'Orpheus in the Underworld' comes to UI

URBANA — Opera superstar Nathan Gunn didn't select Jacques Offenbach's "Orpheus in the Underworld" for production by Lyric Theatre @ Illinois.

But the general director of the new program views the comic operetta, which premiered in 1858 in Paris, as beautiful, silly and charming.

And he's the one who made the decision to have it performed in English rather than French.

"This particular operetta is very difficult for both the performers and the audience to grasp when not well-versed in the language, so doing it in English was in the best interest of everyone," Gunn said.

Gunn also noted that the show, which opens tonight at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, is not the first official production of Lyric Theatre @ Illinois, which succeeds the UI Opera Program.

Lyric Theatre @ Illinois officially gets under way in the fall. Gunn, though, said he's received "an outpouring of excitement" for the changes that he and his team are making.

"I hope the theater is full (for 'Orpheus') so our students can feel the full weight of this support," he said.

Lyric Theatre @ Illinois will focus on opera, operetta and musical theater to better prepare students for today's performance world. The relatively new program replaces the UI Opera Program, which focused mainly on grand opera but presented other styles as well.

Gunn thanked conductor Paul Vermel and stage director Dawn Harris for taking over "Orpheus in the Underworld" after the show was cast and rehearsals had started.

Vermel, who lives in the Chicago area, is returning to the podium here, having been a UI music professor from 1974-94. During that time he conducted the University and Champaign-Urbana symphony orchestras.

After leaving, he was until 2013 the conductor of the Northwest Symphony Orchestra in Des Plaines and until 2008, of the North Suburban Symphony Orchestra.

"I'm delighted to return to the UI, where I conducted so many operas during my 20 years as a professor," Vermel said. "I'm deeply grateful to Nathan Gunn for inviting me, and I appreciate both his support and that of Jeffrey Magee, the director of the School of Music."

Harris said though Vermel, who's 90, came into the rehearsal process a few weeks after it had begun, he was able to quickly put it together.

"He's pretty amazing," Harris said.

Vermel, who was born in Paris, had never conducted "Orpheus" before but is familiar with French music.

Harris knows the operetta repertoire well, having "grown up" over 14 seasons with Ohio Light Opera at the College of Wooster.

"I have a real sense of the timing and style of this genre," she said.

She also has experience with Offenbach's scores. The soprano directed "Orpheus in the Underworld" at DePauw University. And she once played the lead in "La Vie Parisienne," another comic opera by Offenbach.

Her director on that was Richard Traubner, author of the book "Operetta: A Theatrical History."

As director, Harris is drawing from what she learned from Traubner, who died last year.

"He often talked about the style of Offenbach being non-symmetrical, with clumps of people on stage and people always pointing," she said. "So I put that in my direction."

She's also injected a few anachronisms in the operetta, which is set in antiquity, with cast members wearing classical Greek robes and portraying deities. For example, Jupiter, king of the gods, will use a wireless microphone and ride a scooter on stage.

In "Orpheus in the Underworld," Offenbach transforms the tragic Greek tale of musician Orpheus and his wife, Eurydice, into a romp through a lusty, lively heaven, hell and Earth.

Harris is giving the comic operetta a vaudeville and French burlesque flavor — it famously features a music-hall dance that became known as the can-can.

UI dance Professor Becky Nettl-Fiol is the choreographer for Orpheus, which will feature UI dance students. She and Harris incorporated Zumba moves into some of the dance pieces.

"I think people will have fun with this show," Harris said. "I consider this completely different from anything we've done in a while."

If you go

What: Lyric Theatre @ Illinois presents "Orpheus in the Underworld," with music by Jacques Offenbach, libretto by Hector Cremieux and Ludovic Halevy, Paul Vermel conducting and Dawn Harris directing

When: 7:30 p.m. today, Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Tryon Festival Theatre, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., U

Tickets: $27 for adults; $23, senior citizens; $18, non-University of Illinois students; and $10, UI students and youths

Note: Sung in English with English supertitles; translation by Jeremy Sams

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes, including intermission

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