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Blog - Wolfy and the Klingons

June 09, 2018

When you're at the Plaza Live for the opera and you find yourself wondering if that last part was being sung in German or Klingon, you know you're in for a strange night.  The supertitles (the projected words above the stage translating what the singers are saying) were not helpful in this instance either.  When Osmin the Klingon came on stage singing the first supertitle said "Um...." followed by "Something in Klingon..."  Thankfully, Captain Belmonte, on stage left, called out to turn on the universal translator and the entire thing switched to English.

Opera Orlando did a two day run of "Star Trek: Abduction" (ST:A from now on) at the Plaza on May 31 and June 2.  ST:A is a take on Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio" which first premiered in Vienna in 1782, presumably with fewer people in the audience dressed in Starfleet uniforms.


"Abduction at the Seraglio" was Mozart's first opera written in his native German.  It's a "singspiel" opera, which means it includes spoken lines in between singing rather than the sing-talking (called "recitative") that a lot of operas do.   Gottlieb Stephanie was the librettist and Mozart worked with him to adjust the text to fit in better with his music.  (The libretto is the text of the opera, not usually written by the musician who writes the music.  Libretto means "little book" or "notebook" in Italian)


Mozart's "Abduction" was also a huge hit.  It involves two women who have been taken captive by a Turkish Pasha, Selim, and their two lovers who try to rescue them.  This reboot of the opera was created by the Pacific Opera Project in 2014.  Restaging Abduction was probably a wise move; after having seen it, I think it wouldn't age well in the original staging.  In the original, the Turks are the 18th century orientalist stereotype of the Ottomans: lusty, decadent, occasionally cartoonish despots.  


The performance started with the members of the Orlando Philharmonic, dressed as "red shirts" of course, playing the overture while credits in the style of the Star Trek TV show were projected onto the backdrop.  I was a little confused when I saw "Lyrics by Josh Shaw" as I assumed that it would be in German.   That was cleared up pretty quickly when Captain Belmonte, played by Brian Cheney, "beamed" on stage (read: intentionally awkwardly running out from stage left into the spotlight while the Star Trek beaming noise happened) and sang his first aria, in English.  The lyrics to at least some of the songs were obviously re-written, as I doubt Pedrillo's song about being a Vulcan was original.  


I would suspect translating an opera without goofing up the rhythms and the meter as lent by the score is difficult. Though German and English are close enough (being rhyme poor with lots of monosyllables) that maybe it isn't as bad as it could be. By contrast Italian, in which basically all the words end in "o" "i" or "a," is very easy to rhyme, and creates effects that are brutal to try to do in English.  Dante's "Divine Comedy" is in "terza rima" which is an aba bcb cdc etc etc scheme that is impossible in English;  translators don't usually even bother trying to approximate it.


I assume they didn't tinker with the score too much, but I really don't know.  I probably would  defer to Mozart, who himself believed that the libretto should always be in service to the music, not the other way around.   


The production was definitely a send-up of the original Star Trek series. Cheney did an over-the-top Shatner impression, strutting around like a cross between the alien woman from Mars Attacks! and an Olympic speed walker, and delivered his spoken words with what I've heard called the "Shatner Comma."   There was a lot of "fourth wall" breaking (interacting with the audience).  


Captain Belmonte / Kirk leaned really hard into the character's pop culture reputation as a melodramatic womanizer, flirting with audience members and shouting out his love Constanze's name as "Khhaaaaaaaaaaaaan-stanza."   (For some reason I decided to double check the Kirk stereotype and found that in the 79 episodes plus the movies he slept with 12 women.   George in Seinfeld had 47 and Ross from friends 14, so my initial thought is that the philandering reputation, at least in TV terms, is not deserved.   Though maybe you have to adjust for inflation?   [That was a poor word choice, but not intentional, I swear])


There were a whole host of references to the original show some of which, like the tribbles, I understood and some of which, like the audience laughing when the opening credits listed "Gorn" as a character, I missed.  (I'm more of a Star Wars guy.  Laser swords and space wizards, after all).   I figured out that last one later in the show, when Gorn came on stage and they recreated the fight with Kirk that I've seen on countless memes.


Probably my favorite display of the meta-ness in the performance was when, after saying the line "Abduction from the Seraglio" and not getting the Star Trek Next Generation style horn fanfare response that Pedrillo had gotten earlier, Osmin turned and shot the horn player in the orchestra, announcing that "Second horn has been promoted."  Goofy, yes.  Amusing, also yes.


It's interesting to think that as a parody of the original Star Trek show, the experience of seeing ST:A is probably much closer to the original experience of the 18th century audience than what we've come to expect at an opera.  It's a comic opera, mining hijinks out of the audience's stereotype reservoir; bumbling Turks in the original and bumbling basically-every-male in the restage.   Where the original audience laughs at how dumb the Turks are, we laugh at how cheesy the original Star Trek is. 


It's hardly the modern stereotype of high class cocktail-attire opera snobbishness; it's winking, self-aware, slapstick, and lewd.  So, basically, what it probably would have been to 18th century Viennese.   It's easy to forget that opera started as popular entertainment rather than elite entertainment.  Allegedly the first public music venue in Europe was an opera house in 1637.  It was pop entertainment.  


The libretto had a lot of double entendres, with Belmonte/Kirk, pining for Constanze, singing about his "Beating, throbbing......heart" or Blonde singing "Sweet release will come tonight" to her guy Pedrillo on the eve of escape (with physical comedy to make the intent clear, lest there be any doubt).   I've never heard the original opera or read the libretto so I don't know if that stuff is original or not, but seeing how many dick and fart jokes are in Shakespeare's comedies, I don't really have any reason to doubt that a pop opera would be any different.  


The plot of Abduction is pretty basic (Spoilers ahead).  When the opera begins Constanze and Blondie have already been kidnapped by Pasha Selim and his lieutenant Osmin and taken to the Selim's seraglio (i.e harem).  Belmonte and Pedrillo (a half-Vulcan reminiscent of Spock in this version) cook up a plan to rescue them. This planned escape is the "abduction from the seraglio" of the title.   That's pretty much it.   In an unexpected turn, their plan totally doesn't work and they all end up captured, only going free when Pasha Selim decides to be merciful and let the lovers go. 


I've only been to the opera one other time, when the Orlando Opera performed La Bohème last year at DPAC, and I was surprised at how much I liked it.  It's easy for me to get lost in the music, either the instrumental or vocal.   I listened to a lot of Mozart growing up and play a few of his pieces on my violin, so it wasn't hard to hold my attention.  As much as I tend to focus on the orchestral element, it's really difficult to not be taken in and impressed with the vocals.  


The singing performances were great; Constanze in particular, played by Brittany Renee Robinson was really impressive.    I've read that Constanze's arias are some of the most challenging a soprano can do, but she appeared to master them with ease.  Osmin's bass parts were more obviously difficult to me, not due to any issue with Andrew Potter's delivery, but because I have a better ear for the technical requirements of the lower registers, as it's more in my vocal range.   All the singers had so much volume and control.  Opera makes it easy to recognize the human voice as an instrument, a "muscle" as it were. Most of us casually do karaoke or sing in the shower; we don't casually try to sing opera.   


The quartet near the end which had Constanze, Blondie, Belmonte, and Pedrillo's voices weaving together, interlocking, separating, and then recombining with each other was fantastic.


I was near the back, so some of the dialog was a little hard to hear. I think I prefer the continuous music of something like La Bohème to the Singspiel style, but I still enjoyed it.   It was probably 2 hours in total, not including intermission.   

I wasn't aware of Opera Orlando until fairly recently.  The original Orlando Opera started in 1958, but filed for bankruptcy in 2009.  It was resurrected in 2016 as a successor to the Florida Opera Theater.   They've done some heavy hitter operas, with Don Giovanni in their inaugural season and La Bohème last year.  I've now seen them at the Plaza Live and at the Dr. Phillips Center (DPAC) Pugh Theater. Construction has now started on the Steinmetz Hall in DPAC, which will be Opera Orlando's home along with Orlando Ballet and the Orlando Philharmonic.


The tickets we got to ST:A were about $30 each, so more expensive than going to see a show at Will's Pub, but quite a bit cheaper than a lot of what I'll call "high art" events at DPAC.  One of Opera Orlando's goals is accessibility to expand the audience for opera in Orlando.  

Opera Orlando is definitely worth trying out if you're willing to venture outside of standard Friday night activities and experience something new.  Plus I like the idea of being connected across the centuries to the original audiences who sat and listened to the same shows (minus the Klingons), and to experience these works that have managed to survive for generations.  They still set off the tuning fork in audiences even after all these years and all the titanic changes that have happened to humanity in the interim.  


Speaking for myself, I think performance experiences like these can be approached on their own terms, without having to be an orchestral expert or having a lot of experience listening to the style.  I knew almost nothing about opera when I saw La Bohème last year, and slightly more than nothing when I saw Abduction last week, and it didn't decrease my enjoyment of them.  Opera, orchestral music, punk, rap, Americana; they're all just genres to dip into, no more no less.  


Allegedly Louis Armstrong said 'There is two kinds of music, the good and the bad" [sic].  We should all make an attempt to listen to the good, no matter what sort it is.  Even if it's 240-year-old Viennese music being sung by Klingons.



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