Theater » Theater Feature

Opera in the Raw

No horns or strings for Michael Ching's dream.

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On Friday, January 21st, when the lights come up at Playhouse on the Square, revealing Puck, Peasblossom, and all of the other fairies and fools who make the Athens of A Midsummer Night's Dream such a magical place, Memphis audiences will have the opportunity to take in an unprecedented work, brought to life by a mixed-up cadre of local artists from different disciplines.

The gimmick is a good one: Composer Michael Ching's loving interpretation of Shakespeare's timeless romantic fantasy replaces an opera's orchestral accompaniment with human voices singing in a contemporary a cappella style that blends doo-wop, hip-hop, and Top 40 pop. But what truly sets this genre-jumping world premiere apart is the high level of collaboration between Opera Memphis and Playhouse on the Square, two heavy-hitters among Memphis arts institutions, and DeltaCappella, a quirky vocal band that makes unusual, but often beautiful noises, with their mouths.

DeltaCappella founder Jay Mednikow says he's been supportive of the project from the beginning, even if opera and a cappella did initially seem like the strangest of bedfellows.  

"I like Michael a lot and consider him a real musical genius," Mednikow says. "So I took him seriously, even though I thought it was a very unusual juxtaposition of different singing styles. I could immediately see the synergies and the opportunity to attract new groups of patrons to the various organizations involved."

Ching, who recently stepped down as artistic director of Opera Memphis, was inspired to develop an a cappella opera after Mednikow invited him to assist at DeltaCappella rehearsals.

"Jay was looking for a pair of outside ears, and he was kind enough to invite me," Ching says, remembering the first time he encountered Paul Koziel, an accomplished vocal percussionist whom Opera Memphis' new director, Ned Canty, describes as sounding like he swallowed a drum kit — with a double kick. "It was magical. How do these people make all of these amazing sounds?" Ching wondered as he began to toy with the idea of a mash-up.  

"Paul deserves a lot of credit for his contributions," Ching says, praising the young beatboxer who started working with a cappella groups as a sophomore at Georgia Tech. What Koziel and Mednikow and the other members of DeltaCappella showed Ching was how much more malleable the human voice can be compared to traditional orchestral instruments.

Now Ching wasn't only concerned with scoring notes but also with what syllable the singers might pronounce. A "G" wasn't just a G anymore. It could also be a "wwweeeoowww" or a "zhrr" or a "braapbraapbraap." Voices could imitate the sound of a medieval drum or thunder. It was a whole new dimension of sound to work in.

"It's hard," says Koziel, who is more accustomed to adapting three-minute pop songs to the a cappella format than learning an original work in progress.

"Pop singers often sing with what would be considered improper form to a classically trained musician," Mednikow says. "We're not used to having to pace ourselves in such a way as to last for two hours of solid vocalization." To meet these challenges, the "voicestra" has been training since August and, according to Mednikow, drinking a lot of water.  

"Between the musical theater actors, the opera singers, and the voices in the orchestra, we are showcasing three completely different kinds of singing, and I'm really proud of that," Ching says.

There's something else Ching is proud of. The vocal score has been created in a way that frames Shakespeare's words instead of obscuring them. He hopes the show's pacing may make the Bard's famously rich language a little easier on a layman's ear than a nonmusical production.

"So much comes at you, and it's complicated and striking," says Ching, who has tried to be faithful to his source material while eliminating about 40 percent of the original spoken dialogue.

Ching recognizes that some people like to keep things sorted in neatly labeled boxes. He knows some people won't like his new creation, and others will want to describe his opera as "musical theater." For the most part, he's okay with that. He knows there also will be people who would prefer a traditional orchestra to an a cappella choir, and being no purist, if some other opera company wants to produce his work more traditionally, he'd be okay with having that conversation too.

At Playhouse on the Square through February 13th

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