today marks the beginning of the end of a journey i’ve been on for a little over a month. today, cleopatra, caesar and ptolemy take the checkerboard stage to bring my vision to life.
rewind to spring break. we (we being the mfa and senior bfa stufents) had been told at the beginning of the semester that we’d be creating a music festival in which we could make our vision a reality. then began the long process of submitting project proposals, then waiting for approval, and once i was chosen i met with the festival directors and they sent me away to develop my script.
i came back with a re-imagined play-with-music (i hesitate to call it a musical) version of handel’s “giulio cesare.” in my initial proposal, i set out to abridge an opera, and replace the arias with music that had the same intentions, but came from a variety of music eras and genres. i ended up with a script derived mainly from the recitative of the opera, with some of my own thoughts and flair.
the real twist, however, was the change in the plot line. i preserved some of the scenes and cut the rest (along with some characters) to create a performance that focuses on cleopatra rather than caesar. after all, the opera is really driven by cleopatra’s desire for sole power, and her manipulation of caesar and her brother ptolemy in order to get it. and she’s much more badass.
casting was somewhat revolutionary and yet very typical. my friend laura woodruff as cleopatra was an obvious choice. she immediately, to my delight, became cleopatra, from the very first read-through. we (i and the festival directors) decided that caesar should also be played by a woman. caesar is often played by a mezzo-soprano in the opera because the role was originally written for an alto castrato. keeping with that theme, ptolemy, another alto castrato role, would also be a woman, even though he’s often played by a countertenor. heather orth as caesar was another obvious choice. she and laura immediately took to one another – their stage chemistry is fabulous.
ptolemy eluded me for a bit. i asked a couple of girls but they were unavailable. one day, i was sitting in class, and i looked over at angelica kamen and knew that she was my ptolemy. she’s a soprano and pianist new to the department this year. i didn’t know her well, but something told me she was the person meant for the role. she accepted, and she didn’t disappoint.
we also took on ben malkevitch, who plays the piano, and did the english translations of some of the songs. he has been an absolute dream: besides being a talented pianist, he gets his work done in time, has great insight, and he keeps the attitude positive among the cast. he also helped with a couple of needed music changes in a pinch.
the best part of working with this group is they added to the creation and development of the piece. they suggested songs and took initiative on some of the staging. they all really stepped up. they really made the whole process a joy.
after a couple of weeks, we’re opening with the first of two performances tonight. of course, the music gods decided to thwart us with an obstacle: laura fell horribly ill earlier this week. but, because we’re resourceful, we’re still going on, with me singing from the figurative pit. i’ll be reading my way through such gems as “v’adoro pupille” from “giulio cesare,” “coin-operated boy” by the dresden dolls, and “in whatever time we have” from “children of eden.” should be an adventure. we had a run-through earlier today, and i was so impressed by how present laura was in cleopatra’s character, despite being terribly sick.
as caesar sings near the end of the show, onward ho!