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John Lamb, Published March 23 2014

What would Poe do?: Fargo-Moorhead Opera scares up world premiere

FARGO – To move forward, the Fargo-Moorhead Opera is reaching out of its comfort zone.

Actually, the organization hopes its audience freaks out.

The F-M Opera’s spring performances, “Buried Alive” and “Embedded,” both inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, are staged Friday night and Sunday afternoon. This will be the first time the F-M Opera provides the world premiere of a work.

The pieces come from the American Lyric Theater in New York, which has partnered with the Fargo-Moorhead and Fort Worth (Texas) operas to present the two shows.

“This is a production that is stretching us in every term,” says F-M Opera’s Executive Director David Hamilton. “It’s the most expensive production we’ve ever done, but it’s worth it.”

The works were commissioned in 2009 to mark Poe’s 200th birthday, asking: “What would Poe write if he were alive today?”

The two 45-minute pieces were first workshopped in 2010 and then again a year later. Hamilton was in New York for the second workshop, checking out developing works.

“These particular ones caught my ear and eye,” he says. “The audience will be on the edge of their seat, and I thought that would be a good fit to bring here … They are so right now. So cool. Something everybody can get into now. Everyone has this fear of waking up in the morgue.”

Larry Edelson, president and founder of the American Lyric Theater, points out the story from late February of a Mississippi man who woke up in a body bag as morgue workers prepared to embalm him.

“If people like Stephen King and ‘NCIS,’ they’ll like this,” says Edelson. “This is a great show for people to experience opera for the first time. This is not fat ladies with horns and holding spears.”

(When pressed for plot specifics, Hamilton and Edelson won’t tip their hands, saying they want the audience to be surprised. They do caution that some material may not be suitable for children.)

Edelson and the American Lyric Theater develop new opera works but don’t stage them. Instead, they partner with opera troupes around the country to produce them.

He said many companies shy away from new work because of the cost in commissioning and development.

For this pair of operas, called “The Poe Project,” the theater group paid for the commission.

“Each company benefits from the expertise of other companies,” Edelson says, adding that Fort Worth contributed technical proficiency to the project.

With an annual budget of less than $500,000, Fargo is the smallest company with which the American Lyric Theater has partnered. By comparison, Fort Worth has a budget of $5 million.

“In terms of commitment, it’s just as strong as any other group,” Edelson says of the Fargo organization. “I’m excited. I think it’s the responsibility of every company to do new work that speaks to them on their own terms. Whether that’s New York or Fargo, that’s crucial.”

Edelson directs “Buried Alive,” and Sam Helfrich directs “Embedded.”

While the two works come from different composers and librettists (Jeff Myers and Quincy Long wrote “Buried Alive,” while Patrick Soluri and Deborah Brevoort wrote “Embedded”), they share the same six singers and conductor, Kostis Protopapas.

The production tapped S. Katy Tucker for digital and video projection to accentuate the set design. Tucker just wrapped “Prince Igor” at The Metropolitan Opera.

The light design is by Josh Epstein, who lit up “Footloose” in 2002 at Trollwood. Last fall he shined on the drama “Tribes” at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

“We usually provide housing for two or three guest artists. This time we have 22 guest artists,” Hamilton says.

“It’s a technical challenge,” Edelson says of the creative staging.

For all the work, there’s a big pay-off.

“It gives the audience a chance to see something they’ve never seen,” he says. “If you go to ‘Carmen,’ you know she dies, she gets stabbed in the end. With these, you don’t know the ending.”

“I don’t think we can do the same 20 operas over and over again. We need to do new work,” Hamilton adds.

And the show audiences see this weekend may not be the same show audiences see the next time it’s staged.

“The final piece of any premiere is the audience. We value the audience’s input and reaction,” says Hamilton.

He explains that since the writers are here to see the pieces brought to life, they may tweak future productions.

“It gives composers a chance to make revisions. ‘(Madame) Butterfly’ had revisions. ‘Carmen’ was a flop in its premiere. They have life after,” he says.

“Audiences have the opportunity to say, ‘I was there when …’ And that’s something that doesn’t happen every day,” Edelson adds.

If you go

What: Fargo-Moorhead Opera’s Poe Project: “Buried Alive” and “Embedded”

When: Both shows at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Festival Concert Hall, North Dakota State University

Info: This program is intended for mature audiences. Tickets range from $5 for students and $40 to $80 for adults.

(701) 239-4558. www.fmopera.org

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533