Saturday, November 22, 2014

Intimate “Messiah” focuses on story says Inverse Opera’s director

Rob Scherzer directing rehearsal (courtesy Inverse Opera)

Handel’s Messiah
Inverse Opera (at Taproot Theatre)
December 5-20, 2014

Inverse Opera has been performing in performance venues and bars for a few years now, introducing non-opera folks to a more intimate experience of operatic voices. Last year, Rob Scherzer took on the task of directing a kind of “pocket” version of what people usually think of as a grand (read “large”) piece of holiday music, Handel’s Messiah.

This is their second year doing this in an intimate, 12-performer version, which they will perform in street clothes, in a sort of “casual” atmosphere at Taproot’s black box theatre. However, Rob doesn’t want you to think that shrinking the cast or the musicians (from at least 18, often, if not a whole symphony, down to just one pianist!!!) means that the quality of the production is cut-rate in any way. “This production is rife with Seattle’s top musical talents. It’s an interesting distinction, where some folks are from a purely operatic background and some from a purely theatrical (musical theater) discipline and are top talents in each area.”

If you attended last year, you might like to know that nine of the twelve performers this year are different from last year, though not for any other than scheduling reasons. So, it will sound a little different. The four soloists this year are: soprano Shelly Traverse, alto Hayley Gaarde, tenor Ben Sasnett, and bass Eric Polani Jensen. Ensemble members are: Julia Beers, Ashley Biehl, Jenny Cross, Andrew Eric Davison, Justin Johns, Bianca Raso, Michael Scott and Robert Wilson.

(Note: Messiah was composed in 1741 by George Frideric Handel, guiding the listener through the tales of Christ from prophesies to resurrection.)

Rob describes what people usually see and hear at performances of the Messiah and contrasts that with how the IO production is different. “A Handel’s Messiah standard production is done everywhere and has been done for hundreds of years. When we think of it, we think of it at Benaroya Hall, at a big symphonic hall with people in tuxes and a 60-150 member choir, and a lot of pomp and circumstance. Or perhaps at a local church or school in a less than professional event.

“I think an artist’s job is to affect the audience somehow. The story of (Jesus) the Messiah is an intimate story and being in a huge performance hall, it kind of separates the meaning of the piece in that context. The key performance indicator for the evening (in a symphony) is how good the opera singers are, how well the soloists are, how the conductor did. And the differences are whether they did the tempo faster or slower.

“The Messiah is 350 pages long. When the Symphony does it in its entirety, it’s a two and a half hour production. The focus isn’t usually on the storytelling. That is worth it to hear in itself. It’s some of the most gorgeous music written. And it was written in something like eleven days. It’s considered a master work and a resilient piece.

“What I find particularly compelling is that when you see a master work, there’s a good chance that my great-great-grandfather in Germany heard the same production! The fabric in time is pulled together with these hundreds of years old productions. It’s really good art and it happens to be the story of Jesus and that keeps it going as well.

“Our Messiah focuses on informing the music direction by the actual text. There is one song in the second act, Thy Rebuke Has Broken His Heart, and it’s typically performed with an artistic strictness (keeping up with the orchestra, singing in tempo). What we’re allowed to do with just Jeff Bell on piano, the only accompaniment in our show, we can give the performer the opportunity to stretch and speed up wherever he desires. The moment informs the pianist, rather than the performer keeping up with an orchestra. There’s a genuine moment of sorrow on stage that is just heart wrenching.

“That’s a good example of how the entire show works differently, with a small cast and light staging and choreography. We get to treat it more as a theatrical endeavor. The characters have an arc from the beginning to end of the show. That’s expressed with more clarity than a typical larger production.

“We’re doing 70% of the music and are not doing any of the fully instrumental pieces. But we’re doing 100% of the story of what happens to Jesus, and the whole story of the soloists. Though someone might miss other bits here or there.”

Rob reports that the running time for the evening is an hour and forty five minutes with a 15 minute intermission. He has also arranged some deeper harmonies where there weren’t ones before, because with fewer instruments, the vocals take on more of the work.


Rob reiterates, “While we pride ourselves on having that intimate differentiation, I would put our singers and soloists up against any professional production anywhere! We are definitely making sure that the elements that make the music ‘sing’ are there and the musicianship is very strong. I don’t want people to think they are getting a cut rate musical performance because these folks are seriously fantastic!”