Incest, profanity and ‘80s fashion are taking over the Emerson/Paramount Center stage for the opening of “Greek,” a modern reimagining of the ancient tale of Oedipus.
Starring baritone Marcus Farnsworth, “Greek” is part of the Boston Lyric Opera’s (BLO) Annex Opera series, which showcases contemporary pieces. It tells the story of Eddy, a working-class man who faces the same curse Sophocles’s Oedipus did—to have sex with his mother and kill his father—in 1980s East London.
Audience members can expect violent choreography, vulgar language, Cockney accents, strong jazz influences and an atypical blend of speech and song from director Sam Helfrich’s production of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 1988 opera. The two-act production was originally adapted from Steven Berkoff’s play of the same title.
“It’s very clear that [Turnage is] having fun with the idea of opera,” Helfrich said. “The term opera has its own baggage: the notion that there’s a way to do opera, and that it’s very classical and revered and cherished, and considered [to be] this very lofty art form. So it’s, to use a vulgar term, a big ‘f— you,’ to Greek tragedy because he changes the ending of the Oedipus story. But at the same time, he’s sort of saying, ‘Let art be what it is today and move forward from the stuffy, old ideas about what opera is.’”
Turnage’s unique style was difficult for the cast to acclimate to at first.
“Musically, it’s very hard,” Farnsworth said. “The challenge for all of us is switching between sung text and spoken text and making those two things equally clear and keeping the story moving along. That challenge remains, but I think it’s one BLO is absolutely equal to.”
Another unique aspect of “Greek” is the role of the orchestra, which sits behind the action on a raised platform 10 feet off the ground, with each member playing a percussion and wind instrument.
“Often times the orchestra will be down in the pit in front of the opera, and this time they’re actually above us,” said Caroline Worra, who plays Eddy’s mother, the sphinx and a waitress. “That creates an interesting sound world for the audience to see and feel.”
“Greek” has been performed numerous times in Europe, but this is the first major production in the United States. Helfrich attributes the belated American debut in part to the British nature of the opera.
“But, of course, we do British musicals all the time, so that’s only a small thing,” Helfrich said. “Another thing is the U.S. is much more conservative than Europe. We get startled a little more easily by unusual music and foul language and representations of sex on stage.”
Although “Greek” is new to the United States, Farnsworth has played the role of Eddy for Music Theater Whales in 2011 and 2013. Farnsworth said he enjoys exploring the soft side of Eddy beneath his gruff exterior, and he finds new layers to the character and the music with each rendition.
“For any opera singer, the opportunity to revisit roles, especially roles you’ve enjoyed, is a real pleasure, and not always something you get to do as you might like to,” Farnsworth said. “[“Greek” is] unlike anything else in the operatic canon. For a young baritone, it’s a gift as a role, so I’m always happy to come back to it.”
Opera-goers are transported back in time to the East End through detailed costumes and allusions to Thatcherism.
“The references to the ‘80s [are] hard to miss,” Helfrich said. “The set isn’t so period. It’s more abstract, but it very much references the urban setting, so the idea is it’s sort of grey and metal. And the costumes, which are quite extraordinary, are totally based in research of the world in the ‘80s, so it’s kind of a working class aesthetic that’s not quite American.”
The political climate in the show, however, is similar to the current American atmosphere.
“I don’t think there’s anyway the audience will be able to avoid the ironies of the political situation that’s presented in the opera,” Helfrich said. “It’s not meant to be an allegory for the world today, but the resonances are so strong, and it’s such an exciting time to do the piece. I feel like especially for those of us who are on the left side of the political spectrum, now […] everyone wants to know who the people were who elected Trump. And that half of the population has always been here, and the other half of the population has never paid attention to who they were.”
Following the presidential election, protests broke out across the United States. In “Greek,” the garbage strikes and riots of 1980s England are reenacted on stage.
“There’s a lot of turmoil that everyone is trying to work through right now, and on stage, we’re portraying some riots in the streets, and there are issues of protesting in our show which are obviously going on right now,” Worra said. “The struggle that [Eddy] is going through with his life and his uncertainty of everything is certainly a mirror of what we’re all dealing with right now.”
While Eddy’s everyday lifestyle may shown as tumultuous, the characters reveal softer sides as well.
“I don’t think that Mark-Anthony Turnage set out to write a violent opera,” Helfrich said. “I think he set out to write an opera about a class and a group of people for whom life is very violent. I hope I’m not painting a negative picture, because the piece is actually incredibly exciting, and the characters are very sympathetic.”
Eddy’s fate is destined to be the same as Oedipus’s, but he is able to find a happier ending for himself. While Oedipus blinded himself as punishment for his sins, Eddy decides he has a right to live and love.
“It may shock you, but more importantly, it will surprise you,” Farnsworth said. “As well as being a very in-your-face, violent piece of work, there’s a lot of tenderness and humanity in it, and I think it makes for a very compelling piece of theater.”
“Greek” is in performance at the Emerson/Paramount Center through Nov. 20.
Photo Courtesy Liza Voll, Boston Lyric Opera