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Taking the plunge once again with 'Orpheus and Euridice'

June 4, 2010 | 11:00 am

Southern California in the summertime is famous for its pool parties, pool games and even its pool boys. But a pool opera?

In 2008, the Long Beach Opera debuted a production of Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Orpheus and Euridice” at the indoor Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool. The song cycle, which starred soprano Elizabeth Futral and clarinetist Todd Palmer, enacted the ancient Greek myth using a small boat that floated on the chlorinated "River Styx."

This week, the company is reviving the high-concept production with the same cast and an enhanced instrumental component -- a larger string ensemble plus a slightly expanded score by Gordon. The composer said he wrote about a minute of new music for the scene where Euridice disappears and the audience is left with an eerie and ghostly presence.

“I absolutely loved [the production] the last time, but the tricky part was that it was an unwieldy space,” said Gordon in a phone interview from Washington D.C., where he was working on a new stage piece, “Sycamore Trees.”

"We didn't realize that we needed sound design until late in the game. You couldn't even hear Elizabeth when she turned way."

Orpheus The creative team decided late in the rehearsal process to use wireless microphones to focus the music in the direction of the audience. For the revival, the microphones are returning, and this time, the ensemble will have more time to work on the level of amplification.

The company also has expanded the string ensemble from just five players to a chamber orchestra. There will be a conductor this time, Steven White, (Futral's husband), whose job is to coordinate the disparate musical elements across the expansive pool space.

"There's also an issue of the chlorine and the chlorine in the air," said Futral in a phone interview. "It started affecting me when we were there. This time around, I'll take every chance I can get to get a breath of fresh air, just to keep my body sort of circulating that stuff out of my system."

The soprano described the production as "exciting and freeing" and added that performing on water didn't scare her. "I'm a good swimmer," she said. "I was a lifeguard in college."

For certain sequences in the production, the musicians are required to stand on the dinghy while extras push it through the water. Palmer said that playing the clarinet while trying to keep his balance was one of the most challenging parts of the performance.

"I had no idea it would be so difficult -- keeping your balance while you're playing," said Palmer. "But I got accustomed to that. Another thing that was always difficult was where I had to climb on the shoulders of one of the extras and then get on the boat to play the hardest part of the work -- all within 10 to 15 seconds." 

There were no accidental falls into the water during the 2008 run of the show. But Palmer said he was bringing "a spare clarinet, just in case."

The Times' Chris Pasles wrote in his review that "Palmer played his marathon role expertly. Futral sang beautifully. Fortunately, Gordon's text was projected on a screen because Futral's words were swallowed up by the pool's acoustic."

"Orpheus" is being staged once again by Andreas Mitisek, the artistic director of the company. He said that, in 2008, more than a quarter of the audience for "Orpheus" had never seen opera before.

"Taking opera out of  the temple of art gives us the opportunity to reach people who are intimidated," he said. "There are a lot of obstacles that people have to overcome who have never been to the opera. Making performances that are part of our daily lives is, in a way, closer to the idea of the Renaissance."

-- David Ng

"Orpheus and Euridice." Long Beach Opera, Belmont Plaza Pool, 4000 E. Olympic Plaza, Long Beach, 9 p.m. June 11-13, $45-$95, www.longbeachopera.org or (562) 432-5934. Running time: 90 minutes

Photo: Soprano Elizabeth Futral and clarinetist Todd Palmer, with director Andreas Mitisek, at left, rehearse "Orpheus and Euridice" at Long Beach's Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool in 2008. Credit: John J. Flynn

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