Mason Professors, Alumni and Students Collaborate on Operetta

Posted: February 3, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Catherine Ferraro

Since its first season in 1982, the In Series has carved a special niche within the cultural life of the Washington, D.C., region. As a small, independent arts nonprofit, the In Series continues to present area artists in opera, cabaret, theater, dance, chamber music, poetry and Latino productions.

In January, the organization brought together a blend of artists from the Mason community.

When Rick Davis, associate provost for undergraduate education and professor of theater, was asked to direct the In Series’ operetta “Orpheus in the Underworld” at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in the District, he jumped at the chance to work on his seventh production with the organization since 1999.

“It is always a pleasure to work with the In Series because it is a small organization that has been putting on quality work in a challenging market for more than 25 years,” says Davis.

“The In Series fills a void in the D.C. arts scene and especially in the opera and operetta world.”

“Orpheus in the Underworld,” written by German-born French composer Jacques Offenbach in 1858, is said to be the first classical full-length operetta.

Offenbach’s satirical operetta makes fun of the Greek myth “Orpheus and Eurydice” and the French way of life in the mid-19th century, through music, theater — and scandals.

When Davis met with the producing artistic director Carla Hubner and librettist Kelley Rourke to discuss production ideas, they decided that satirizing 19th-century France in 21st-century Washington, D.C., wasn’t the right approach.

Rick Novak in operetta
Richard Novak, Mason voice faculty member and accomplished tenor, had the role of Pluto, a coffee shop barista, in the operetta.
Photo courtesy of In Series

As a result, Rourke transposed the operetta to reflect life in 2009, while still reflecting the energy and dramatic values of the original version.

Some of the changes include a character named John Styx, known as King of Boeotia in the original version of the operetta. In the rewritten version, Styx becomes a failed politician.

Throughout the performance, Rourke subtly works in references to several administrations and political parties. The modern version also makes changes to the Olympic gods, who have come to represent K Street lobbyists.

The character Pluto, Lord of the Underworld who kidnaps Eurydice in the original myth, is transformed into a barista of a trendy coffee shop.

Finally, the Underworld, which is typically thought of as the afterlife, becomes a stylish nightclub.

After the production ideas were finalized and the casting process was set to begin, Davis drew on the talents of his College of Visual and Performing Arts colleagues at Mason.

It is rare that they have the opportunity to collaborate on a project, and it was exciting to see them in action, notes Davis.

He recruited Richard Novak, voice faculty member and accomplished tenor, to audition for the role of Pluto.

Novak then called upon music major Marcos Rivera to audition for the role of Minos.

When it came time to rework the traditional “Can-Can” dance into a funky and modern rendition, Davis immediately thought of Susan Shields, associate professor of dance and talented choreographer.

She enlisted the help of four senior dance majors to perform the “Can-Can” in the production.

Mason dancers doing can-can
Mason senior dance majors doing the can-can in “Orpheus in the Underworld”: Nora Hickman, Sasha Hollinger, Setarra Kennedy and Cara McGaughey.
Photo courtesy of In Series

In addition, Davis brought in two Mason alumni as part of the production staff: Sean Corcoran, BA Theater ’05, served as the stage manager, and Christy Denny, BA Theater ’08, was the assistant to the director.

After auditions were completed and the 20 roles of characters and dancers were cast, the ensemble began rehearsals in December and the operetta ran Jan. 17-25.

“This is the first time that I have worked with so many people from Mason on a project outside of the university,” says Davis.

“The most enjoyable part of this whole experience was being able to work with my colleagues in a professional setting and share the success of the production with them.”

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