Culture  Sex, drugs, and the opera

Opera McGill radically reinterprets Handel’s Agrippina for student audience

T ext-messaging, lavish apartments, and shouting matches between cocktail-clasping women in silk robes and men in business suits are pretty standard fare in the average soap opera, but it’s quite disconcerting to see them incorporated into an opera written 300 years ago.

Opera McGill has done exactly that in their production of Georg Friedrich Handel’s Agrippina, which opens Friday at Pollack Hall. Written in 1709 for the amusement of the Venetian aristocracy, the opera dramatizes its titular character’s successful and vicious plot to install her son Nero as Roman emperor. Rather than setting the opera in its original ancient time and place, director Hank Knox has updated it into the 21st century, drawing direct inspiration from the short-lived television series Dirty Sexy Money.

The libretto and music remain faithful to Handel’s original, but following their aesthetic reinterpretation, Agrippina’s characters appear as “greedy CEOs…modern-day Lady Gaga-type pop divas…or modern-day lawyers,” according to the stage director Patrick Hansen’s introduction in the program.

At a dress rehearsal on Tuesday evening, Knox jokingly described the production as “very téléroman style,” about “rich nasty people who bitch at each other for three hours.” While obviously something of an exaggeration, Knox’s description conveys the overall effect of the changes.

Whatever one’s view of the merits or drawbacks of radical reinterpretations and modernization, the production unquestionably offers extremely strong performances – the cast is made up of postgraduate music students, many of whose voices are on par with professional singers. As Estelí Gomez, who plays the eponymous lead character, stressed: “Musically, we’ve attempted to stay true to Handel’s direction in the score, especially in recitative [text-heavy portions of music that are more speech-like than arias]. I believe the modern re-interpretation of Agrippina works…but we are definitely not attempting to modernize the style of the music.”

Jana Miller, whose character, Poppea, was remodelled on pop singer Lady Gaga, explained the thinking behind the modernization. “The music is beautiful, and in Handel’s day it was pop music,” she observed, “so when you really get that style into your ear it can be amazing and I love singing it. But it’s so ancient and disconnected from our music today, so I think updating it is a good idea.” Miller said that the updating makes “it an accessible opera,” especially in light of the perceived isolation of music students within the University, which she called “a problem of the music school being kind of separated. McGill is a great school and the music school is part of that – we should all support each other.”

Opera can be a daunting form of entertainment. It can also be undeniably beautiful, and, despite its reputation for seriousness and length, very amusing. Less well-known than later 19th-century works by composers like Puccini and Wagner, Baroque operas like Agrippina offer a mix of melodrama, levity, and accessibly melodious music.

Agrippina will play at Pollack Hall at 7:30 p.m., Friday, November 20 and Saturday, November 21 and at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, November 22.