Back in 1828, German composer Heinrich Marschner wrote an epic opera called Der Vampyr. In it, he told the story of Lord Ruthven, a vampire who must sacrifice three virgin brides within 24 hours or he will die. Those virgin brides, Janthe, Emmy and Malwina, and their husbands-to-be are caught up in Ruthven’s plot and a twisted tale ensues, set to Marschner’s dark, sweeping score. Hard to say if the composer meant it as such, but the gothic, supernatural and tragic Der Vampyr seems like a perfect opera for Halloween season, except for a couple of small details.
Der Vampyr is about three hours long in its original version, it’s sung entirely in German, and it’s rife with period-appropriate sexism, most notably when Malwina is ordered by her father, Sir Humphrey Davenaut, to marry the Earl of Marsden (actually Ruthven in disguise) rather than Sir Edgar Aubry, the man she truly loves.
So when Evelyn Clary of the Columbia Operatic Laboratory discovered Der Vampyr while looking for a Halloween-appropriate production to perform, she knew she needed to make some changes.
The laboratory is a collective of singers and actors formed in 2015 with the mission of taking opera to new and different places, both literally and figuratively. They describe themselves as, “Not your meemaw’s opera company.” At its core, Der Vampyr seemed like a good pick for them to perform. It was a not-often-performed opera with a score that caught Clary’s ear immediately.
“We were thinking about what to do for the coming season, and we wanted to do something for Halloween,” she says. “I was doing a little research and discovered a recording of it, and by the second number I was absolutely in love with it. I thought we could do it.”
But Clary also felt like the complex plot and the running time would have to be significantly trimmed, and the setting (18th century Scotland) updated to today. And Clary also decided to update the lyrics rather than simply translating them.
“Certain things just don’t translate, and putting people in blue jeans doesn’t fix it,” she reasons. “And not a whole lot of people around here speak German; I certainly don’t. So we wanted to transform it to the modern vernacular. And the original could go up to three hours; that’s too much for people’s imaginations and bladders. That’s why I wanted to do an adaptation rather than a translation from the original.”
That meant that Clary had to sit down at the piano and work out lyrics that fit the plot and the music.
“You just see what fits and pop things in and out,” she says. “You sing through it, change the rhythm a little bit, or change a word. There’s a lot of trial and error in that.”
This meant that Clary had to put words into her own mouth as well. In addition to the cast of Macie Eighmey, Amos Warren, Evelyn Clary, Maria Beery, Jerryana Williams-Bibiloni, Emmett Kirwan and Robin Price, Clary stars in the new version, called Vampyr! The Opera, as Renley Ruthven, the vampire.
“I wanted to play the vampire!” she laughs. “I don’t like playing leading ladies, because most female operatic leads don’t have very active roles in society. They basically fall in love and get betrayed or die. That wasn’t fun to me, so I play a man’s role, singing up an octave.”
The Columbia Operatic Laboratory will perform Vampyr! The Opera at Irmo Center for the Arts. It’s actually one of the most conventional spaces they’ve used since they formed. They performed their previous production, 4 Singers Walk Into a Bar, at the watering holes Art Bar and Random Tap, literally walking through the crowd singing to get to the stage.
Taking opera to places that it usually doesn’t go is part of the laboratory’s mission.
“We’re trying to be a little bit out of the box,” Clary says. “We’re trying to grow our audience. I don’t think the average modern person is going to say, ‘Let’s go to the opera,’ unless they’ve already been exposed to it. I think a lot of people are intimidated; they think it’s in a foreign language or they think they’re not going to understand it, or they think it’s going to be too long. We’re trying to erase the prejudices against the opera and make them user friendly.”
“I want people to come to these productions that have never seen an opera before, and maybe even never seen a musical before,” Clary adds. “Just come for the story, enjoy the singing, have a good time, and try something different.”
What: Vampyr! The Opera
Where: Irmo Center for the Arts (Irmo High School), 6671 St. Andrews Rd.
When: Saturday, Oct. 19, 7:30 p.m.