“Who told you Baroque operas are dull?” Andrew Garland says. “Who told you that?”
He’s responding to a statement about operas characterized by long, florid arias and often-static staging. Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto, written in 1651, defies that description. Based on a selection from the Latin poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the opera tells the story of the nymph Calisto who pledges eternal chastity as a servant of the goddess Diana. But Jupiter, always on the prowl, has other ideas. It’s frequently raunchy, comic and occasionally heartfelt.
La Calisto marks Cincinnati Opera’s first performance of a Baroque opera, and features members of the early-music ensemble Catacoustic Consort. For baritone Garland and bass baritone Daniel Okulitch, both alums of University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), the opera is an opportunity to try new repertoire and approaches to singing.
Baritones are rarely the good guys and Calisto is no exception. “We’re rarely called upon to be the most upstanding fellows,” says Okulitch, who portrays the randy chief god Jupiter. “Jupiter is very flawed. He’s full of himself, willing to deceive others to get his needs met.”
Garland is Jupiter’s advisor and gofer Mercury. “I’m not just a letter carrier,” he says, referring to the winged sandals he’ll sporting onstage. “I get things done. My advice always works for him.”
The characters may be familiar but the vocal style isn’t. Baroque opera relies on ornaments and vocal embellishments that convey emotion and propel the action.
“It’s very different,” Okulitch says. “There’s a playbook that we’re working with. There are all sorts of rules to follow and the rules are based on a healthy understanding of the voice.”
Garland agrees and adds, “What’s nice is that Maestro David Bates knows how to present it to modern singers.”
Then there’s the accompaniment. A small ensemble, including unfamiliar instruments like the viola da gamba, theorbo, harpsichord and Baroque harp, support the singers, often with only a single instrumental line called a continuo. In rehearsals, one or more of these instruments replace the piano, challenging the singers to rethink their own vocal lines and to find the music’s pulse.
Cavalli, a Venetian, was one of the first composers to transform opera from courtly to popular entertainment. Metamorphoses was popular source material, and in this piece, there’s more than one transformation.
In order to seduce Calisto, Jupiter disguises himself as Diana. “We’ll have a little Tootsie action going on,” Okulitch says. “I have a dress with an overstuffed bra.”
Jupiter may be in drag but he can’t hide from the rest of his dysfunctional pantheon, including his vengeful wife Juno. Diana, the allegedly chaste goddess of the hunt, has her own issues with raging hormones.
Calisto’s transformation is less hilarious: she becomes a fixture in the nighttime sky, better known as Ursa Major, or the Big Dipper.
The lecherous god and his cohort are the perfect setup for lampooning power players of any era but Cincinnati Opera’s production will emphasize the fantastical atmosphere and the comedy.
“We follow the cardinal rule of playing a ridiculous situation seriously,” Garland says. “The comedy is in the music and the direction, and I guarantee you’ll see it here.”
The unit set is the one used for last season’s hit, Galileo Galilei, but costumes and lighting are all about the realm of fantasy. For Okulitch and Garland, the costumes may be more body paint than textile. “I’d better be getting a spray tan or it’s going to be the white whale,” Okulitch cracks.
Garland anticipates a coating of white body paint, since he’s meant to resemble a classical Roman statue. “We’ll be painted and glittered up to look fantastical,” he says. It’s about getting into the character, not about flaunting skin.
“If they wanted us to look like Calvin Klein models, we’d be in our underwear looking pouty,” Okulitch adds.
Both singers are enjoying successful careers and they credit CCM with instilling discipline while allowing them freedom to explore their artistic potential.
“It was a fantastic place,” Okulitch says, “The facilities are second to none. Summer programs I work with tell me that some of the best-prepared students come from CCM.”
Cincinnati Opera presents LA CALISTO at the School for Creative and Performing Arts July 17-27. Tickets: 513-241-2742 or cincinnatiopera.com.