Famous singers, a score that plays like a mash-up of greatest hits and a plot that takes two famous romances and mixes them together -- no, it's not the new "Glee" episode. It's opera.
With its new production, "The Enchanted Island," the Metropolitan Opera will pair 18th century tunes with a theatrical format that could never have existed 3 centuries ago. Most people wouldn't think of baroque opera as easy listening, but it's some of the most melodically accessible music in all opera.
"I always think of baroque as being as close to a pop song that you can get in opera," said singer Danielle di Niese, one of the new show's stars.
The creators of "The Enchanted Island" have tried to make the genre even more palatable for modern audiences by adding a new twist. The opera, which premiered on New Years Eve, is a baroque pastiche or, to put it in today's terms, a mash-up. The music compiles baroque-era songs from operas, cantatas, oratorios and other genres by a range of composers, including Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau and Purcell and lesser known writers such as Leclair and Ferrandini.
Even the plot is a mash-up, combining Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream." One might think of it as an operatic version of the Broadway hit "Mamma Mia," which used ABBA's music to support an original plot. For "The Enchanted Island," Jeremy Sams, who constructed the show, created a new libretto, completely in English, to tie the varied music into one coherent story.
"The hardest part has been to make it feel as if it was written by one person, rather than it being a madwoman's patchwork quilt," Sams said. "I wanted to make it not Frankenstein's monster but the most beautiful creation you've ever seen."
Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera's general manager, originally came up with the idea that baroque music could be delivered in a modern way.
"My idea was trying to recreate a baroque pastiche on today's theatrical terms," said Gelb. "We're taking into consideration the time frame in which a modern audience functions. It doesn't include endless musical repeats, which is typical of full length baroque operas."
While baroque music used to be confined to a select group of specialists, today more and more opera singers move easily between different kinds of repertoire. The "Enchanted Island" cast is jammed full of opera stars -- Placido Domingo, Danielle di Niese, Joyce DiDonato, and David Daniels all sing in the show, which is conducted by noted baroque specialist William Christie.
"The challenge in introducing anything different or new is getting people to come to the theater and try it," Gelb said. "We're trying to stack the artistic deck in our favor by all the artistic forces that are collaborating and joining for this project."
No major opera house has ever attempted anything like "The Enchanted Island" before, though in the 1700s such works were common.
"Opera itself is a pastiche by definition," said Ellen Rosand, a Yale professor who runs the Yale Baroque Opera Project and helped with the music selection for "The Enchanted Island." "Any time an opera is performed more than once, especially if it has a different cast, it's not going to be the same as it was. But, in terms of modern productions it's the first time something like this has ever been done as far as I know."
Finding the right songs was the first step in putting together "The Enchanted Island," which features a good deal of music that is unlikely to be recognized by all but the most seasoned baroque enthusiasts. Because most baroque arias are charged with emotion, Sams said, audience members can grasp the intention of the music, even if they don't know it.
"It's all emotion, there's practically nothing else," Sams said. "But they're nonspecific -- you can hear it’s love, but you don’t know what sort of love. You can hear it's energetic, but is it anger? Is it vengeance? Is it running away?"
With that in mind, Sams knew he had to devise a story that could showcase the passion of such arias. Though he found himself interested in "The Tempest," there was one problem.
"There's not much love interest in 'The Tempest,'" he said.
So he added in the two pairs of lovers from a different Shakespeare play. When Ariel, a mischievous sprite from "The Tempest," miscasts a spell, the honeymooning Helena, Demetrius, Hermia and Lysander -- all characters from “A Midsummer Night's Dream” -- are shipwrecked onto the island. Even the sea god, Neptune, played by Domingo, makes an appearance.
In writing the English libretto for these pre-existing works (which might have been in Italian or French, originally), Sams had only one goal.
"I want people to follow the story with absolute clarity," he said. "If it sounds like a love duet, I will write a love duet's words, which I hope sound as if they've always belonged to that tune. They've got to cling to the music like Saran wrap."
Recitatives -- long stretches of speak-singing that are rarely found in contemporary opera -- have for the most part, been excluded from the three and a half hour long show. The songs themselves are almost all highlights from the Baroque period, as if someone had compiled a greatest hits album.
"I was joking with Jeremy [Sams], that he's spoiling people’s tastes for real baroque opera because the show is intensely beautiful," said Rosand. "No Handel opera is as good as this, in a funny way, because every single piece is the top of someone's game and every single piece is geared to these singers in the way that no opera can be now. It's almost like it's all dessert."
Di Niese described a working environment that allowed for a high level of fine tuning not often seen in today's opera world, which is often concerned with maintaining authenticity. Plot, text and even music were continually modified to better fit the specific needs of singers and the show itself. Many of the songs -- selected before the show began rehearsals -- were picked with the cast in mind.
"I don't think it could be more tailor-made than if it was a new composition," she said. "It's close to being written for -- tricky arias highlight certain characteristics in our voice, you can change things in the music, you can change things in how you approach the music-- it's put together like a montage."
The sets, designed by Julian Crouch, who worked on Philip Glass's "Satyagraha," consists of wooden boards called "flats," which in the Baroque era would have been painted with scenery. In this production, video projections, rather than paint, color the flats.
In a year where many of the Met’s new productions have been panned, early reviews of "The Enchanted Island" have generally been favorable, with The New York Times calling the show a "fanciful, clever and touching pastiche." But the Financial Times was less impressed, deeming it "a messy hodgepodge, maybe even a silly, precious, pretentious bore."
And even those critics who enjoyed the opera agreed that it was, at about three and a half hours, too long -- though, many operas, especially baroque operas, regularly top four hours in length. But "The Enchanted Island" falls within a different metric -- a contemporary production devised to attract more than just baroque specialists to the opera house.
"In regular baroque operas, people don't enjoy the plot per se," said Rosand. "This is like a smorgasboard, you know? It's really seductive music, and maybe it will make people think, 'Hey, that was terrific, I should go to baroque opera.'"
Still, Gelb says that "The Enchanted Island" is not some precursor to a full slate of similar pastiches.
"This is a one time only event," Gelb said. "Hopefully it'll be a success to a repeat, but this is not the beginning of a trend of pastiches."
"The Enchanted Island" runs through January 30, 2012, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Tickets can be purchased at the Met's website, and range from $30 to $330 on weekends and $25 to $320 on weekdays, with standing room tickets ranging from $17 to $22.