“The story kind of played out as I was driving,” says Marlene. “We probably started around Auburn or Sacramento and by the time I got to Vallejo I was in tears.”

Everything about the album enraptured Marlene: the lyrics, the musical structure, Meloy’s voice. As a singer, Marlene immediately began thinking of the dramatic possibilities. She turned around to face her son and his girlfriend. “I looked at them, and I said, ‘We have to stage this.’ And they said, ‘Yes, we do.’ ”

The Hazards of Love eventually consumed Marlene on that trip and for the rest of the year. It echoed her love of literature, song and romance—all in one listening—and it became clear it would become her latest project. As a tribute to The Decemberists and The Hazards of Love, she decided to produce and direct the rock opera.

Marlene presents The Hazards of Love rock opera on stage Nov. 18 and 19 at The Great Escape in the Sports West Plaza. With a live band, choreography and singers, The Hazards of Love rock opera will come to life—and to death—beginning with the haunting first lyric: “My true love came riding out in white and green and gray.”

The Hazards of Love story begins, as usual, when boy meets girl. Girl falls in love with boy. Boy falls in love with girl. In this case, The Hazards of Love tells the story of Margaret as she comes upon a fawn in the forest. But by nighttime the fawn turns into William, a shape shifter born of clay from his jealous mother, The Queen. When William turns into a man, his and Margaret’s love take over and, without spoiling too much, the opera weaves in a tale of murder and mayhem.

In the song “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid,” William pleads with his mother to allow him the chance to be with Margaret, asking, “Hear this proposition right/Grant me freedom to enjoy this one night/And I’ll return to you at break of light/For the wanting comes in waves.” Those unfamiliar with the album should note this “wanting comes in waves” lyric repeats itself throughout, along with “the hazards of love” lyric.

“There’s this tension because he’s raised in the forest, but he needs this human woman, and he’s had this incredible struggle falling in love with her,” says Marlene. “There’s this existential crisis, and William does not know how to negotiate all of these tense and very complex emotions that are kind of underscored by the jealousy of his mother. He’s torn between these two worlds.”

Production hazards

Lindsy Roberts dances among the trees in Hazards of Love.

photo by Audrey Love

In the original 17-song album, all the character voices are not always easily recognized—the character names are, however, seen in print. In this production, the Hazards of Love tribute will feature dancers onstage with singers and musicians to the side. Characters will clearly have their own voices.

Musical direction from Ray Silva and Chris Nelson (also voice of the villain, The Rake) will complete the opera that includes children singing and a handful of people as the forest. Marlene will voice The Queen. Her son Gabe Hilton, who inspired her to produce the show, will be voicing William. Mary McNeill will voice Margaret. Dancers include choreographer and dancer Lindsy Roberts as Margaret and Nathan Robison as the tragic hero, William. Erika Tauchen will dance as The Queen and Rory Dowd as The Rake.

Marlene hopes that by encompassing all aspects of the opera, she can do The Decemberists proud. The whole opera took months of preparation.

Although not entirely unlike her background in dance, choreographer Roberts knew this project would need to put dance to songs and emotions at crucial moments.

“It’s generally a lot of people on stage, and the emotions range from pleasantly smiling to slightly surprised to running off stage, gracefully in shock,” says Roberts. “But in Hazards of Love, it’s going to be really personal. The audience is really going to see the love that the characters have. And if I’ve done my job right, hopefully there will be some tears in the audience.”

Robison, who dances as William, had dance background is some Reno-Tahoe Shakespeare festivals, but he hadn’t danced for almost two decades. His character must evoke a great transition from boyhood to adulthood. Like Roberts, the emotions are so overwhelming.

“It’s beautiful music,” he says. “It’s haunting and exciting, and it almost makes you cry.”

Crying might be easier said than done. Although the album has made cast members cry more than once, when The Decemberists released the album, it didn’t receive such rave reviews as their earlier, less thunderous work. The style of the music Marlene likes to call “Victorian nouveau” caters to a unique genre, but The Hazards of Love seemed to go too far.

The band’s earlier albums, like their 2002 debut, Castaways and Cutouts, offer a twist on the indie genre. Meloy’s lyrics harken back to the 1840s and beyond. Back then, the songs were a bit happier, and a bit more romantic, in the sense of fondness and not foreboding. But The Decemberists have always had some kind of drowning or dying right around the corner in the next song.

With Hazards of Love, Josh Modell of Spin went so far as to say, “They just aren’t as adept at anger as they are at whimsy.” He gave the album a rating of 5 out of 10.

The show will still aim to please those who have never listened to The Decemberists. Hilton, who voices William, probably sums up the idea of The Decemberists best. As the person who first introduced Marlene to the album, he has worked alongside his mother to accurately channel William in all his rage and love and wanting.

“It’s musical and visual interpretation with beautiful choreography and talented musicians,” he says. He sees their The Hazards of Love production as a tribute, an attempt to remake what he simply considers a beautiful work of art.