In a mid-17th-century German village, masculinity is equated with guns to the point that prospective bridegrooms must succeed in a ritual target shoot in order to marry. No outside intervention is permitted. But for a hapless lover who is a lousy shot, a devil’s bargain is the only answer.
And, of course, the price is steep.
This is the story behind Der Freischütz, the first German opera to enjoy widespread acclaim and performances throughout Europe following its 1821 premiere. Written by Carl Maria von Weber, the opera makes use of primal elements found within German folklore — especially the supernatural — and thus resonated with German audiences.
But now it’s rarely heard outside of Germany. Local audiences will get a chance to watch the story unfold at the Finneytown Performing Arts Center, when it is presented by the Queen City Opera. Showtimes are 8 p.m. May 31 and 3 p.m. June 2.
Der Freischütz is an opera that Isaac Selya, QCO’s artistic director, fell in love with as an undergraduate student at Yale University. The upcoming fully staged production also marks the world premiere of a new critical edition of Weber’s score, The Magic Bullets (Der Freischütz), published by Schott Music in Mainz, Germany.
Many of the folklore elements don’t translate well to non-German audiences and the libretto itself has awkward moments. To remedy this, QCO’s production has updated the story to the 1980s and tweaked the libretto, whose spoken dialogue — adapted by Selya and his team — will be in English. The music itself will be sung in German, with translated English lyrics projected on a screen.
“We’re focusing on the toxic masculinity component that says ‘You’re not a man unless you make these shots.’ That drives Max, the hero, to literally make a bargain with the devil,” Selya says.
Max’s supernatural silver bullets guarantee six accurate shots.
But the story itself presents another unique challenge.
“Virtually everyone onstage is carrying a gun and the main plot hinges on shooting,” Selya says. “We have to be careful about the narrative but we can’t shy away from what we see in our own (American) culture so we decided to hit the issue head on.”
In keeping with past productions, QCO is collaborating with local organizations to address social issues raised by the opera. An hour ahead of the performances, representatives from these organizations will lend their voice to a presentation on evidence-based approaches to preventing gun violence.
“We wanted to be responsible and create a safe space for discussion,” says Selya. “Preventing gun violence has immediate impact and we reached out to organizations utilizing evidence-based approaches.”
Selya says that the performers had several conversations about their roles with stage director Rebecca Herman. “We’re trying to be true to the music, which is full of angst and dark orchestration, sometimes combined with more naïve elements,” he says. “This new framework helps it to play out more easily.”
Another welcome change can be expected: the venue. It will mark QCO’s first show in their new home, the Finneytown Performing Arts Center, which features an orchestra pit, a backstage area with dressing rooms, comfortable seating and ample free parking.
“Just having an orchestra pit will make an enormous difference in balance and acoustics,” Selya says.
Many of the performers are QCO veterans and recent University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music graduates on their way to major careers: tenor M. Andrew Jones takes on the anxiety-laden Max; his sweetheart Agathe is portrayed by soprano Erin Keesy, who has appeared with area orchestras and the Cincinnati Opera; bass-baritone Brandon Morales is Max’s rival Caspar; and Cincinnati favorite Simon Barrad plays Prince Ottokar.
Selya is encouraged by the advance sales for the weekend’s performances and he hopes audiences will come for the pre-performance sessions.
“A magic bullet saved Max but in real life it’s a community responsibility,” he says.
Presented by Queen City Opera, The Magic Bullets (Der Freischütz) is onstage 8 p.m. May 31 and 3 p.m. June 2 at the Finneytown Performing Arts Center. Tickets: magicbullets.brownpapertickets.com.