The lights in the Downtown Arts Center's Black Box Theatre are trained on a desperate woman. She grabs a gun and points it at her head. A man bursts into the room urging her not to do it, trying to wrest the gun away.
It's not an unusual scene for a theatrical production in the Main Street theater.
But this is a rehearsal for the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra's next show, a production of Argentine composer Ástor Piazzolla's tango-infused 1968 opera María de Buenos Aires.
"As tango has come back into the vernacular in the 1990s and since, this piece has started to bubble up as Piazzolla's quintessential work," says Philharmonic music director Scott Terrell. "I think what makes it great is the breadth of him as a composer is expressed over 80 minutes of music. You cover so much stylistic stuff, from tempo to breathing to the idea tango can be many things, and the complexity of Piazzolla's music. It's really heavy, layered, brilliant writing."
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The production is the latest step in Terrell's effort to remake perceptions of what the orchestra is and what it does. María brings the group out of the 1,500-seat Singletary Center for the Arts and puts it in the Downtown Arts Center, with seating set for 180. It also stretches the typical one- performance schedule to four shows over three days.
But the changes are most stark when looking at the stage in the Downtown Arts Center, which takes over two-thirds of the floor while the orchestra occupies the other third.
It is a much smaller ensemble, just 13 instrumentalists led by the bandoneon, an accordion-style squeeze box that is the lead instrument of tango orchestras, along with other departures from orchestral norms including piano and acoustic guitar.
"The breadth of what he can get from 13 instruments is tremendous," Terrell says of Piazzolla's score. "Even in traditional instruments like violin and viola, Piazzolla indicates percussive playing that is specific to his music.
"The number (of players) does not indicate the level of expressivity here."
Stage director and choreographer John de los Santos says the music is particularly effective in the small black box theater.
"It's so live," he says. "In a concert hall, it's still live, but the orchestra's hidden away. Here, they're right there with you, and the sound just drifts up and envelops everybody."
Evidence of the burgeoning appeal of Piazzolla's opera — it was presented by Cincinnati Opera last summer — is that two of the leads are off to major-city productions after Lexington: Tenor Luis Alejandro Orozco will reprise his role as El Duende in the Florida Grand Opera's production in a Miami bar, and mezzo-soprano Solange Merdinian will reprise her performance of the title role with New York's Opera Hispánica at (le) Poisson Rouge. That lets Merdinian further realize a dream role.
"It's my blood," the Argentine singer says. "This has everything I heard in the streets growing up, so it's not hard to make it my own."
The story, which the Philharmonic advises is for mature audiences, centers on a prostitute who dies in the first act and wanders the underworld of Buenos Aires as a ghost in the second. The show includes numerous dance pieces integral to the story. Since it is just starting to be presented regularly, groups that take on María have wide latitude to interpret it as they wish.
"Who knows if I'll get to dance again?" Merdinian says of the New York production.
The show might be unfamiliar to most people who see it this weekend — the evening performances are sold out — but Terrell and de los Santos say it will be memorable.
"María has one aria that is just a gorgeous tune," Terrell says. "People will be humming as they leave the theater."
And whether presenting Beethoven or Piazzolla, that's what an orchestra director wants.
IF YOU GO
'María de Buenos Aires'
What: Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra production of Ástor Piazzolla's opera.
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 1 and 2 (sold out), 2 p.m. Feb. 2 and 3.
Where: Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.
Tickets: $40-$55; available at Philharmonic offices, ArtsPlace, 161 N. Mill St., fourth floor; or by calling (859) 233-4226 or at Lexphil.org.