La Perichole

Director Christopher Goeke describes the upcoming production of La Périchole (PAIR-ih-coal) – The Street Singer and the creative process of bringing this show to life.

The Department of Music will present La PéricholeThe Street Singer by Jacques Offenbach, in a new translation, orchestration, and staging on January 18 and 20, 2019 at the Bedell Performance Hall at the River Campus.

Not familiar with The Street Singer?  Well, you are not alone.  Offenbach was instrumental in creating the genre we now know as “operetta”.  This is a lighter form of opera, often with dialogue, star-crossed lovers, surprising plot twists, and political satire.  (Insert any music and plot from a Gilbert and Sullivan show and you’ll get the idea).  While enormously popular and trend-setting in his day, Offenbach and The Street Singer are not widely known outside of opera circles.

Name recognition (or lack thereof) of this fun, offbeat, and at times, touching story is one of the challenges of presenting it.  But this did not deter us (Dr. Leslie Jones, Dr. Timothy Schmidt, and myself, professors in the Department of Music) from picking this opera.  The music and story are fun and appealing.  And, this show is a particularly good pick for undergraduate singers.  The music is catchy, challenging, but yet “do-able” for a young cast.  So, our students grow through the challenge of taking on new music and roles, but we do not over-tax the voices, as some traditional operas might.

As we were reviewing possible shows for this season, we, of course, looked closely at the story line, the plot.  I was surprised, and my imagination ignited, when I realized how The Street Singer would actually be very easy for a modern audience to relate to.  This might be surprising because Offenbach’s original is about a singer from Lima, Peru who lived in the 1700’s, and premiered in 1868.   How could a story from a such a different time and place be engaging to a modern audience?  A quick look at the basics of the plot and characters show some striking similarities between then and now.

  • Two starving musicians, La Périchole and Piquillo, trying to make a living by busking on the streets of a large city.
  • A political leader who needs constant reassurance of his popularity who, also, likes to flirt with younger ladies.
  • Brown-nosing politicians trying to climb the ladder of success.
  • Three feisty ladies (cousins) who run a tavern.
  • The lead politician uses his power to lure La Périchole into his “inner circle”.
  • Piquillo, the ex-boyfriend, makes some really bad choices while soaking his sorrows at the local tavern.
  • Legislative loopholes cause over-eager political underlings to scramble to make their boss happy.

These are all in the original – clearly, history does repeat itself.  So, it would appear that a “simple” update to a contemporary location would be easy, and provide modern audiences something with which to identify.  However, it was not so simple.  While The Street Singer has been produced steadily for over a century, and published by several music houses, none of the existing versions captured the original story with modern language and location.  Something was, literally, “lost in translation”.  So, what started out as a “simple” updated version of an opera from the 1800’s (a fairly frequent practice in opera), ended up as a complete re-write and orchestration.

There were just too many coincidences between the original plot and characters and what is happening today politically and in the #MeToo movement.  To me, this show was just screaming for a re-write.  The original story could have easily been plucked from today’s headlines.  However, there was one small problem – the original is in French.  And, while we have been using supertitles for opera productions for many years, I didn’t feel that the humor, satire, or romance would be as immediate to the audience if we were to sing in the original language.  So, I decided to translate the whole show, maintaining the light patter, rhyme-scheme, and original meaning as much as possible while using modern language and location.

I have been adapting, editing, or creating translations for opera and art song for many years.  But, I have not done a complete singing translation.  It was challenging, but actually kind of fun.  It’s like a huge puzzle – every day I would work out more word problems and come up with more rhymes.  And, I had great help from my colleagues, Tim Schmidt and Leslie Jones.  We have been refining the lyrics and dialogue throughout the rehearsal process.  The cast has been great.  I think they love working on something so contemporary.

Another challenge was finding an affordable orchestration.  As we looked into the details of renting the orchestra parts and royalty fees, we found that only two versions were available.  One version had completely changed the voice parts and some of the music.  We couldn’t use this because the orchestra parts would not match the singers’ parts.  Another version was very expensive, beyond the budget of this production.  Lucky for us, Dr. Schmidt has orchestration skills.  He has adapted and arranged the orchestra parts for many of the operas produced at Southeast. He, too, had not done a complete re-write.  But he was willing to “give it the old college try”.  So, using music notation software and a piano/vocal score from the 1880’s, he has created a completely new 20-piece orchestration for The Street Singer specifically for our production.  Ask him about all the “dots” – I think his eyes have un-crossed now!

So, what do you get when you cross two starving street singers with three desperate politicians?  You get La Périchole  – The Street Singer.  Fun music, witty lyrics, and a zany plot.  The Street Singer as adapted by Southeast Music Department contains the original wild love story with mysterious bride, a jealous groom, scrappy barmaids, insecure politicians, an awkward wedding, and jail time.  Our version also includes whining Housewives of Manhattan and even a pop star celebrity sighting.

We hope you’ll come see how it all works out as the delightful Périchole saves the day!  The Department of Music will present The Street Singer in this new English translation, orchestration, and staging on January 18 and 20, 2019 at the Bedell Performance Hall at the River Campus.  For more ticket information contact the River Campus Box Office at 651-2265 or tickets@semo.edu.  For more information on making of La Périchole, please feel free to contact me at cgoeke@semo.edu.  Or you can purchase tickets for January 18 or for January 20. We hope to see you at the opera!