Cleveland Orchestra Reimagines Classic Opera With New Technology

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Opera is sometimes seen as a loud spectacle, featuring bellowing sopranos in horned helmets. This week the Cleveland Orchestra plans to counter that stereotype with a quiet, mysterious meditation on love and death.  And one of the main characters is fog in the orchestra's production of Claude Debussy’s Pelleas & Melisande.

The Debussy story is a typical operatic fodder: a couple of star-crossed lovers suffer a tragic fate.  Director Yuval Sharon admits that Pelleas & Melisande doesn’t have much of a plot. The French composer’s work is more about mood and feelings. 

"It’s not a drama in the traditional sense," says Sharon.  "It’s an internal drama in a way that’s pretty much unlike any other opera I’ve ever worked on or experienced." 

To bring that mystery to the stage, Sharon places a huge, glass box filled with fog on a platform behind the orchestra.  It’s constructed with a material called smart glass that turns opaque when an electrical charge is applied.  At various times during the production, blowers fill the box with a mist that creates dreamy effects, as dancers and singers move through it and around it. 

"The box is 24 feet wide by eight feet tall, we’ve got seven dancers in there," says set designer Mimi Lien.  "We knew we wanted to work with opacity and transparency, and so then the idea of silhouette became a real language for us."

This is the second time that Yuval Sharon has fashioned a blend of traditional opera and modern stage effects for the Cleveland Orchestra.  2014’s Cunning Little Vixen featured live actors interacting with a throng of computer-generated animals. Music director Franz Welser-Möst says this work is a lot subtler.

"I’ve seen quite a few productions of Pelleas and Melisande," he says.  "This is one that really goes right to the psychology of the piece. 

Debussy’s moody opera was first performed in 1902. At that same time, Sigmund Freud’s writings about psychoanalysis and the inner workings of the mind were causing a stir in Europe.  It was also a time when Impressionists were creating paintings where people and objects weren’t always contained within defined lines, and colors faded into each other.  On stage, fog is used to blur those lines.

"Here, with this glass box, the fog becomes a crucial element, really," Welser-Möst says.  "It tells you that this entire piece is just a dream.  Maybe a nightmare."

Director Yuval Sharon says that’s exactly what he was going for.

"In Mimi’s design, this box seems to be the receptor of all the dreams and the images that are coming out of the orchestra and being explained by the singers," he says.  "And that’s something that, I think we knew was the plan, but to actually see it in realization is quite beautiful."

Once the fog box was in place, Mimi Lien says her mind started running wild with all sorts of visual ideas, although there was a trick or two she wasn’t quite able to pull off.

"I mean, there was a moment when I wanted the box to be levitating," she laughs.  "But, that was not grounded in reality at all."

But, such thoughts aren’t surprising in a foggy world where things aren’t always what they seem.

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