The Creation of Alcina REVAMPED: Making an adaptation
Updated: Aug 8, 2021
Blog by Alize Francheska Rozsnyai
I thought it might interest people to know how this show came to be... well... REVAMPED.
Doing an adaptation of Handel's Alcina is really something I've been wanting to do for about five years now. Some years back, before the birth of Alter Ego Chamber Opera was ever hinted at, I was discussing with a friend in New York starting a different company which we were going to call Sappho Chamber Opera. At any rate, that never worked out, but one of our first show ideas was to do Alcina. This same friend gifted the album to me for a birthday present, and I was completely hooked on the idea ever after. Frankly, doing an adaptation of the show before performing it was always really appealing to me because for those of you that know the original Alcina in Italian, you know it is very confusing! With AECO, where the mission is to have opera theatre that is really intimate and relatable, it was an obvious road to performance.
Part of the joy and fun in Alcina and a lot of earlier opera is the gender-bending, but when you have a woman dressed up to look like a man, and her love is a woman playing a man who is always supposed to be a man, but clearly the audience sees that she is a woman, then you wonder: why not just have her be a woman playing a woman? And Ruggiero first doesn't recognize Bradamante who happens to be dressed as a male soldier at the time, and confuses her with her brother, but clearly you can see her face and so you wonder how that mix-up happened if they really love each other. In today's society, it is also not unheard of for a woman to wear pants. So already, it's just not that believable that that would cause such confusion. Well, I just decided that we should have magic be the element that confuses Ruggiero, not the fact that Bradamante puts on a soldier's uniform and calls it a day. I wanted all of the things in the show to really feel believable. Magic is totally ok. There just has to be an explanation for all of these things.
There are all these different plots and subplots happening with characters with similar names, it seems. Ruggiero and Ricciardo. But then one of them is also Bradamante. Ruggiero loves one of them. One of those with the R name. The original is also in Italian. See, to me that was all just too confusing for an audience to just walk into. Oh, there is also the tutor of Bradamante named Melisso. How do present-day audiences understand the relationship of a tutor? Is this person a teacher? Why are they following Bradamante around to a dangerous island? In our version, Melisso is actually Melissa, a baritone performer in drag, and longtime bestie of Bradamante and Ruggiero, the married lesbian couple. The role of Melissa in our version was crafted specifically after the singer who auditioned for us, because Matthew Maisano is already a wonderful and successful drag opera singer in the Philadelphia scene, Balena Canto, and specifically expressed wanting to be this identity while singing an opera. Perfect! We loved it. In our version, Bradamante is always just a woman, and so is Ruggiero, just to make things more cut and dry. They're married, and their relationship is actually a special one - one of devout commitment and love. I wanted this relationship to be sacred in our story, and really depict that everlasting love that two should feel after they're married. It just so happens to be that they're gay, which I think becomes a wonderful example, for love of all kinds and particularly gay marriage and marriage equality. My inspiration for them are Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint from Doctor Who.
Then, there are some O names. Oberto's father is randomly missing. Oronte and Morgana have their love story -- a changing one. Is Oberto the one in love with Morgana, or Oronte? No, the little boy is not the one having the affair with the adult sorceress, Morgana, thankfully. Two more O names, though!
I honestly completely love the character of Oberto. Oberto, in our version, is sung by a wonderful countertenor who we really wanted to highlight somewhere, and we decided to go with a male singer-actor who sings in a higher range -- perfect! However, in creating the theatrical elements he is involved with, there were some logistical concerns for our lower budget production that didn't seem practical: like having a lion. I was envisioning how we would have this lion on stage --is it someone in one of those fuzzy costumes? Someone's dog? A child actor? A cardboard lion? Nah, let's just scrap the lion. Alcina can transform people to whatever she wants, and in this case it happens to be that Astolfo is growing in her garden as a head of lettuce. In a small way, I also do have this running theme of emphasizing the importance of plants in my operas. In "Phony", the waiter sings an entire aria about the glory of tofu in this fantastic fancy vegan dish that they serve. In our opera, that moment of clear connection between Oberto and the head of lettuce, where he really "sees" his father as he "sees" the lettuce and they lock eyes, is one where again, the glory of the plant relationship triumphs. Frankly, I just think it is really hilarious and I feel like the audience will to.
Back to Oronte and Morgana -- When Morgana first sees Bradamante, the charming and strong woman in uniform, she is immediately smitten. This causes the precise reason for her dissatisfaction in heterosexual love to become more clear - something she hadn't had the opportunity to previously consider. However, Oronte and Morgana have been lifelong friends, and it hurts Morgana to hurt Oronte, but once she has made this discovery about herself, she knows there is no going back. I think that what I've managed to portray through two arias, "Believe me love, believe me" (Credete al mio dolore) and "Do not grieve the bird that's parted" (Un momento di contento) describes the situation really beautifully, and I am very proud of these. It is not easy one for someone to realize that you're not who you thought you were, but never intended any harm, but inevitably are hurting someone who you love more than anyone in the world. I think that in the case of sexuality, this happens a lot and is really relatable in today's society. Oronte really loves Morgana, and is willing to really try and wrap his head around this to support her, let her go, and embrace his own future possibilities of love even though they are different than he ever imagined. What Morgana and Oronte demonstrate here is true and resilient love, one based on a much deeper foundation than romance, despite what it seems like on the surface. They also really tease each other in a childish way, and get on each other's nerves throughout the first part of the opera -- Morgana becomes so angry with Oronte and has these outbursts due to the frustration she is feeling -- but we see their truth in the end.
This show, to me, is a pretty vulnerable thing. I've never written a story in which a character comes out, let alone that character being the one I'd play. We didn't even really know that I'd be playing Morgana at the time I first was writing the show, but that is the idea I had for Morgana anyway. There are also a lot of moments where I feel like all of these characters really wear their hearts on their sleeves, in a way that feels very personal to me. A lot of their thought are thoughts I've had myself about life, love, and identity. Abandonment.
The role of Alcina herself is one who is really near and dear to me. In the original tale, Alcina and her sister Morgana melt/dissolve and die after this magical urn is smashed, and everyone can just simply forget about the evil Alcina -- who cares about an evil witch, anyway? Well, I do. That feels like a complete cop out, to me. What does this teach our society about our responsibility to care for the estranged, battered, and broken? I am not interested in shoveling these people under the rug.
Part of what is important to me as an artist is creator is the fact that I firmly believe that we are, as a society, the stories we tell ourselves and the themes and messages we perpetuate. So, it is really important to me that we don't perpetuate such a thing in the opera we perform with Alter Ego Chamber Opera. It is important to me that we communicate messages of value - important things to reflect upon - things to take away which might make individuals' lives and our world better.
Where did Alcina come from, and how did she get that way? Every single character -- person -- has a full story to tell, and there must be an explanation as to why she feels the need to trap all of these lovers here and turn them into animals or plants. No mention, by the way, that she and Ruggiero also were in a lesbian relationship. Alcina is really one of those pansexual demi-goddesses. She is not limited by labels - ever. But all of her lovers, of any gender identity, somehow always ended up leaving her.
Why do you think she traps them, but doesn't kill them? She doesn't want them dead. She just doesn't want them to leave her. Albeit, this isn't the most mature way to handle this situation, of course...
She sees Oronte and Morgana all together and happy (so we think); how come love never pans out for her? So she is truly hurt, and this has scarred her and she's really angry about it. So, she turns to dark magic to increase her power. She even beckons to the God of Darkness, Erebus, wanting to be his bride -- there again, maybe get some love and acceptance in there -- to essentially sell her soul to a different sort of devil, in order to obtain immortality through evil magic. However, this falls short for her, because those who feel true love and goodness still in their hearts are not eligible, and in the end, Alcina just isn't truly evil, she is deeply misunderstood and rather messy. Does this mean she deserves to die in a smoking heap on the floor while everyone else sings a final chorus? No.
My inspiration for Alcina, and her relationship with her sister Morgana -- I am not gonna lie -- comes from Frozen (come on, admit that "Let it Go" makes you cry!). Alcina is a sort of Elsa, and Morgana illustrates in one of her arias how Alcina used to be kind and good, using her magic to protect anyone who needed it, as a most benevolent ruler. As children, they used to run and play together. They've both developed magic, but Morgana doesn't really use it all that much except when she needs to -- she is very casual about it, and it is all under control. Just small stuff, like maybe extra sprinkles on her latte, or helping a damaged butterfly cross the road -- whatever. But, she explains that Alcina has a really full life before things start to go wrong for her, and she has really always intended good, which was misinterpreted. An inspiration drawn from Elphaba in Wicked. Alcina also has a sort of strength and sass required of a queen, as we see in "But if you try to cross me" (Ma quando tornerai). In the end, I am really hoping that the character of Alcina can be emphathized with, in our version, and fortunately she does also come across love in the end. You'll have to come see our show to find out more about that!
Now, to some of the brass tacks of how I went about writing the adaptation. I suppose I had four main guidelines when writing:
Say it - Say the text you imagine someone singing, to see if it would make sense in a conversational setting (which may not be important to some librettists, but it's important to me as someone trying to make contemporary intimate theater, even in opera).
Sing it - Sing the words within the musical line, and matched up against the original Italian, respecting musical emphases, as well as melismatic passages. I am lucky in that I am conversational in Italian, so other than some archaic words, meaning and flavor from the original work and the essence of the words isn't lost on me, and I do try and preserve some of that. For example, sometimes an aria is super cheesy. I think the most cheesy aria is probably either Bradamante's "You must understand her" (È gelosia) or Ruggiero's "What makes a soldier" Stà nell'Ircana). This couple is totally not afraid of cheese, in fact they're both just sort of dorky and endearing people (which we love), and honestly their original Italian arias are also sorta cheesy or the context would be interpreted as such if presented as-is, so it works.
Search it - If the word doesn't rhyme and you want it to, or you're finding the flavor isn't exactly right, or the word you're thinking of is two syllables but the place where it needs to fit is 3 and the emphasize isn't quite right, search related synonyms. This becomes easier when more of the story is re-written as opposed to attempting to follow the exact content of the existing aria. Grammatical structure can be changed; everything can be shifted all around. It has to feel right and authentic in English, not just like it is trying to be a translated version of Italian.
Imagine - I was lucky enough to know who our cast members were before the adaptation was complete, so based on their audition materials and seeming personalities, I was able to really imagine them saying these words. I asked myself, "Does it seem right that this character would speak it that way?" I even saw a cast member at a party -- it was our Bradamante, Kaitlyn Tierney. I kept debating at the beginning of the score on whether I'd go with "Gosh darnit" or "Dag nabbit." I really loved the hilariousness of "Dag nabbit" but was thinking to myself...gee, nobody really speaks that way anymore. But, I just went ahead and asked her which one she'd be more likely to say herself. To my delight, she said she liked "dag nabbit,' so there it was! I love that. It also adds to Bradamante's overall sexy-dork vibe.
And of course certainly not least, many many hours on PDFfiller.com.
And certainly not least, I cannot forget the music.
I think I first discovered Joy Division in college, and one of my favorite artists I always listen to in the car right now is iamamiwhoami. Just amazing stuff. I also love Baths, Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk, obviously New Order who I got to see in Philly, and a bunch of electronic artists I can't name right now, but basically electronic music has a huge influence on me, and I really wanted to incorporate electronics into a baroque opera. Specifically, 80s-vibes synth.
When we incorporated saxophone and electric guitar and electric bass into The Coffee Cantata which I readapted in 2019, and was part of our seminal show with Alter Ego Chamber Opera, I think people really liked it. It's really fun to hear operatic singing with a mostly familiar, but more complicated or infused instrumental soundscape, I think.
In our Alcina REVAMPED, we're having these two distinct sound worlds collide just like our character's worlds of magic and muggle collide: we've got the baroque, with harpsichord, violin, viola, and cello, and the new with saxophone, electric guitar, and electronics. These aren't always presented exclusively, of course, but the symbolism is there, and certainly there is some echoing and alternating in our Overture, Sinfonia, and as these instruments make entrances in character's arias, depending on their ilk. In the greatest moments of trauma, sorrow, anger, and depth, we're able to lean into the depth of emotion found in some of the sounds that only electronics can create. There are whole ranges of overtones and sounds that I cannot even begin to describe, because I am no expert - I just love listening to them. For that, it rests in the capable hands of our electronic artist and experimental musician, Thomas Patteson. I am just giddy to see what he comes up with.
That is all really intriguing to me, and really exciting to fuse with operatic theater which is raw and relatable. I don't think this type of thing has ever been done, just in this way, and I think that people are going to be thrilled by this.
The depth of emotion on all accords lends itself so well, too, to the work of Handel. I've always described a faster coloratura aria or orchestral piece of Handel's like feeling like you're at a rock concert, fist-bumping..or whatever.. and all. Combine that with beats and synth/electronics, and it is sure to be simply incredible.
Our cast is comprised of absolutely stellar singers and actors, and I am just so excited to see what sort of story will emerge through all of these elements. This is the largest scale work I have ever adapted / written, and I am just so excited to see it come to life.