With a design that looks like something out of a goth Shonda Rhimes medical drama, and both Orpheus and Eurydice played by — and depicted as — women, ‘O+E’ bucks operatic tradition and powerfully refutes what people complain about when they complain about opera.
If the thought of attending an opera makes you yawn pre-emptively, Seattle Opera has the antidote in “O+E,” a short, sweet, extremely inventive take on the classic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
With a design that looks like something out of a goth Shonda Rhimes medical drama, one costume choice in particular that wouldn’t be out of place in a good production of “Angels in America,” and both Orpheus and Eurydice (stylized here as “O” and “E”) played by — and depicted as — women, this chamber opera puts a feminist twist on operatic conventions, and powerfully refutes what people complain about when they complain about opera. (And if there are five words more welcome to a reviewer than “80 minutes with no intermission,” I don’t know what they are.)
Ahead of opening night, the Seattle Opera staff announced that Magda Gartner would be taking over the role of O, originally assigned to Hai-Ting Chinn. Though she at first seemed somewhat tentative, Gartner grew on me during her performance as O, a woman whose inner conflict evolves into quiet fury, then resolve, as she watches her wife, E (Tess Altiveros), drift away from her on a hospital bed. The chorus enters in a startling procession, carrying black umbrellas and embodying O’s grief as they recede behind hanging strips of clear plastic. A small but mighty pit orchestra can be partially seen through the plastic for the duration of the performance, conveying O’s inner turmoil as she tries to save E from imminent death through a subterranean quest that may be happening entirely in her head. (Spoiler alert for a story recorded by Ovid in 8 A.D.: It doesn’t go well.)
Opera’s truly wonderful quality — that it’s a wildly dramatic medium without the jazz-hand annoyances of musical theater — is a woefully well-kept secret, and it’s on full display here. “O+E” is riddled with heavy-handed signifiers for grief, and high-stakes performances from its leads, and that’s exactly how it should be. Orpheus and Eurydice is, after all, a myth about a literal descent into hell, and the maybe-transcendent power of love. It’s not supposed to be coolly minimalist. But “O+E” somehow manages to be both of these things. It reaches the highest highs of over-the-top displays of pathos, then pulls back with smartly restrained acting choices (like those made by Serena Eduljee as E’s no-nonsense doctor). The opera’s minimalist atmosphere manages to be aesthetically pleasing in a cleanly subdued way, without distracting from the story’s emotional center. It also benefits from being performed in the round in a tiny studio theater that lends a close, human quality to an otherwise epic story.
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Perhaps even more compelling is that “O+E” takes on its mission as a feminist project in both concept and execution: The idea of a same-sex Orpheus and Eurydice comes from a reworked operatic convention of “trouser roles,” in which women opera singers, usually mezzo-sopranos, took on male roles, including that of Orpheus in Christoph Willibald Gluck’s 1762 version of “Orpheus and Eurydice.”
“For this production, we decided on something different,” Barbara Lynne Jamison, Seattle Opera’s director of programs and partnerships, writes in the show notes for “O+E.” “Orpheus (or O) will be performed by a mezzo, but the character is fully female. O and E, women in a same-sex marriage, will allow us an opportunity to see this myth and its universal story again with new eyes.”
This isn’t the only change the production represents: It’s also the first in Seattle Opera history to be produced by an all-female creative team, with stage direction from Kelly Kitchens and an English-language libretto written by Lucy Tucker Yates. (It’s printed right in the program for the opera-averse.)
The result is an experimental, intimate take on a classic story that flies in the face of its source material, cleverly reworks operatic tradition and upends traditional gender roles — and does it all in 80 minutes, with no intermission.
“O+E,” through June 10; Seattle Opera at Seattle Opera Studios, 200 Terry Ave. N., Seattle; $45, 206-389-7600, seattleopera.org