Peabody Opera Theatre’s ‘The Champion’ weds the music of Puccini to modern political satire
By Elizabeth Nonemaker
Feb 13, 2020 | 5:00 AM
The director, the playwright, his composer and their translator: No, this isn’t the cast of the Peabody Chamber Opera’s upcoming production, just the team that was necessary to bring it to life. But the real opera promises to be just as delightfully complicated.
This weekend will see the premiere of the English language version of “The Champion,” a comic opera by Hungarian playwright and actor Béla Pintér, with music by Giacomo Puccini that has been adapted and arranged by composer Antal Kéméncy.
Sam Mungo, managing director of the Peabody Opera Theatre, has been collaborating with Pintér, Kéméncy and their translator Patrick Mullowney (who also did the English translation of the libretto), for the better part of three years to bring the production to Baltimore. He described the work as having a “House of Cards” feel to it: The story chronicles the tensions between a corrupt governor’s personal and public lives after he discovers that his wife has been cheating on him with a female Olympic champion. But that’s just the beginning, as the governor and his posse scramble to contain scandals and secrets of their own.
If the initial love triangle feels familiar to Puccini fans, that’s intentional: Béla Pintér’s “light bulb moment” for the work occurred after listening to a recording of “Il Tobarro,” in which a barge operator on the river Seine learns that his wife has been having an affair with a dockworker.
During an interview, Pintér described how once he had the story in his head and knew what his characters would say to each other, he “could listen to the recording and practically sing along,” dropping his words into the melodies.
Kéméncy picked up from there, but “The Champion” isn’t a strict re-imagination of “Il Tobarro”: Well-known highlights from other Puccini operas (among them “Madame Butterfly,” “Gianni Schicchi” and “Tosca”) also make their way into the work.
For Kéméncy, who has been collaborating with Pintér on different projects for 15 years, the task was to “mess with the original music without breaking its organic feeling.” In Puccini operas, he explained, “there’s no dividing line [between recitatives and arias] like you’d see in Mozart. It’s a very organic unit from beginning to end.”
The opportunity to work with professional-track opera singers was one of the most attractive things about collaborating with Peabody for the English language premiere. And if any part of the arrangement didn’t fit a particular voice, Kéméncy has been able to adjust the score on the spot. “It’s like Puccini is right there,” Mungo said.
Translating a libretto is another matter altogether. Mullowney had to ensure that the English text matched the rhythms of the original Hungarian; from there, Mungo “looked for vowels they could sing on” — a process between the four men that Mullowney described as “a ping pong game.”
The result is a work that promises both a satirical look at our current political moment and a timeless commentary on how the pursuit of power invites hypocrisy.
Along with the text, the Baltimore premiere will feature other adaptations: This version of “The Champion” is set in present-day America and “located within the Trump reality,” according to Mullowney.
But any commentary on politics in particular, he added, is “more that once conservatives cast themselves in the role of safeguards of traditional values, it becomes a party that’s very restrictive, socially. And when people have private lives that do not fit the values they’re preaching, it turns them into hypocrites.”
Pintér added that “before Trump, we also had politicians in America who cheated on their spouses or were corrupt and used drugs. So I see a bright future for this piece.”
IF YOU GO
The Peabody Chamber Opera performs “The Champion” Feb. 13-15 at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Ticket prices range from $10 to $25.
Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for The Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions. Nonemaker can be reached at email@example.com.