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Singing praises of contemporary opera

Company mission is to sing praises of contemporary works

rcopley@herald-leader.comAugust 20, 2009 

It's a kitchen disaster of operatic proportions.

Mrs. Schroedinger's dessert collapsed, and she's sure it's because of her deluxe refrigerator. So she calls the mechanic, the quantum mechanic, and pleads with him to come over.

When he gets into the fridge, he discovers a wormhole, a tear in the space-time continuum, and he might have to destroy another dimension to save the universe and guarantee Mrs. Schroedinger's culinary success.

OK, it might not be operatic if your idea of the art form is aristocrats and courtesans in stories, set in far-off places and times, that last for three acts and as many hours. But operas like that are not the mission of Bluegrass Opera.

"Interpreting a new piece of music is very different from interpreting La Boheme," said Lorne Dechtenberg, founder and director of the contemporary opera company. "A lot of new music is not conventional, and it challenges you to use your brains to create characters."

The other half of Dechtenberg's mission is to serve the hundreds of composers who churn out new operas every year. Since opening up shop, Dechtenberg says he has received more than 50 submissions.

"I know how hard it is to get a production of your work if you don't have a big reputation," he says.

This weekend continues a busy month for the company, as it presents world premiere productions of two operas at the Episcopal Church of St. Michael the Archangel on Saturday night.

First up is Quantum Mechanic, the one about the failed dessert and the refrigerator, by San Francisco-based composer John Bilotta. That opera is about 10 to 15 minutes, and it will be followed by New York-based Gladys Smuckler Moskowitz's Chicken Little! The Sky is Falling, an approximately 45-minute affair.

The productions feature singers who will be familiar to area music fans from University of Kentucky Opera Theatre productions and this year's SummerFest production of Once on This Island.

Earlier this month, the company presented a world premiere of an adaptation by UK Russian professor Gerald Janecek of Federico Garcia Lorca's The Love of Perlimplín.

"We try to present shows in the summer so we don't compete with UK Opera Theatre," says Dechtenberg, who is finishing a doctorate in composition and conducting at UK.

The students appreciate the opportunity to try something a little different than the standard operatic repertoire.

"We're always learning arias and art songs, so it's fun to try something new," says Mary-Hollis Hundley, who plays one of the Quark Sisters in Quantum Mechanic.

Dannica Burson, who plays Mrs. Schroedinger in Quantum and the title role in Chicken Little, did have experience with contemporary work as an undergraduate at the California Institute for the Arts in Valencia. There, she gained a sense for how far vocal music can go, including singing from scores that use colors and shapes instead of musical notation and participating in in-your-face productions, including an AIDS-related work in which the audience was spattered with fake blood.

Dechtenberg, who also worked with a contemporary music group at the University of Houston, isn't aiming to go that far, although he hopes to stage a production of his own work, Sex, Drugs and Aliens, soon.

Being a small group on a shoestring budget can have its downsides, such as finding places to perform. But Dechtenberg said there are advantages.

"We have the luxury of having not built up an audience, so we can take some chances," he says. "Hopefully people will like what we do and there will be Sex, Drugs and Aliens in our future."

Reach Rich Copley at (859) 231-3217 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3217.

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