Somebody somewhere - probably with the encouragement of a little Schnapps - declared 2013 “The Year of Richard Wagner.” And this wasn’t even an article in The Onion. For this reason, opera companies and classical orchestras the world over have been scrambling to place the greatest of German composers on their season schedules. This includes Opera at USC, which for its part has chosen to bless our community with a three-night performance beginning Friday, February 1, of Das Barbecü, a best-lil’-Ragnarök-in-Texas reworking of the fourth opera of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Götterdammerüng.
There are more than a handful of Wagner enthusiasts none too pleased to witness the canonical characters Siegfried and Brünnhilde hogtied and dragged to a dusty, smokehouse world of armadillos and Dallas pompadours. (For this we can credit Seattle Opera General Director Speight Jenkins, who commissioned the work in 1991 in order “to counteract the heaviness of the Ring.”) Then again, those who find Das Barbecü an irreverent toying with Wagner’s Ring Cycle might themselves wonder how the immortals of Asgard felt when Wagner lifted and rearranged so many elements from the Norse Eddas. Stick that in your Texas crude and smoke it, Herr Komponist.
When asked why she chose this of all possible Wagner (or quasi-Wagner) showcases, director Ellen Schlaefer (also the director of Opera at USC) admits that “it’s fun and midwinter.” She pauses to consider the fact that a Columbia winter does not exactly threaten the leaves of Yggdrasil with hoarfrost. She explains that USC opera students have their own matriculating cycle: during the course of their studies, students get performance shots at a Mozart opera, an operetta, and a musical. (Over this year, community members have the opportunity to see Opera at USC perform Copland’s The Tender Land, the baseball opera Bambino, and Don Giovanni.) Thus, the planets were simply aligned to fit into the worldwide Wagner celebration with a fun musical.
Schlaefer also notes that it is not necessary to know Wagner’s Ring Cycle in order to enjoy the performance. While that is the case, to my mind, it actually works the other way around. Das Barbecü could become the quintessential Wagner primer for 21st-century theatregoers. After all, Götterdämmerung is not the easiest tale to follow, especially if you do not have the time to read the complete works of Snorri, nor to learn German. There are Norns, rings of fire, various personages from Valhalla, plus two fairytale lovers Siegfried and Brünnhilde. Oh, and there’s a Ring of Power which every character seems determined to possess - yet instead of a Gollum, there is a sniveling, greedy dwarf named Alberich. In fact, what audience members quickly realize is there are more characters in this tumbleweed plot than you can shake a horny toad at — yet only a handful of actors. For the innumerable costume and character transitions, the cast, led by long-time Columbia musical veteran Stann Gwynn (as Wotan, Gunther, et al.) and USC student Jared Ice (as Siegfried, Dwarf, et al), plus stage manager Kaley Smith, are due copious accolades.
The show is replete with just about every honkytonk stereotype in the book, including requisite songs about guacamole and hails to the great Lone Star State. About halfway through the performance, the thought dawned on me that perhaps every literary stage epic should be rewritten with a Texas backdrop. I would love to see Les Mis with a storming of the UT-Austin bell tower, or Tevye in a ten-gallon hat.
Truly deserving of praise is scenic designer Teddy Moore, who has turned the stage of Drayton Hall into a sprawling, ocher, bourbon bottle label, with cartoonesque backdrops and set pieces that play like candy to the eye during scene changes. Equally pleasant are the splendid singing voices of the quartet of female actresses, Shelby Sessler, Christa Hiatt, Stephanie Beinlich, and Jordan Harper (Brünnhilde), as well as the live musical student performances directed and joined by USC faculty member Rebecca Phillips. A final note of thespian praise goes to the aforementioned Ice, who plays the entire role as Alberich the Dwarf in a bent-knee-catcher position, which left my 40-year-old knees wincing all night long.
Asgard & Co. do not make rounds to Columbia very often. I highly recommend a trip to the USC campus this weekend for a Lone Star/Valhalla hoedown. You will laugh to beat the barbecue band, and then can brag to all your friends that you too participated in the great Global Wagner-Fest of 2013.
Das Barbecü runs February 1-3 at Drayton Hall on the University of South Carolina campus. Drayton Hall is located at the corner of Greene and Bull Streets. The February 1 and 2 performances are at 7:30 p.m. The February 3 performance is at 3:00 p.m. Performances are $5 for students, $15 for seniors/USC faculty & staff/military, and $20 for other adults. For tickets, please call: 803.777.5369. To learn more about Opera at USC, visit them on Facebook.
~ Arik Bjorn