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‘Night Music’ ready to soar

Popular work blends opera, musical theater

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Two men in love with the same woman is the stuff of life, movies and, well, opera. Or would that be musical theater?

For the first time, Utah Opera will be presenting a work that could be considered either opera or musical theater — Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music."

With the Olympics here next month, Utah Opera director Anne Ewers says that putting on "A Little Night Music" is a wonderful way to showcase American opera. "We felt that if we were going to be presenting opera to the world, that we wanted an American composer," Ewers said, "and certainly there is no one more popular in terms of 20th century composers and, frankly, more talented in the music theater arena than Sondheim.

"It's very complex music, but there is spoken dialogue. But there is also (spoken dialogue) in 'Carmen,' which is one of the most popular operas in the world, and same with 'Magic Flute.' I think that sometimes people don't recognize the variety of options the art form of opera can have and can take. So this is kind of the American answer to the art form."

Performances will be at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 26; Monday, Jan. 28; Wednesday, Jan. 30; and Friday, Feb. 1, and on Sunday, Feb. 3, at 2 p.m. There will also be a performance as part of the 2002 Olympics Cultural Olympiad on Tuesday, Feb. 5, at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets range from $12-$61 and may be purchased by phone at 355-ARTS (2787) and 1-888-451-ARTS; on the Web at www.arttix.org; or in person at the box offices of Capitol Theatre, Abravanel Hall, Kingsbury Hall, and all ArtTix outlets.

Therese Clay, director of marketing and public relations, said that since the Feb. 5 performance is not a regular subscription concert, prime seats that may have been taken by season-ticket holders will be available to single-ticket purchasers.

Anne Cullimore Decker, who plays the role of Madame Armfeldt, said "A Little Night Music" bridges the gap between musical theater and opera magnificently because the music is classically oriented and requires skilled voices. The ensemble work is also very much American operetta, but at the same time the characters are so layered and complex that good acting skills are a necessity.

The story centers on Frederik Egerman and his wife, Anne, who have been married 11 months but yet to consummate the marriage. When actress Desiree Armfeldt comes into town, it is discovered that Frederick had an affair with her 14 years earlier, and the feelings are still alive.

To complicate matters even more, Desiree is having an affair with the Count Carl-Magnus, and the two men, although married, are both jealous. (The show is based on Ingmar Bergman's 1955 Swedish film "Smiles of a Summer Night.")

"It's a very human story," said conductor Gerald Steichen, "and a very honest story about human nature and human relationships.

"The joy of Sondheim is that, yes, you're out for an evening of theater, but he also asks you to examine yourself and your relationships. You walk away a better person because you've examined where you are, and who you are through the lives of these characters on stage."

This production of "A Little Night Music" was co-produced by the Houston Opera and the Utah Opera, which means that both companies shared in the set design, costume design and construction. Ewers explained that she also chose to use the same director, Michael Leeds, because it was largely his concept of "A Little Night Music" that shaped the sets, costumes and general approach to the opera.

Leeds has also worked with Sondheim in his creation of the show. What probably drew Sondheim's attention was that the show was being done in an opera house, according to Leeds.

"I found (Sondheim) very giving and open to new ideas and new staging. He's really a man of the theater, and he's totally open to collaboration as usually the great ones are."

One unusual addition that Leeds brings to this production is putting the orchestra right up on stage with the rest of the actors. "I felt that it really added to the intimacy of the piece," he said.

Leeds also brings a strong emphasis on the acting as well as the singing. "When you're dealing with a piece like this, you need someone who is wonderfully savvy in theater as well as opera," said Ewers, referring not only to the director, but also the cast.

"So many of these singers have had experience doing music theater as well as opera, and they are terrific complete packages," she said. "Their singing is fantastic, their acting is fantastic, and they move well. All of those elements were very important in the casting."

The cast involves a mix of Utah talent, such as Kristen Hurst-Hyde and Anne Cullimore Decker, as well as artists from around the country. All have resumes that include opera, musical theater and acting ability.

"Anne Ewers casts so well," said Hurst-Hyde, who plays the Countess Charlotte Malcolm. "She always casts with an eye first and foremost to the voice, because it's opera. But her casting is sometimes a little bit more towards musical theater in casting people who look right in the roles. This is a great cast. They're wonderful singers, wonderful on stage, and very good colleagues."

Other cast members include Adria Firestone as Desiree Armfeldt, Jeff Mattsey as Frederik Egerman, Matthew Chellis as Henrik Egerman and Elisabeth Comeaux as Anne Egerman.

"This is an extraordinary piece in its sophistication, in its wit, and in its complex, yet wonderful music," said Ewers. "I think that people who are die-hard operagoers can gain much from this, just as well as the person who has never walked through the door of an opera house."

E-mail: cline@desnews.com