Partying in Hell
‘Yes, Eugene, we can-can’
by Suzi Steffen
The advertising may say things like “Hell” and “Damnation,” but the cast of the satirical operetta Orpheus in the Underworld takes time out of rehearsals to sing “Happy Birthday” to its members.
The Eugene Opera opens a crowded but spectacular 32nd season with this light, funny, politically pointed piece by Jacques Offenbach that makes fun of celebrity, morals and rulers today with as much élan as it did in 1858 France under Napoleon III. Not only that, but it’s got the famous music of the “Can-Can Dance,” originally written for this production.
“We have a fantastic production,” says Eugene Opera Executive Director Mark Beudert, who’s directing Orpheus. “This cast has taken the ball, and they are running with it.”
The chorus and some of the principals, carrying signs that say “Yes, Eugene, We Can-Can,” have been singing on the streets and in the malls. They’ve also flyered the town to create more interest in an opera that Beudert says people in Eugene don’t really know. “It’s as funny as last year’s Pirates of Penzance,” Beudert says. Despite the humorous nature of the opera, which is sung in an English translation, sales appear a bit slow — which is why the exuberant cast has fanned out across the city in recent days. Sometimes, however, their energy needs direction.
“No! Keep the ball down!” Beudert shouts over the music during a Winter Solstice rehearsal. The yellow beach ball floats and bounces anyway as the gods organize an escape from heaven. They’re tired of their Olympic existence and in need of something other than that nasty ambrosia and the disgusting nectar, so they head to the Underworld for one Hell of a party.
Why are they going to Hell? Well, Public Opinion (the sparkling Sarah Mattox, who took Eugene by storm as Suzuki in last year’s production of Madame Butterfly) tells them to. More specifically, she forces Orpheus (Karl Reyes, the tenor who beautifully sang Goro in Madame Butterfly) to go appeal for the gods’ help. You see, Orpheus, that famous violinist, has many affairs, and his wife Eurydice (Joelle Harvey) is getting some of her own — with Pluto, god of the underworld (baritone and local fave Douglas Webster), who eventually takes her to live with him. The celebrity couple hate each other and couldn’t be happier with this turn of events, but Public Opinion won’t stand for Orpheus’ joy. But what will happen when yet another god — Jupiter, played by Sandy Naishtat — falls for the beautiful Eurydice? In Hell, gardener John Styx (played by famous tenor and University of Michigan prof George Shirley) might have something to say about that. The louche gods and goddesses reflect the morals of the ruling class in France’s Second Empire — or maybe of today, Beudert says.
“People ask me, ‘Does anyone go to the opera to enjoy it?’” Beudert says, “Well, in Eugene, they do, because we recognize what the performance is.” Beudert believes the community will come through with support. “The cast is fired up, and Eugene should come and see this. They’re going to have a great time!”
Eugene Opera presents Orpheus in the Underworld. 7:30 pm Wednesday, Dec. 31. 2:30 pm Saturday, Jan. 3. Hult Center • $20-$65