Lexington composer Lorne Dechtenberg was working on his first master's degree at the University of Houston when legendary Broadway producer Stuart Ostrow issued a challenge: Turn Oscar Wilde's play Lady Windermere's Fan into a musical.
Ostrow put together a team to work with Dechtenberg, who was surprised to find that at the first team meeting, his seat was at a piano.
"I said, 'But I haven't written anything yet,'" Dechtenberg says. "He said, 'You sit there.' So he intended for me to think out loud at the meeting and improvise my way through it.
"By the end of the meeting, I had some semblance of several of the numbers that are still in the piece, and I think they're some of the stronger ones."
Audiences will get to decide for themselves when Dechtenberg's Lady Windermere's Fan has its world premiere by Bluegrass Opera on Friday and Saturday at the Lexington Opera House.
Like many, Dechtenberg was familiar with Wilde's better-known comedies of manners, including The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, but Windermere was a mystery to him.
It's the story of a woman living in an idyllic, proper Victorian society until she learns that her husband might be flagrantly cheating on her. But things are not necessarily what they seem, and there is plenty of drama even after the title character and the alleged mistress meet.
"It's refreshing in that it is so modern; the melodic lines are very modern to me," says Georgetown actress Liz Maines, who plays Lady Windermere. "But the orchestrations are very rich. It's approachable, not the sort of thing where people can hear it and say, 'Oh, that's classical music. I don't want to listen to it.'"
Dechtenberg says the play lent itself to a musical interpretation.
"There are lines where I couldn't ask for a better song cue," Dechtenberg says. "For example, 'Men become old, but they never become good.' That's begging for a song, and we have a song called Men that is built off of that line."
Of course, Dechtenberg was playing with a work by one of the great names in English literature. Still, he says, he trimmed and in some cases rewrote portions of dialogue that might feel dated, although the show is still set in Victorian England.
"I was a little concerned for the length of the piece, so I did do some trimming," Dechtenberg says. The show is two one-hour acts with a 15-minute intermission. "I also tried to tweak a couple of things that wouldn't have gone over and gotten a laugh the way they would have in the 1890s. But for the most part, the dialogue is true to Wilde."
That's fine by Maines, who says that she also will sing a piece based on Wilde's work for her senior year at Georgetown College.
"I love Oscar Wilde, and I love this play," she says. "I love that it talks about all these rules in society, which Oscar Wilde plays off of a lot." She sees her character as seeing life as black and white, governed by social rules.
She says Dechtenberg and Wilde are a great marriage of writer and composer.
"I am so excited for people to hear this story," she says, "and hear Lorne's music."
IF YOU GO
'Lady Windermere's Fan'
What: World premiere production of Lorne Dechtenberg's musical based on the Oscar Wilde play.
When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 23, 24.
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.
Tickets: $15-$25. Available at the Lexington Center ticket office, (859) 233-3535, Lexingtonoperahouse.com or Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or Ticketmaster.com.
Learn more: Bluegrassopera.org.
Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: Copiousnotes.bloginky.com.