Set designer Christopher Mumaw first signed on to work with Inland Northwest Opera on a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” in 2020. But when the coronavirus pandemic forced an early end to the season, general director Dawn Wolski decided to move her production team in another direction.
Set on making any potential performance as adaptable as possible, Wolski first determined a date when she could realistically expect to bring people back into a theater before sorting through a new list of shows that would require smaller casts, film well and allow for social distancing onstage.
Christoph Willibald Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice” provided the perfect opportunity. With only three principle singing roles, an ensemble choir of eight voices and six dancers, the show’s relatively small cast allows for all of the above.
When tragedy separates Orpheus (Emily Fons) from his beloved wife Eurydice (Emily Birsan), the distraught young man strikes a bargain with Amore (Jocelyn Claire Thomas), a mysterious figure who promises Orpheus a second chance. Descending into the underworld with Amore’s help, Orpheus resolves to bring Eurydice back, but there’s a catch: He must convince her to follow without speaking.
Performed in Italian with English subtitles, Inland Northwest Opera’s “Orpheus and Eurydice” begins at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 29, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 31. Set in a 1950s, “Mad Men”-era dreamscape, the all-new production reimagines Orpheus as a musician mourning the loss of his lover.
“The story is really focusing in on what grief does to people and to what extent and what lengths they will go to to process their grief and their loss,” Mumaw said.
We meet the grieving artist in the bar where, presumably, he and Eurydice first met. Reminiscing with his friends, Orpheus’ mood darkens as he gives himself over to grief. Soon after, the figure of Amore appears with a proposition.
“She looks three-dimensional, but we don’t know if she’s real or not because she’s offering him this wild thing,” Mumaw said. Vulnerable as he is, Amore eventually convinces Orpheus to journey down into the underworld.
The set design allows for a great deal of fluidity as Orpheus’ strange experiences unfold, moving between the bar, the entrance to Hades and Elysian, the underworld realm where Eurydice has gone. In the bar scene, we see a set of three differently colored neon signs each of which serve as color inspiration for the other settings.
“It’s as if, in that kind of blurry, intoxicated state, he’s taken in little bits and pieces of his world and projected them into these spaces as he’s going to find his lover,” Mumaw said. “We don’t really quite know where we are at times, but the hope is that then with each subsequent location, we are harkening back to reality.”
Having collaborated with director Dan Wallace Miller and lighting designer Marnie Cumings many times before, Mumaw was glad to return to the stage with a team he knew he could rely on.
“Dawn has managed to milk as much spectacle and as much entertainment out of this as possible,” Mumaw said. “It was already an exciting auditory experience, but now there’s all these visual components supporting that, as well.”
From the sets and lighting to the music and dancing, “People should come prepared to be entertained,” Mumaw said.
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