To hear Sharon Litwin interview Robery Lyall on WWNO public radio, click here.
In New Orleans opera is a sacred tradition. And it will be again this year, but Robert Lyall, the artistic director of the New Orleans Opera Association, says he’s going to give this season a new twist. He’s created a series of four presentations that will include some very different musical works; even a change of venue.
Of course, there will be favorites like La Boheme and Massenet’s Cinderella, in the Mahalia Jackson Theater. And one rarely-heard piece, Benjamin Britten’s spiritual liturgical work, Noah’s Flood, will be performed off site in Trinity Church.
But it’s the opening work, taking place on October 11 and 13, that is not only rarely-heard, but likely unknown to many regular opera goers. Premiered in 1828, Heinrich Marschner’s The Vampire was the hit of its day. Given today’s penchant for these blood-sucking critters in literature, television and movies, Robert decided it was time to resurrect this 19th-century musical blockbuster.
“I look around and see this unique phenomenon in popular culture of two television series; Interview with the Vampire, a movie; the writings of Ann Rice; and how there’s just a general awareness of this phantasmagorical cult,” he says.
So back it comes, this mostly-forgotten German romantic piece that was modeled on Mozart’s Don Giovanni and, says Robert, that led musically straight to Wagner. In fact, Wagner as a young conductor conducted The Vampire so many times that it became the single greatest influence on his future work, The Flying Dutchman. When Wagner’s brother, who was a singer, complained that he didn’t find the ending of the tenor’s aria in The Vampire to be quite exciting enough, Wagner tweaked it up,writing a much more dramatic finale to the tenor’s major aria; one, Robert explains, that is still performed today.
While most of us could be excused for thinking that the ghoulish theme of this opera had its roots in centuries of folk lore about creatures that never die, or even Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Robert Lyall says not so.
“This actually originated at a health resort in which Lord Byron, the great British writer, Mary Shelley, and Percy Bysshe Shelley were vacationing, They decided they would all write ghost stories to scare one another. So they wrote these down and the doctor who attended them gathered them up and realized that the one by Lord Byron was actually quite clever. So he took it and developed it a little more and published it under the name of Lord Byron because he was such a celebrity.”
The story became the basis for the libretto which then became a play, and that’s when the composer Heinrich Marschner picked it up. But even he would be surprised at how Robert Lyall has transformed his opera. Deciding it would be more fun for local audiences to see the story in a modern context mirroring, he says, familiar television series and movies, the characters will be in modern dress and the sets will reflect highly recognizable New Orleans locales.
To learn more about The Vampire and to buy tickets, go to www.neworleansopera.org.