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August 2016
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So Opera Isn’t “All Greek” to Young Audiences, Lyric Unlimited Premieres “Jason and the Argonauts”


Production design for “Jason and the Argonauts,” a Lyric Unlimited comission, by Joe Schermoly (Photo: Jaclyn Simpson)

“Art for young audiences doesn’t have to be dumbed down in any way,” playwright and librettist Kathryn Walat said as she prepares for the premiere of her new opera, Jason and the Argonauts: An Opera for Young People. The work is the fourth world-premiere commissioned and presented by Lyric Unlimited, Lyric Opera’s community engagement initiative.

Walat collaborates with composer Greg Spears. Previously, the two developed a new work with American Opera Projects and the Prototype Festival called Paul’s Case, which was based on the story by Willa Cather.

For Jason and the Argonauts, the team has turned to myths from classical antiquity. “We start in the forest, where young Jason is being raised by Chiron,” Walat explained. “He is 19 and ready to rush off and conquer the world when it is revealed to him that the throne was actually taken from him by his uncle, the evil King Peleus. Peleus tells Jason that he can have the throne if he brings him the Golden Fleece.”


Playwright and librettist Kathryn Walat

“Jason gathers his friends,” Spears continued, “he builds a boat, and they set off on three adventures on their way to the land that the Golden Fleece is being kept. Once they get there, he meets Medea and there is a dragon guarding the fleece so they come up with a plan to get the fleece.”

The adventures of Jason and the Argonauts have inspired other operas throughout history. The most notable, perhaps, is Francesco Cavalli’s Giasone, which was the most popular opera of the 17th century.

“I worked as a stage hand on the North American premiere of Giasone in the late 90’s,” Spears said, “so it was the piece that really introduced me to Baroque music. While our Jason and the Argonauts has very little to do with Giasone, story-wise, there is a lot of Baroque sounding music. It’s scored for harpsichord, viola, violin, and cello.”

One of the more well-known versions of the Jason story in recent times may not be Giasone, but the 1963 fantasy film Jason and the Argonauts starring Todd Armstrong as the titular hero. Jason’s encounters with all kinds of fantastic characters and creatures offer opportunity for on-screen spectacle.

Jason’s adventures also make for a spectacularly action-packed story to excite young audiences. “I feel like kids like action,” Spears said, “so we really wanted to make an opera that was about action and tasks and those factors are central to Greek myths.”

But this Jason isn’t all about action and adventure, Walat said. “The different characters also allow Jason to explore different aspects of family relationships.” Spears added, “Family is important to kids in a totally different way; for certain kids, it can be their whole universe.”

Compsoer Gregory Spears in rehearsals for "Jason and the Argonauts" (Photo: Jaclyn Simpson)

Compsoer Gregory Spears in rehearsals for “Jason and the Argonauts” (Photo: Jaclyn Simpson)

“You have a lot to learn from a parental figure but sometimes you have to rebel against them and break away from them as well,” Walat said, “so we explore those themes with some characters. In other characters, maybe audiences can experience sibling rivalry or sibling camaraderie and the conflict and tension with that.”

What kinds of entertainment for young audiences have Walat and Spears enjoyed over the years? Walat said she’s always enjoyed Fantasia, and more recently, she’s liked Warhorse. She also said, “Juilie Taymor, before Lion King, had this great piece,  Juan Darien that just blew me away.” As a youngster, Spears loved two classic scores: Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. “Secret of Nimh was probably my favorite movie as a kid,” he said.

Jason and the Argonauts has its world premiere performances at Vittum Theater in Chicago on Saturday, August 20 and Sunday, August 21. Tickets are free, though reservations are required. The production will tour throughout venues in Chicago as part of Lyric Unlimited’s long-running Opera in the Neighborhoods program. For more information, visit Lyric Opera of Chicago’s website.


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