Look no further than the corner of Rose Street and Patterson Drive for proof of the enduring appeal of the story of Romeo and Juliet.
University of Kentucky Opera Theatre, based at the Schmidt Vocal Arts Center, is getting ready to open its production of Charles Gounod's opera Roméo et Juliette this weekend at the Lexington Opera House. Then, right after Thanksgiving, UK Theatre, based across the street from the opera in the Fine Arts Building, will open its production of the play.
(UK Opera would have liked to have followed up next semester with the Broadway musical rendition of the story, West Side Story, but the company couldn't get the rights to the show. Instead it will go Giuseppe Verdi's Falstaff, another Shakespearean work, Feb. 25 to March 3.)
"It resonates for generations and generations," says Stephanie Sundine, director of the opera. "I think there are any number of ways that relationships are thwarted and communities are torn apart by hatred, by unpleasantness and by bringing conflict from generation and imposing it on another.
"It isn't just a one-time story. We wish that wasn't so, but it is in fact."
And these days, each generation gets introduced to Romeo and Juliet rather young.
"The drama and literature of Shakespeare reminds us that we are enduring the human experience for good or bad," says Bobby Howard, chair of the English department at Lafayette High School. "Romeo and Juliet explores two of the greatest mysteries in existence: love and loss. We want to love and experience companionship. Sometimes we must sacrifice for this experience as the star-crossed lovers do ... and tragically, we all experience the loss of love at some point.
"The characters of Romeo and Juliet suggest love may be worth that chance, even with the knowledge of loss. That's the same for generation after generation, maybe just not with the same viewpoints or technologies."
Manuel Castillo, one of two singers cast as Romeo in the UK Opera production, also invokes love to explain R&J's staying power.
"We all have the idea of love, of looking for the perfect match," the tenor says. "In Roméo et Juliette they do not know about what surrounds them and the conflict between families. They believe in true love, and they go for it."
UK theater professor Andrew Kimbrough, who is directing the play in December, says a key to creating a fresh take on the often-told story is taking a fresh look at the play. When giving Romeo and Juliet another look, he was drawn to the conflict.
"The opening lines and the opening scene of the play represents that these are two warring families. Romeo and Juliet are not mentioned in the opening scene," said Kimbrough. "So we're approaching this more as a tragedy than a love story, and trying to get our two lead characters caught up in that violence as much as possible."
Pointing out a way in which the story is hopefully not universal, Kimbrough says, "How many families do you know that literally want to kill each other."
In the opera, Sundine says, the music dictates a lot of romance. But she has worked to amplify the tragedy and violence.
"We do have one opportunity for a very strong street battle between the two sides, and we're playing it to the hilt," Sundine says. "So we do get that feeling."
The coming UK productions will give audiences a visual contrast — the opera will be played with a traditional Elizabethan look, and the play will look gritty and modern.
That grit was natural to West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein's musical interpretation of the story, which Kimbrough thinks gets closest to the story's essence.
"Talking to the men who were auditioning for our play, they were resisting auditioning for Romeo because they thought he was a pansy," Kimbrough says. "Compare that to West Side Story, where he's the biggest guy on the block. He's the guy all the gangs want because he's going to be the toughest customer. And the movie gets that and how the adults are desperate to stop these guys from hurting themselves."
Lafayette High School and other Fayette County schools will take students to see the opera. And while there might be even younger, hipper interpretations of the story, such as Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film Romeo + Juliet, Howard says students "often appreciate the traditional version of the story."
Some things, after all, are timeless.