Life + Arts

Steampunk ‘Hoffman’ delights at Moores

The Moores Opera Center opened its 2014-2015 season this weekend with a steampunk-themed rendition of Jacques Offenbach’s 1881 opera “The Tales of Hoffman.”

With this opera, the Moores Opera Center welcomed its new music director, Raymond Harvey.

The work is based on the play of the same name by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré.

The main character is based on E. T. A. Hoffman, a German Romantic writer whose works are often compared to those of Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley.

Because Offenbach died before the opera was completed, there are several versions of the work. The one performed at Moores was completed by Ernest Guiraud.

In “The Tales of Hoffman,” Hoffman tells the stories of his three great loves, who respectively turn out to be a robotic doll a sickly girl who dies of singing, and a courtesan who uses him so that she can possess a tremendous diamond. These stories are based on three of Hoffman’s stories: “The Sandman,” “The Cremona Violin” and “The Lost Reflection.”

Hoffman by Jeff Grass_DSC_5218b

Moores Opera Center Director, Buck Ross said that because of the melodies and the steampunk themes in plot and costumes make the opera is one of his favorites. | Photo by Jeff Grass

An aria in the opera is also based on Hoffman’s short story “Little Zaches, called Cinnabar.”

The opera is arranged between Prologue and Epilogue scenes, where the modern-day Hoffman is telling his tales to a group of rowdy students in a bar. There is an act for each love interest — Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta.

Tyler Beck, a second-year vocal performance and pedagogy masters student, portrays Hoffman in the Antonia Act.

“Acting-wise, my role is a cinch. I have to be in love with a girl, and then hide behind a curtain from her father and an evil doctor. Singing this role has been difficult,” Beck said. “Since there’s been less music for me to memorize for this opera, I’ve been able to work it into my voice more. I have learned how to have a more free tone and allow my voice to live higher without trying to make the sound bigger. “

Offenbach’s intent was to have each Hoffman sung by the same tenor, each love interest sung by the same soprano and each villain sung by the same bass-baritone. Because of the strenuous nature of that casting, Moores Opera Center Director Buck Ross stuck with modern performance practice and split up the parts for each act between different singers.

“The extreme demands of the soprano and bass-baritone roles have led to opera companies to often split the roles up among four singers,” Ross said. “We’ve also taken advantage of this setup to split the roles of Hoffmann himself up among four singers.”

“This is partly due to the difficulty of the role and partly to showcase more of our singers. Thematically, it makes perfect sense.”

While the story may sound solemn, the opera is filled with comic relief and slapstick humor that had audiences bursting into laughter with regularity.

“My favorite part of the show is an aria performed by Alex Scheuermann during the Antonia Act,” Beck said. “The act is very serious, but Alex’s character, Frantz, is an old, deaf butler who seems to get everything wrong. Alex’s comedic timing steals the show.”

Another lighthearted scene was Olympia’s aria and dance, where, due to her inventor’s assistant’s bad understanding of her controls, she slaps and abuses Hoffman as they waltz. Olympia literally runs out of steam a few times during her aria, at which point her inventor produces a machine that sprays a misty white foam — straight at Olympia’s backside.

Moments like this, created by Ross, added a flavor of good-humor and levity to the entire production.

The idea of producing the work with a steampunk theme was a new approach that was stunningly delivered by Ross’ cast of more than 75 singers.

“The opera in many ways is the source of the steampunk ideas. There’s a heroine who turns out to be a robot, a vampiric doctor and all kinds of magic,” Ross said.

Costume designer Richard Walsh achieved just the right effect with the steampunk touches — each villain had a large mechanical addition to his attire, such as a mechanical arm, and the crowds who laughed at Hoffman’s misfortunes were sporting goggles or glasses with gears on them. The theme was obvious but not overbearing.

The students involved with the opera had a hand in creating these costumes — singers who receive class credit for operas must put in eight hours of tech work, including building and painting sets, creating costumes or working on publicity materials.

The opera was a success — each moment’s mood came across to the audience without a hitch, and the show was visually stunning.

Ross said he was pleased to stage the opera for the fourth time in his career.

“It’s one of my favorite operas,” Ross said. “It has wonderful theatricality and one amazing melody after another. Every time I do it, I do it differently.”

This production of “The Tales of Hoffman” was certainly a different approach to a fairly well-known opera, but it was a beautiful showcase of the incredible talent that the Moores Opera Center has to offer.

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