By Laura Fenton
Spoiler alert: February’s University of Memphis production of The Phantom of the Opera will be unlike any other of its kind — ever.
It will have the expected elements — an ornate chandelier, a white mask for the lead
character, enchanting scores and lyrics — but the cast and crew have a surprise for
Don Juan Triumphant, the avant-garde opera written by the Phantom, will differ visually from other performances
of the 25-year run of the musical.
The score of the Phantom’s opera is thought to be 20 years ahead of its time, meaning
the 1881 performance mirrors music of the early 20th century.
Unfortunately, the cast and crew of the opera house do not realize his genius. Instead,
they mock the Phantom.
Director Bob Hetherington and crew inferred that if the musical genius of the Phantom
was advanced, his directing and staging must have been ahead as well.
“Wouldn’t he have wanted a hand in what his opera looks like?” Hetherington said.
“So, if we move Don Juan Triumphant 20 years into the future, like the music was, we’ve got something that looks very
expressionistic and about the same time period as the early silent-era horror films
coming out of Germany would have looked.”
Staging the Don Juan scene involves creativity with sets, lighting and choreography.
Compared to other scenes of the lavish production, Don Juan is sparse. The minimal set design includes a chair, long table and a drop cloth less
than half the width of the stage, all set in front of a black background.
“It’s very different from any scenes in the show, and the intention is to make it
feel like it’s avant-garde and edgy,” said David Nofsinger, set director.
Each item also angles to a corner instead of directly to the audience.
“The asymmetry is an attempt to make it feel skewed or modern,” he said.
Some elements, like the modern expanded steel and Plexiglas used for the table, are
current technologies beyond the era of the Phantom.
“Period-wise, the music is far ahead, but what we’re doing with the scenery is even
further ahead, but hopefully not out of sync with the intent,” he said.
The suspension of disbelief also applies to lighting because the style of lights and
use of modern electricity were not available in the 1880s. For the stage to be visible
at that time, the entire room would have been well-lit and the footlights on the edge
of the stage would add extra lighting on the actors.
But, like with the sets, the lighting will not subtract from the experience.
“You still want the audience to think that they’re watching a play about turn-of-the-century
opera,” said John McFadden, lighting director.
The actors will move four lights around the stage, and although this element appears
more of the era, it, too, is slightly ahead of that time period. Roving lights would
not have been possible without modern electricity.
Choreography of the scene will also be minimal.
The dancers, all members of the opera house’s corps de ballet, will maneuver the roving
lights. Rather than traditional ballet, the dancers will use what choreographer Mark
Allan Davis refers to just as movement.
“It will have almost a stark, minimal aspect to it, rather than being wholly romantic,”
The musical is based on a 1910 French gothic novel about a masked man living beneath
the stage of the Paris Opera House. He tutors Christine, a singer from the opera’s
chorus, and falls in love with her. The Phantom expresses his love for Christine by
demanding she be cast as the lead in all the shows and writes Don Juan Triumphant to convey his passion and love for her. When Christine falls in love with another
man, the fury of the Phantom causes turmoil for those surrounding him.
Each interpretation for the Don Juan Triumphant scene contributes to its contrast with the rest of the show, yet adds to the extravagance
of the experience.
“I think we can stage Don Juan Triumphant in a brand new way and not offend anyone, and maybe excite people by doing it,” Hetherington
Tickets for the Mid-South premiere of The Phantom of the Opera will go on sale Jan. 30 at the Department of Theatre & Dance Box Office for $30 for
seniors, faculty and staff. Students receive one free ticket with ID. All other tickets
are $35. The Phantom of the Opera at the Mainstage Theatre runs from Feb. 16-19 and Feb. 22-25. For more information,
call 678-2576 or visit http://www.memphis.edu/theatre.