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'The Enchanted Island' A Mashup Of Classic Masters


Tonight, New York's Metropolitan Opera will premiere a new piece with music that's hundreds of years old. It's called "The Enchanted Island" and it features arias by several Baroque composers, including Handel and Vivaldi, and mashes up the plots from two Shakespeare plays. And, oh yes, it stars Placido Domingo as the sea god Neptune. Jeff Lunden has still more.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: On Broadway, it would be called a jukebox musical. Take a bunch of tunes from, say, ABBA, write a plot around them and, voila, you have "Mamma Mia!" In opera, it's called a pasticcio and, according to Jeremy Sams, the creator of "The Enchanted Island," the tradition goes all the way back to the beginning of the art form.

JEREMY SAMS: The very first important opera in the world, ever, "Coronation di Poppea" by Monteverdi, is itself a pasticcio, 'cause all sorts of other hands were at work in that piece.


LUNDEN: The idea for "The Enchanted Island" came five years ago from the Metropolitan Opera's general manager, Peter Gelb, says director Phelim McDermott.

PHELIM MCDERMOTT: Peter suggested this idea to create this new piece, a pasticcio from old pieces of Baroque music, some of them well-known pieces, but some of them also kind of obscure little gems from operas that are less well-known.

LUNDEN: Jeremy Sams says even before he came up with a plot, he listened to a lot of music written between 1650 and 1750; Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, Purcell -a lot of music.

SAMS: On my iTunes, I made a list of the things I had to have in the show at all costs. When I finished compiling that list, it said at the bottom: you have got three days of music.

LUNDEN: As Sams feasted on Baroque opera, he started having some clever dramatic ideas, says his collaborator Phelim McDermott.

MCDERMOTT: Jeremy's sewn together this wonderful kind of beast, which has a great story. It's a mash-up of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "The Tempest;" the lovers from "Midsummer Night's Dream" washed up on Prospero's island and ensuing complications from that.


LUNDEN: So, this new libretto, with lyrics in English, has characters from one play falling in love with characters from the other. Coloratura soprano Danielle de Niese plays Ariel, the sprite enslaved by Prospero. She says her role, which was created especially for her, is a mash-up, itself.

DANIELLE DE NIESE: You know, I'm sort of channeling a lot of Ariel in "The Tempest," a lot of Puck from "Midsummer Night's Dream," a little bit of Tinkerbelle on the side. I mean, it's a great thing to be able to create a role, to create it from scratch.


LUNDEN: As a matter of fact, all the roles in "The Enchanted Island" have been tailored for the singers who are performing them. Jeremy Sams says he decided to make the lead role, Prospero, a countertenor, following Baroque tradition.


SAMS: That is a defining voice and particularly in the movement of countertenors in the last 20 years. They are virile, strong, emotional wonderful creatures, marvelous creatures. And Prospero has that otherworldly, shamanic, magician, distant, yet feeling quality. It seemed to be right.

LUNDEN: Luckily, one of the best countertenors in the business, David Daniels, was available and interested.


LUNDEN: There are other stars in the opera - mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato, among them. But Jeremy Sams says, as he was already in the middle of writing the piece, he was handed an operatic superstar on a platter; Placido Domingo.

SAMS: Peter Gelb asked Domingo to be part of the show and he said yes. And he came to me and said, OK, we've got Domingo. What's he going to be? So, that was the real turning point for me, for some many ways, 'cause I said immediately without thinking, he should be the great God Neptune because we're on an island. And I could sort of see him with seaweed and a trident, you know?


LUNDEN: Director Phelim McDermott says while "The Enchanted Island" may appear to be a hodge-podge, it all seems to be coming together as a whole. And he looks forward to this evening's premiere, when an audience will hear all this old music in a new setting.

MCDERMOTT: And in a strange way, it almost feels to me like a little bit of the feeling of what it must've been like the first time that they were heard because you're seeing in this new context; you're seeing them as if they've never been heard before.

LUNDEN: "The Enchanted Island" opens at the Metropolitan Opera tonight. On January 21st, it will be broadcast in high definition in movie theaters around the world. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.


LYDEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon returns next week. Happy New Year. I'm Jacki Lyden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.