It was nearly 200 years between the time George Frideric Handel wrote his 1743 opera “Semele” and the work’s first, full public staging in Cambridge, England.
Handel certainly had something to do with that prolonged delay. Though written as an opera, “Semele” — about a mortal, Semele, who becomes Jupiter’s mistress and desires immortality — received its world premiere as a “Messiah”-like oratorio, a concert piece, during Lent.
Neither the format nor the story of lust, jealousy and revenge proved a hit, and “Semele” was never staged as musical theater until 1925.
Seattle’s Pacific MusicWorks (PMW) and the University of Washington’s School of Music have embarked on a new, edgy — and unequivocally theatrical — production of “Semele” in performance Friday and Saturday at Meany Hall for the Performing Arts.
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“Semele” stars a strong cast of professional soloists, including Haeran Hong in the title role, Aaron Sheehan as Jupiter and Peabody Southwell as the scheming Juno.
On Sunday, a special performance will feature UW vocal students assuming character roles. All three presentations include School of Music students prominently involved in the production, both as an unusually active chorus and as instrumentalists playing with PMW’s Baroque orchestra.
Neither the School of Music nor PMW has ever been involved in a partnership quite like this one.
“The School of Music has a big vision of being a place that shows students how the professional world works by bringing actual professionals into the school,” says Stephen Stubbs, PMW’s founder and music director.
“At the same time, it provides a platform for those professionals to work on unique projects. I felt very honored to be tasked with the challenge of figuring out how this collaboration should be built. I think we’ve come to a really good result.”
That challenge was presented by School of Music director Richard Karpen, who has been pursuing relationships with top music organizations such as the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and marquee artists, including SSO music director Ludovic Morlot and jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, each of whom is on the faculty.
Karpen invited PMW to become an official, in-residence program at the UW.
“I want students do what was done hundreds of years ago through apprenticeships,” Karpen says. “Through our engagement with music organizations, students become part of the professional fabric of this region.
“Also, there’s not a huge amount of money in the arts these days. The UW School of Music should be a resource, providing the ability to do more locally than can be done with everybody off in separate corners.
“That not only benefits students, but creates a more powerful arts experience for everyone.”
“Semele” guest director James Darrah, one of the most in-demand artists in the world of opera and classical theater, says the arrangement between Karpen and PMW — and Stubbs’ freehanded approach to the joint production — “is the first of its kind in many ways. You can’t find that alchemy in large arts institutions governed by formal rules and unions.”
“We’ve had the luxury of working with the student chorus on a weekly basis since January,” Stubbs says. “I’ve been training them in singing, and now they’re in stage rehearsal with [Darrah], who is very demanding. He’s giving them a crash course in choreography and acting.”
“At a major opera company,” says Darrah, “a chorus can’t contractually do some of the things we are doing.”
As for the orchestra, Stubbs says he has student instrumentalists “doubling desk for desk with my musicians, learning by sitting next to someone who’s been doing it a long time.”
Stubbs is looking forward to next year’s collaborative opera production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”
“This has been such a big project, I don’t know that we’ve got everything right this first time. But I’m encouraged by the direction.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org.