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Operas, Pigs, and Potions

Date: Mar 18, 2014


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You walk into the theatre, expecting to see a play. You take your seat, and sitting next to you is a woman with a trumpet in her lap. Curious.

The lights dim. An actress explains we're about to experience a traditional Czech zabíjacka, a celebration centered around the slaughter of a pig. (Patrons with all-inclusive tickets will even be served dinner during the show.)

Suddenly, the musicians sitting all around you start dancing, playing their instruments, and rapturously singing, "Why not make a celebration?"

It's a song from the Czech opera The Bartered Bride, and throughout The Pig, running through March 30 at 3-Legged Dog, that opera's going to pop up constantly. "It's a mash-up," says Edward Einhorn, who translated The Pig  into English for his Untitled Theater Company #61.

In the last few years, opera-theatre hybrids have become increasingly prominent in New York, from the genre-bending Prototype Festival to the long-running "electro-pop" opera Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. And this month alone, The Pig is joined by Kiran Rikhye's Potion, which plays fast and loose with operatic tropes in a production from Stolen Chair.

The opera elements are crucial to both current shows. The Pig began in 1987 as a short dialogue written by Václav Havel, the Czech playwright and politician. In it, Havel recounts his hunt for a pig to roast at a party, and after many lies and false offers, he's eventually overcharged for the animal. The story is a veiled criticism of the Communist regime of the period, and in 2010, Czech director Vladimír Morávek blended it with The Bartered Bride. (Einhorn translated Morávek's adaptation for the American premiere.)

The music comments sharply on the play's events. The opening tune ("Why not make a celebration?") is performed eight times, evolving from a rousing anthem to an ironic comment on Havel's mistreatment. "It really reflects the way people communicated during Communist rule," Einhorn says. "You couldn't say things directly onstage. You had to say things in a veiled way."

Plus, The Bartered Bride, composed in the 1860s by Bedr̃ich Smetana, is also a nationalistic statement. It was written at the dawn of the Czech nationalist movement, which climaxed when Communism in the country collapsed during the Velvet Revolution of 1989. In this show, then, the opera draws a line to the beginning of a movement that Havel helped see to its close.

"It's the connection between this being a seminal Czech story and Havel being this seminal Czech figure," Einhorn says.

Meanwhile, Potion, which performs on Sunday nights at PEOPLE Lounge on the Lower East Side, references opera without any singing. Instead, the lines in Rikhye's script echo the rhythm, meter, and structure of classics by Mozart, Verdi, and more.

The heroine, for instance, is a woman whose elixirs inspire a wild variety of emotions. (Audiences are served special cocktails throughout the show.) The only concoction she hasn't mastered is a love potion, which she laments in a speech inspired by "Una Furtiva Lagrima" from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore.

But again, she doesn't speak like your average person on the street. Rikhye's rhythmic approach to language gives the production an undeniably operatic energy, as does the original music that underscores the dialogue.

"The repetition of the text and the rhythms of the text gives the actors an opportunity to spiral up their emotions," says Potion director Jon Stancato. "Just repeating the same text over and over, it forces these natural crescendos into their characterizations."

This approach also allows for large swaths of passionately expressed feelings. "We are really interested in how the live theatre experience can do something very, very different, instead of just representing a facsimile of everyday life," says Rikhye. "We are trying to find ways where theatre can be larger than life."

And as Rikhye points out, opera and theatre aren't such strange bedfellows anyway. "It's text, it's sound, it's actors using their bodies and their voices," she says. "Sometimes the emotions are bigger, sometimes they're smaller, sometimes there's more repetition, sometimes there's less. But it's the same palette."


Diep Tran is a writer and editor based in New York City

Photo from Potion by Carrie Leonard. Photo from The Pig by Arthur Cornelius.