Putting passion into an opera about Persephone

The Baltimore Sun

Catonsville resident Rosanna Tufts had the most proper, most elite of musical educations, but deep in her soul, she yearned for more earthy entertainments.

So Tufts threw off the bonds of her conservatory upbringing and ran off to join the musical theater. "Stage musicals and light opera are my real passion," she says. "They allow me to sing, but also to act and occasionally dance."

And, occasionally, they allow Tufts to compose. Excerpts from her rock opera, The Passion of Persephone, are being performed this month at the Capital Fringe Festival in Washington.

Her background is as blue-blooded as they come.

Tufts, 49, began taking voice lessons at age 14, and specialized in singing Baroque and early Renaissance church music. A graduate of Peabody Conservatory, she was a longtime member of the acclaimed Baltimore Symphony Chorus, and was a founding member of the Concert Artists of Baltimore. One career highlight occurred in 1986, when Tufts was part of a choir invited to perform with famed former tenor Luciano Pavarotti in Philadelphia. More recently, audiences have seen her in starring roles with the Baltimore Municipal Opera.

But the soprano also has an adventurous side that gets expressed in The Passion of Persephone, which Tufts began writing in 2006, and in which she stars.

Parental Advisory: Though the show's Web site describes the rock opera as being appropriate for teens aged 13 and older, Tufts describes it as "a steamy story of love and sexual awakening" in which the heroine derives pleasure from pain. Several scenes involve bondage and whips, and the brochure reads, "Leather and lace never sounded so good."

PLOT SYNOPSIS Hades, the god of the underworld, has captured the goddess Persephone and tied her up to keep her from leaving his kingdom. When the girl's mother, Demeter, discovers why Zeus won't rescue Persephone, she wreaks a terrible vengeance on the world.

IN HER OWN WORDS I know this sounds kind of hokey, but I woke up from a dream one morning, in which I saw myself auditioning for a new, original musical where I would be tied up on stage for half of the show. I thought, 'What if someone did such a thing? What would the story be about?' A couple of days later, I woke up from another dream, and I had the story line. I composed an opera that updates the myth of Persephone to the early 20th century. That allows me to portray her as a heroine in a silent movie or melodrama.

I also update the plot in other ways. For instance, I created the characters of two gay ghosts who weren't in the original myth. I was trying to come up with an example of two people who are in the underworld and who are being punished even though they didn't do anything wrong. Persephone sees that they shouldn't be there, and wonders what to do about it.

FOR THE FRINGE The full opera will be two and a half hours, including intermission. For the Fringe Festival, we're just going to do the last two scenes of Act One, which will total about 45 minutes. One takes place when Persephone first comes to the underworld, and the other takes place on Olympus.

There are 14 performers in the cast, which makes it HUGE by Fringe Festival standards. I play Persephone, Keith Irby plays Hades, and Sara Stewart of the Baltimore Opera is Demeter. She has a rage aria that brings down the curtain.

Music aficionados should listen for the quote from the Dies Irae in the finale. It's an old Gregorian chant that translates to "day of wrath." When you're talking about the Apocalypse, this is a good one to pull out.

OPERA OR MUSICAL? It's actually an opera, because there is no dialogue. Part of the reason why rock operas aren't done very often is that it's a hard format to write in. You don't have dialogue between songs, so you have to get exposition in somehow, and that makes the songs longer than you would see in a standard musical.

The two rock operas that everyone knows are Tommy and Jesus Christ, Superstar, but The Passion of Persephone is nothing like them.

POTENTIAL FOR PARODY The plots of many operas come close to camp. But, The Passion of Persephone is a very serious work. It has some funny passages, but it isn't Jerry Springer - The Opera, which also is being done at the Capital Fringe.

TARGET AUDIENCE We think of the rock opera as being rated PG-13. There's a lot of innuendo, but nothing graphic. Put it this way: When The Baltimore Opera did Dead Man Walking a few years ago, that was a lot more explicit than anything we do.


"The Passion of Persephone" will be staged through July 26 at the Warehouse, 1021 7th St. N.W., Washington. Show times vary. Tickets cost $15. The rock opera is part of the Capital Fringe Festival, a nonjuried collection of stage shows running through July 27. The 2008 Fringe consists of more than 200 companies mounting more than 600 performances at 30 venues in the District of Columbia. Call 866-811-4111 or go to www.capfringe.org.

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