Bold Is Beautiful at the Opera

Outsourcing boldness, a decision that requires its own sense of artistic self-confidence and bravery, leads Cincinnati Opera Artistic Director Nicholas Muni to collaborate with UC College-Conservato

Outsourcing boldness, a decision that requires its own sense of artistic self-confidence and bravery, leads Cincinnati Opera Artistic Director Nicholas Muni to collaborate with UC College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) Professor Richard Cawood.

Muni and Cawood, working with resident lighting designer Thomas Hase and production designer Dany Lyne, are the creative engines of a new double-bill production of The Maids and The Emperor of Atlantis, chancy 20th-century operas that stand out in a summer season of safe, repetitive audience favorites.

Hours before a Monday afternoon rehearsal, Cawood and Muni sit in Muni's backroom Music Hall office and sketch the ideas behind The Maids and The Emperor of Atlantis. Their partnership gives both men exactly what they want. Muni set out to make multimedia a significant part of these productions, pushing his own artistic boundaries as well as those of local audiences. Cawood, a member of CCM's electronic media department, desired the chance to move beyond DVD authoring and conventional video filming and place his work in an artistic setting.

Both men wanted to try something new. Together, they've achieved their individual goals while creating something shared, public and eye-catching.

In The Emperor of Atlantis, Emperor Overall, a character based on Hitler, tries to overrun the world through bloody invasion, tossing Life and Death into chaos. Stripped of his purpose, Death goes on strike, meaning that the mortally wounded on the battlefield are unable to die.

A soldier and a girl from the opposition confront each other on the battlefield, discover they can't be killed and fall in love. The Emperor persuades Death to return to work with the provision that he'll be Death's first victim.

Viktor Ullmann wrote The Emperor of Atlantis (Der Kaiser von Atlantis) in 1943 while an inmate at the Nazi concentration camp Terezin before being transported to Auschwitz, where he was gassed two weeks after the opera's final rehearsal.

The opposite of the quaint, comic Daughter of the Regiment, this season's first production, The Emperor of Atlantis is an example of art created under a sentence of death. It's a reminder of Terezin, the Nazis' "model" concentration camp, which was nothing more than a masquerade to fool the outside world about the planned fate of the Jews.

This story is a reminder of man's capacity for evil. Yet at the same time it's a celebration of art's ability to persevere and ultimately heal past wrongs.

More intimate in its portrayal of dementia and murder, composer Peter Bengston's 70-minute chamber opera The Maids is based on Jean Genet's play Les Bonnes, a version of the infamous 1933 crime in which two servant girls, the Papin sisters from Le Mans, brutally murdered their mistress and her daughter.

A large video screen mounted above Music Hall's sloping stage delivers the core message of hatred born from bourgeois decadence and the wide economic gap between the employer and her young employees. At a Monday afternoon rehearsal, the production, featuring a stark backdrop of storm clouds and a scorched stage floor littered with debris, looks original, adventurous and invigorating after the colorful Daughter of the Regiment.

The love/hate relationship between the murderous sister-maids reflects the love/hate relationship between Cincinnati audiences and new works. The most creative thing to do here, financially speaking, isn't always the wisest thing.

A few days after rehearsal for The Emperor of Atlantis/The Maids, at the debut performance of Daughter of the Regiment, long banners announcing the latest goals of the Cincinnati Opera Festival Campaign hang in the Music Hall atrium. If these banners are to be believed, exploration of new works and new interpretations of classic works are a priority in the coming seasons.

The two sisters at the heart of The Maids murdered their mistress in an act of hatred, envy and, most likely, delirium. Muni and Cawood, the core collaborators behind this week's double-bill, might kill off safe, senior patrons in their attempt to bring cutting-edge operas to Music Hall.

Some might call Muni delirious, but his dedication to the avant-garde is the best thing about Cincinnati Opera.

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