'The Blue Opera' Gives an Old Story New Life

By Joseph McLellan
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, October 23, 1997; Page V03
The Washington Post

The often-told story of Orpheus and Eurydice was retold, with many new twists, in
"The Blue Opera," which had its world premiere Friday night in the Ernst Cultural Center of
Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale. It is the work of Northern Virginia
composer Nancy Binns Reed, who received a standing ovation at the end of the first
performance, with the entire audience singing the opera's final chorus, "I have always
loved you."

Reed earned this recognition. She not only wrote the words, which cleverly adapt the
traditional story, and the score, which moves back and forth easily between classical and
popular styles, but also designed the scenery and recorded electronic "orchestral" music
to integrate into the performance along with live trumpet, oboe, percussion and keyboard.

Produced by the Reunion Music Society, "The Blue Opera" continues and extends the
oldest of all operatic traditions. The story of Orpheus was the subject of the first opera,
four centuries ago, and since has been used for more operas than any other subject.
Usually the treatment is very serious, as would be expected of a story whose subjects
are a love stronger than death and the power of music.
In Greek mythology, Orpheus was the greatest singer and songwriter of all time. When
his wife, Eurydice, died, he went down to Hades and, by the power of his singing, persuaded
the rulers of the underworld to let her return to the land of the living.

In Reed's treatment, Eurydice (Beverly Cosham) is a blues singer, as she shows
effectively in her first number, "Water Cold, Water Deep." The year is 2000 A.D.;
the place is Hades, where all eras coexist -- as do all styles and forms of music.

As the story opens, Orpheus (baritone Michael Houston) has lost his singing voice
and has to sing rap -- but not gangsta -- all through Act I, while he looks for a magic blue flower
that will restore his voice. When he finds the flower, Houston reveals a voice
whose tone and power are appropriate for the role of Orpheus.

His search for Eurydice takes him through seven levels of Hell, each of which is
characterized by a different style of music. They finally are reunited -- with a show-stopping
song, "Gentle is my love," and as they return to life, the inhabitants of Hell are
returned to their rightful places, except for one spirit who manages to sneak into Heaven.

Among the more interesting Hell residents in the cast are Don Giovanni (baritone Peter
Ferko), who seduced thousands of women and committed at least one murder, and Medea
(mezzo-soprano Karen Mercedes), who murdered her children to spite her husband.

Their amorous interactions (notably Giovanni's song, "I am the greatest lover"), efforts to
have their sentences in Hell lightened and abduction of Eurydice are key elements in the
plot, and both sing well -- notably Mercedes, who has a voice of great expressive power.

Another standout in the cast is Steve Metzger, who brings a vaudeville flavor to the role
of the Waterman -- a huckster for the water of Lethe, which makes people forget.

Two trios of fine voices have a substantial part in the plot and music: Shannon Barnes,
Carrie Houser and Leigh Mann as three spirits; and Mel Downs, Randy Lindgren and
Isaac Miller as three dragons.

One of the most striking roles is that of the angel Gabriel, played by Ray Dryburgh, who
uttered not a word but played the trumpet spectacularly.

Conductor Christopher Johnson paced and balanced the music well, and stage director
Will Monahan brought clarity to the complex plot
. But the primary credit goes to Reed,
who knows how to write catchy melodies and tell an unusual story.

Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company