Very few choreographers have the temerity, not to mention the talent, to choreograph and direct an opera. Then there’s Mark Morris, who has tackled 12 operas over his long, productive career.
May 15-18 at the Citi Shubert Theatre, the choreographer and his Mark Morris Dance Group present the East Coast premiere of his latest operatic project, Handel’s “Acis and Galatea,” co-commissioned and presented by Celebrity Series of Boston.
Conductor Nicholas McGegan, who has collaborated with Morris on several operas over the past two decades, will lead the Handel and Haydn Society Period Orchestra and Chorus.
With a libretto by John Gay based on Ovid’s “Metamorphosis,” “Acis and Galatea” is a pastoral opera portraying a love triangle between a shepherd, a sea nymph, and a cyclops set amidst the lush landscape of ancient Arcadia. The work dates back to a one-act masque Handel composed in 1718 and later expanded. During the composer’s day, it was perhaps his most performed operatic endeavor.
But according to McGegan, it didn’t begin that way. “Handel wrote opera in Italian, and it was deliberately designed for the stage,” McGegan explains. “Acis” in contrast, “was written in English and not designed to be staged at all, but to be done in a drawing room of a rich man’s house. Handel was tied into a group of people who were sort of intellectual friends and artists around Lord Burlington, who had a house in central London that is now the Royal Academy of Art. Poets, musicians, painters would go there and share their work, and this is the sort of piece Handel and John Gay would have done. The music is glorious, the words are wonderful, and the story is universal, a love triangle that ends badly.”
McGegan says the music was printed and circulated, and in the 1730s the opera was staged in London — but not by Handel. “It was a huge success, but there was no such thing as performer’s copyright, and Handel thought, ‘Why should somebody else get the money?’ So Handel made changes and put it on the stage himself, with a proper chorus and orchestra to fill the theater.”
Half a century later, in 1788, Mozart adapted the score, adding clarinet, bassoon, and horn. “If you imagine Handel’s ‘Acis’ is black and white, Mozart’s is the colorized version,” says McGegan. “He hasn’t changed the basic notes, just glitzed up the orchestration and added all sorts of juicy things. It’s incredibly beautiful. You get two genius composers for the price of one.”
Morris was drawn to Mozart’s arrangement. “Mozart made decisions in the music that led to it being more emotionally direct. He wrote through the recitatives, he orchestrated and arranged them so they’re fixed and lead more aggressively in dramatic situations,” Morris says. “What you thought in the original was kind of sad, he confirms that it’s really sad. It’s beefed up and it swings, and that works better in bigger theaters. I just love it. And it’s why the piece looks the way it does, modernized, very subtle, a different point of view, and that’s where my designers headed.”
Morris’s collaborative team for the production includes visual artist and scenic designer Adrianne Lobel, fashion and costume designer Isaac Mizrahi, and lighting designer Michael Chybowski.
The choreographer says he wanted no props or furniture, just four backdrops to change scenes. Mizrahi, who has known Morris for decades, says he sees colors when he hears music, and green was the color that Handel’s music evoked. His designs also play directly off Lobel’s paintings, which are inspired by forest scenes.
“The drops are painted on mesh and cut out in certain ways, and can be very active visually,” Morris elaborates. “The costumes are gauzy, too, so it’s like being in a forest, creating light and shade and depth and color out of very simple means.”
Morris calls “Acis” a “through-danced opera,” with the solo singers placed onstage amidst the dancers so that, as he says, “Everyone is occupying the same world.”
That’s a distinctive choice, McGegan notes. “Nearly always in opera, if there is dance, the action stops and they dance around, then get back to the plot, or it’s at the end and everyone’s happy and they say, ‘Let’s dance.’ This [production] is totally integrated, with dancing almost all the time in some form. Mark is the most musical choreographer, and what you’re seeing onstage is a gestural dance representation of the music and phrasing. If I have a crescendo on one note, one of the dancer’s arms sweeps over in exactly the same shape, and of course, that inspires the musicians. It’s incredibly thrilling.”
McGegan says Morris’s operatic projects draw both ballet and opera fans. “When you mix the arts like this, especially when Mark’s there and two and two make five, you manage to get the opera nuts who worship at the temple of opera, sometimes with eyes closed, to watch, and balletomanes get to enjoy the music that we do and see how closely entwined they are. This only works because Mark is such a superb musician himself.”
Gary Dunning, president and executive director of Celebrity Series, agrees. “He’s illuminated those operas, and you look at them in a different light. Once you see him choreograph the work, you hear the music in a different way.”
For Celebrity Series, which has presented Morris’s company 12 times over the years, the co-commission was an opportunity to go deeper with a longstanding relationship. The venture also spreads the cost of the project among five partners, which Dunning says is a critical model for touring companies presenting new works. “Our share is well over $700,000 for our part of the commission and the performance,” says Dunning. “Acis” premiered at Cal Performances in Berkeley, Calif., on April 25, and after Boston it will be presented through 2015 in the commissioning partners’ cities — at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana, Ill.; Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York; and the Harriman-Jewell Series in Kansas City, Mo.
As for the results, Dunning is clearly savoring Morris’s creative evolution. “I think its going to be a fascinating view of one of the great artists at this moment in time,” Dunning says, “knowing that there’s a lot more still to come.”