According to the tragic myth, Orpheus, whose singing voice was unrivaled in heaven and earth, was given a chance to bring his love, Eurydice, back from the dead. If he could lead her out of the underworld without looking back at her, the once-happy couple would be reunited. But the temptation to glance backward was too great, and he failed.
Opera Memphis' artistic director Michael Ching thinks regional performing arts groups are possibly facing a similar challenge. The Metropolitan Opera has expanded its audience by broadcasting performances in movie theaters, and regional companies need to do some forward thinking to find out how they uniquely relate to their communities.
"We have to figure out who we are," Ching says, noting that you can't "out-Met the Met" and speculating that it won't be long before Broadway shows follow the Met's lead. In a quest to create more intimate performances that capitalize on the live experience, Opera Memphis, which has traditionally performed at the Orpheum, has been exploring new and smaller venues. Its production of Gluck's Orpheus marks the company's first major performance at its Germantown headquarters, the Clark Opera Center.
Ching & Co. are also attempting to go where no other opera company has gone before by bringing Orpheus' three major performance traditions to a single production. During different historical periods, the role of Orpheus has been performed by castrati (falsetto males) and tenors and by mezzo-sopranos. Opera Memphis is alternating all three vocal types on different nights so audiences will be able to choose which version to see.
"So there's some gender-bending," Ching says of a production designed to blend classic Greek and contemporary sensibilities.