Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Introducing Our New Production of Semele

On the first day of rehearsal for Semele, our director, Tomer Zvulun, addressed the cast, crew, and staff of Seattle Opera to give everyone an orientation regarding the work that’s already been done on this exciting new production and to set the stage for the work we have to do before opening night on February 21. Among the many interesting things we heard from the design team (Zvulun, costume designer Vita Tzykun, and set designer Erhard Rom):

Semele and Handel’s operas are very much like a series of poems. Unlike the more contemporary aesthetic of verismo operas such as Tosca, which attempt to put reality up onstage, Semele is extremely stylized. The music organizes the emotions of the various characters into these grand statements of passion, Handel’s bravura da capo arias, and the drama proceeds more like poetry, or beautiful paintings that come to life, than any kind of cinematic reality.

Set design for "Endless pleasure" by Erhard Rom

Our design is an attempt not to replicate tradition, nor to update, but to offer you the idea of a modern mythological world. What do the gods look like? It’s not enough to mimic what they might have looked like to artists in the past. Nor are we telling this story through a strict allegory, such as Jupiter = Brad Pitt or Semele = Anna Nicole. We want to create a world that feels recognizably modern to everyone in the audience, but one where this fantastical story could take place. This modern mythological world includes elements that are recognizable from our own world: the architecture and clothing will look familiar, but they are infused with expressive elements, bordering on the surreal, which make them poetic and ethereal. Young people conceal their love-lives from their parents, goddesses fly, dangerous concoctions can be obtained from a horny drug-lord, and love causes as much pain as pleasure.

Costume design for Iris by Vita Tzykun

It’s Handel’s irony that makes him such a modern artist. Although you tend to get one emotion at a time in Handel’s music, in the theater everything comes with an equal and opposite reaction. One character is singing about how angry she is, while the other character onstage, the one who’s listening, is clearly delighted. Love is equal parts innocence and guilt. These characters lie to themselves and others, and the audience knows it. It’s extremely sophisticated, and it’s startlingly modern.

Set design for "I must with speed amuse her" by Erhard Rom

To learn more about Semele and to hear some of this opera's wondrous music, check out our Spotlight Guide.


  1. Meanwhile Aidan Lang's replacement at NZ opera tells us Handel is "boring" in his pre-show talk for Don Giovanni. I despair.

  2. This essay about the stylized nature of Handel's operas makes me think of a Handel production (can't remember which opera) that I saw in Chicago that was a Bollywood production. It was entertaining, but I couldn't see the rationale behind it until I read this. Now it makes sense. Looking forward to Semele.