Korff School’s opera program presents “The Return of Ulysses”

The Return of Ulysses poster
The Return of Ulysses poster

Korff School’s opera program presents “The Return of Ulysses”

calendar icon24 Oct 2018    

The Glenn Korff School of Music’s opera program presents “The Return of Ulysses.” Performances are Nov. 2 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 4 at 3 p.m. in Kimball Recital Hall. This new adaptation of the work will be sung in English.

A pre-performance talk will be held 45 minutes before curtain of each performance in the lower lobby of Kimball.

“The Return of Ulysses,” by Claudio Monteverdi, is an adaptation of the final chapters of Homer’s epic poem, “The Odyssey.” It was translated from its original Italian into English by Richard H. Larson Distinguished Professor of Music and Director of Opera William Shomos, who also directs this production.

“Claudio Monteverdi is the father of the operatic art form,” Shomos said. “His 1607 ‘Orfeo’ is considered the first great opera that exists. Yet even many veteran opera lovers don’t have much experience with the stage works of Monteverdi. His later operas, ‘The Return of Ulysses’ (1639) and ‘The Coronation of Poppea’ (1642), though not frequently performed, are remarkable treasures nevertheless.” 

Shomos said a key aesthetic principle in operas of Monteverdi’s generation was “prima le parole, dopo la musica”—first the words, then the music.

“When opera was born around 1600, the music existed to serve the meaning of the words and to lend weight to the emotional substance of the text,” he said. “Shortly after Monteverdi’s time, this focus shifted as musical values became predominant, with large scale flashy arias and ensembles. Rather than featuring such set pieces, ‘The Return of Ulysses’ moves fluidly between a recitative speech-like delivery and a musical style that melodically sings and dances, continually surprising the ear. The result is an exciting dramatic pacing that propels the story forward. Monteverdi’s brilliance lies in his ability to put the text front and center while supporting it with a glorious musical palette, shifting and ranging from the playful to the regal, from evocative sensuality to stunning poignancy.”

The story features Queen Penelope, Ulysses’ wife, who has been living in solitude for 20 years since Ulysses left. He returns, disguised as an old man, and has convince his wife and son that he is, indeed, Ulysses.

“Audiences can expect an operatic plot whose foundation is the unwavering dedication and faithfulness two lovers share over even the greatest distance and time,” said doctoral student Trey Meyer, of Brookings, South Dakota, who portrays both Ulysses and Human Frailty.

Ulysses is the mythic hero familiar to audiences through Homer’s epic poem.

“He is an incredibly strong and determined man whose resolve is only bolstered by the support of his patron goddess, Minerva,” Meyer said.

Elaina Matthews, a master of music student from Lincoln, plays Minerva.

“Minerva is the Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess, Athena,” Matthews said. “She is a war goddess, and she hates Troy, but her fierce warrior spirit is tempered by her wisdom. I see her as a sort of motherly guide to Ulysses and his family. She is strong, and she is playful. She can disguise herself in any way she chooses, and she loves to use that ability, but it is all for the good of Ulysses and the reunification of his family. She is a fierce protector and she makes sure that what she wants to happen WILL happen. I so enjoy playing such a strong character.”

Hayley Shoemaker, a master of music student from Quinter, Kansas, plays Penelope.

“Penelope is strong,” she said. “She has had to raise her son and run a country on her own for 20 years, yet she still is loyal to and completely in love with her husband. She is an incredibly noble character.”

Shoemaker said what she loves about the opera is also its biggest challenge.

“The music allows the singers to be very creative and to explore so much dramatically,” Shoemaker said. “The fun part is also the challenge. The freedom to explore can be very intimidating, but it forces us to be creative actors/singers.”

Cooper Creal, a junior music major from Lincoln, plays Telemachus.

“Telemachus is the fatherless child, always struggling with his identity as a man, being the son of a king,” Creal said. “He has grown up without his father and has endured great pain waiting and hoping for his return. Telemachus is faithful and eager and wants nothing more than his family to be reunited.”

Shomos said he loves the story of the opera.

“Based on the final chapters of Homer’s Odyssey, ‘The Return of Ulysses’ is one of the greatest love stories ever told,” he said. “There’s this great line from a poem (The Ivy Crown) by William Carlos Williams that really rings true for this opera: ‘We are only mortal—but being mortal—can defy our fate.’”

The opera presents a unique operatic experience for the audience.

“They will have the opportunity to enjoy one of opera’s earliest compositions (which is rarely performed) made accessible in the English translation by our opera director, Dr. William Shomos, who personally translated the Italian himself,” Meyer said. “Because we will be performing this Italian opera in English, we have the unique opportunity to experience the recitative (dialogue) in our native tongue. This allows us to convey our lines as naturally as possible in both our dialogues and monologues.”

Shomos said the style of the opera is new to most of his singers.

“They need to really embrace a speech-like delivery, and allow a good deal of flexibility in their tempos and pacing—much more than could ever be indicated on the page of the score,” he said. “We spend a lot of time speaking the scenes to really drill this concept.”

Matthews said, “I am so excited for the production as a whole because this is such a talented cast, and the vision for it is very creative.”

Creal said he loves the story.

“It is truly beautiful how strong and faithful Penelope is, waiting 20 years for her husband to return, and my absolute favorite part is when my character, Telemachus, and Ulysses reunite,” Creal said. “The music is beautiful, the staging is intimate and real, and it just really captures the raw emotion of seeing someone you truly love after so long.”

Creal said Music Director Michael Cotton has also been helpful in his collaboration with the cast.

“His knowledge of baroque style is unmatched, and the entire cast has learned so much in so little time about how to sing the complex recitative thanks to his mentorship,” he said.

Shomos said they will be performing without a formal conductor.

“The small chamber ensemble will be upstage of the performers,” he said. “Michael Cotton will be leading the group from the harpsichord. Other keyboard players will be Chris Marks and Donna Harler-Smith. The string quintet and percussion will handled by some of our fine instrumental students.”

The opera program continues its collaboration with the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film, as ‘The Return of Ulysses’ features the work of three faculty designers: J.D. Madsen (scenery), Laurel Shoemaker (lights) and Jamie Bullins (costumes).

“The striking visuals for this production suggest, at once, both the ancient and the modern,” Shomos said.

Matthews encourages people to come see “The Return of Ulysses.”

“Step out of your comfort zone,” she said. “If you’ve never been to the opera before, go to this one. It’s mystical, in English, has some delightful characters, and is so charming. You will fall in love.”

Tickets are $20 adults and $10 students/seniors and are available at the door. Advance tickets are available through the Lied Center Box Office at (402) 472-4747 or online at http://go.unl.edu/vi3s.