The 50-minute romp is a zarzuela riff on Machiavelli’s story “La Mandragola”, in which Lucrezia, an intelligent seductress, takes charge of her own needs and tricks her suitors into not only giving her pleasure but also their money. A game of seduction and love, riddled with humor and coy femininity, “Lucrezia” features the iconic art song style of Bolcom (“McTeague”, “A View from the Bridge” and “A Wedding”, all commissioned and premiered by Lyric Opera of Chicago), with a pun-laced libretto by Mark Campbell (“Silent Night”). The piece is performed by four hands at two pianos.
In its unique site-specific style, the CFO production places the audience around the action, with a pre-show cabaret — complete with cash bar — featuring the cast of “Lucrezia” singing a selection of Bolcom’s best art songs. “Audiences loved our recent take on Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti”, which paired that jazzy opera with a pre-show set of jazz standards,” says Chicago Fringe Opera Artistic Director George Cederquist. “Our performances of “Lucrezia” take that idea to the next level, capturing the sexiness and silliness of Bolcom’s wonderful music and Campell’s cheeky text by placing it in the immersive and convivial setting. We’re thrilled to return to the Chopin Theater for this event.”
The opera features five CFO season artists: Ashley Armstrong (from CFO’s fall production “Song from the Uproar”) in the title role, including Matthan Ring Black (baritone), Gabriel Di Gennaro (baritone), Diana Stoic (soprano) and Tobias Wright (tenor) in the comic cast. CFO Music Director Catherine O’Shaughnessy conducts from the piano, with stage direction by Cederquist and designs by CFO company member Brad Caleb Lee.
By William Bolcom
Libretto by Mark Campbell
Callimaco disguises himself as a doctor, and with his “assistant,” Ligurio, convinces Nicia that if Lucrezia ingests mandrake, it will increase her fertility, though with one fatal flaw: the potent mandrake will kill the first man to be intimate with Lucrezia afterward. Ligurio suggests that a disposable fool might be employed for such a task, and Callimaco, in yet another convenient disguise, is volunteered.
When all is revealed, a surprised Lucrezia interprets the situation to have been the product of divine intervention, and is comfortable allowing her companionship with Callimaco to continue.
In William Bolcom’s take, Lucrezia has not only been entirely aware of the plotting and planning of the men around her, but slyly helping to orchestrate the entire event, purely out of her own desire for sex, as demonstrated in the aria “I Like Sex,” and her delight in mischief.
(Courtesy of the New York Times)
“A zarzuela as imagined by the Marx brothers,” Mr. Bolcom called “Lucrezia,” referring to the popular Spanish variety of light opera. He had the action transposed from Florence, around 1500, to a “contemporary cuckoo-land… that allowed me to write fandangos and tangos.”
I feel like I’ve known Bill Bolcom since I was a kid. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the University of Michigan is, where Bolcom was on the composition faculty for 35 years, and where he now lives. Bolcom was a household celebrity for my family: always referred to by last name only; probably a hold-over from the tag team title of his collaboration with his wife Joan Morris. They were simply called Bolcom and Morris.
At some point in my childhood, I remember laughing to a cassette tape recording of “Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise”. My mom and I learned all the words and would sing our favorite delicacies, taken from the song, to each other. I secretly wanted to try and make one in our kitchen.
But I’d never actually met Bolcom until last month. I was home in Ann Arbor for an Easter visit, and I figured I’d try and meet with him to talk about his career and about “Lucrezia”; about what I needed to know before directing it and basically how not to screw it up.
In the sun-room of his house, sitting between a grand piano and a dying spider plant, he gave me two tips. The first was for the singers to ‘get off the note’. “If I write an eighth note, darling,” he said, addressing an imaginary soprano, “then sing an eighth note, and nothing more.” The second piece of advice was to rehearse the scenes without singing, without accompaniment, as often as I liked with the cast.
Well, I’ve never heard a composer speak about their own music with such a lack of self-importance.
I think what Bolcom was trying to tell me was that while his music is complex, playful and moving (and he knows this), his songs – including those in “Lucrezia” – have always grown from a place of theatricality. Almost musical theatre theatricality. And that his characters – whether they’re found in art songs or full operas – are truly alive, with all the desires and contradictions that you and I have.
It makes sense. Knowing Bolcom’s oeuvre, you don’t accept the challenge of fusing popular music with classical music – which is basically the aesthetic he has dedicated his life to – without beginning from first principles, from simple humanity. And you can’t fuse those two musical forms together without naturally jumping to a third musical form which does something similar: and that’s zarzuela, a lyric Spanish style that marries operatic music to popular song.
Now, while I love the sound of zarzuela, and I love the music and text in this show, I don’t think that “Lucrezia” is a particularly Spanish narrative. After all, there are many Hispanic and Latin cultures, including Cuba, even the Philippines, that have their own zarzuelas, so it’s hard to pin down the form to a specific locale or setting for this particular opera. And while there are aspects of Hispanic culture reflected in the music, in the passion and the cleverness of its characters, and the hilarious wordplay of Mark Campbell’s libretto, it was more the idea of musical theatre and of cabaret that guided me to find the frame for our production.
Because while the characters in “Lucrezia” are truly alive, they are also archetypes. (The original play by Machiavelli, called “The Mandrake”, is nothing if not full of stock characters.) I started to see parallels between the characters of the opera, and the players of a cabaret: Chucho as the Master of Ceremonies, Lorenzo as the lowly Stagehand, Ignacio as the cuckolded Mr. Cellophane, Annunciata as the bitter Faded Star and, of course, Lucrezia as the Diva.
I rather crudely invented the term ‘contemporary vaudeville’. Sometimes words like ‘burlesque’, ‘cabaret’, ‘vaudeville’, and others, get throw around and muddled up, so I figured I’d just make up our own word. I chose to play the story of the opera within the context of contemporary vaudeville. The characters are real, and are played truthfully, but exist as double archetypes: stock pseudo-Commedia dell’Arte characters, and stock vaudeville performers. In our “Lucrezia”, Bolcom and Campbell’s characters have real desires and real stakes, but simply exist within a visual and theatrical language taken from vaudeville.
In performance, the idea of contemporary vaudeville begins with the first part of the evening, in which the performers sing songs taken from Bolcom’s vast solo repertoire. These numbers not only entertain, but also give a preview of who the characters are that we’ll meet in the second part of the evening, by connecting the content of the art song repertoire to the desires of the characters in “Lucrezia”.
The title character is unique because, finally, for once, in an opera, we get a strong female character who is not ashamed about her sexuality, about having sex, about enjoying sex, and about using her desires to beat everyone else at their own game.
All this combines to create an experience for our audience that is immersive, unique and, above all, enjoyable. Enjoyable not just for the audience, for, at the end of the day, each character in “Lucrezia” actually gets what they want, whether that’s a long night of sex – good sex; a son; or a grandson; and, in Chucho’s case, the realization that maybe one can act towards an end in itself. Everyone ends content. That’s pretty unique for opera and, let’s face it, for Chicago Fringe Opera.
So. A celebration in song of one of America’s master composers. A wordy, witty story crafted by a brilliant librettist. The spirit of zarzuela’s hot romance. A contemporary vaudeville that houses believable characters. And one hell of a good time. That’s what our evening together is all about.
Chicago Fringe Opera is immensely grateful for our donors who support our mission of presenting innovative vocal works with an emphasis in the new and contemporary styles, engaging with the Chicago community through intimate and immersive performance experiences, and fostering and empowering local artists.
Robert P Delonis
Carla & William O’Shaughnessy
Robert Daniel Reid
Mark & Joan Walker
Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP
Chicago Fringe Opera is grateful to the following individuals and organizations for their support and in-kind donations:
Victory Gardens Theatre
Scott & Cheryl Lee
Community Foundation of St. Joseph County
Main Street Opera
Merry Music Makers
Preston Bradley Center
Flour & Fig
The production was rehearsed at Merry Music Makers.