Opera flies high

Here's something different: Performing opera without a net.

American Opera Theater, the ensemble formerly known as Ignoti Dei Opera, has taken Handel's Acis and Galatea from 1718 and placed it under a big top.


Instead of a nymph and shepherd at the center of the story, there will be an aerial artist and a mime. Instead of a mythological monster disturbing the Arcadian domain, a circus clown will become the protagonist.

"The music is timeless, but the [original] plot is contrived," says Timothy Nelson, 27, a Peabody alum who is founding director of American Opera Theater. "It's hard to feel sincere sympathy for any of the characters. But if we treat it as if it was farce, everything clicks into place."


Such views may be debated. Handel biographer Jonathan Keates, for one, writes that the libretto "is, however artificial, among the finest ever written in English ... supple, economic and remarkably consistent."

But Nelson, who has put fresh spins on several baroque pieces over the past few years, can be counted on to pursue thoughtful, respectful directorial concepts that provoke as well as entertain.

And, although not an opera in the fullest sense of the word (it is usually grouped among Handel's oratorios and odes), Acis and Galatea is ripe with possibilities for the stage. It's also an ideal fit for the intimate Theater Project, which has housed three previous productions by the company.

In the original plot, Galatea is a nymph who pines for her absent boyfriend, the shepherd Acis. The lovers get reunited by the end of the first act, only to face trouble in the second, when a monster named Polyphemus takes a fancy to Galatea. Polyphemus slays Acis in a fit of jealousy. Galatea assures the immortality of her beloved by turning Acis into a stream.

Focusing on irony and humor, Nelson's gambit will not just give Handel's work a different perspective. It has the singers approaching their jobs from a different perspective, too. They have to do all of the circus business themselves. "It is important to me that they actually seem like circus people," the director says, "and I think we've come pretty close to achieving that."

Rebecca Duren, 27, the soprano in the role of the frequently off-the-ground Galatea, embraces the assignment heartily. "I grew up a monkey, doing a lot of gymnastics," she says, "and I have a background in ballroom dancing. But I've never done aerial before. It's challenging, for sure."

Executing maneuvers created by company technical designer Kel Millione, Duren gets several workouts suspended on two long strands of specially made cloth. "I always wanted to have some aerial stuff in a production," Nelson says. "Rebecca is willing to try anything, and she sounds marvelous even when she's singing upside down."

As Acis, Aaron Sheehan had to learn something that isn't typically in a tenor's repertoire.


"Miming was more difficult than I thought it would be," he says, "and I felt very uncomfortable doing it at first." He's in full Marcel Marceau mode now. And Sheehan, 31, easily accepts the fusion of baroque with Barnum and Bailey. "The opera's kind of dippy on its own," he says. "This gives it a little something else."

Nelson is counting on that something else to bring in not just opera fans, but also "people who haven't been to an opera. I hope there will be lots of families," he says. "Bring the kids."

The production, which features an orchestra of period instruments, will go on tour next month to Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Nelson, who founded the company in 2004, dropped the Ignoti Dei Opera name recently because "people had trouble pronouncing and remembering it."

As for the new designation, American Opera Theater: "We have a big name, and a long way to go growing into it," he says. "But I don't see anything stopping us yet."


"Acis and Galatea" will be performed at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Jan. 25-27 at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Tickets are $11-$25. Call 410-752-8558.