Now and then: ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ through the centuries

Cast and Mitchell Kasprzyk as Macheath. Photo courtesy of Ken Cobb

Cast and Mitchell Kasprzyk as Macheath. Photo courtesy of Ken Cobb

Music can take you to another world, but it also can help you understand the world around you. John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera” opening tonight at 7 p.m. does just this.

“We often think of (opera) as this extravagant excessive thing that we don’t understand because it’s antiquated,” states Copeland Woodruff, director of Opera Studies at Lawrence University and stage director of the production, which continues through Sunday. “But we’ve been human beings since day one and we all react to each other and we all live with each other. Opera’s just heightened theater.”

Elena Stabile as Polly Peachum and Mitchell Kasprzyk as Macheath. Photo courtesy of Ken Cobb

Elena Stabile as Polly Peachum and Mitchell Kasprzyk as Macheath. Photo courtesy of Ken Cobb

“The Beggar’s Opera” has been met with wide acclaim since its premiere in 1728. A satire, the opera emerged as a response against Italian Opera to reclaim the English stage. Gay harnessed popular music from the time, wrote new lyrics and unleashed a hit that continued to capture the imagination of performers and audiences for centuries to come. This kind of dialogue between eras is exactly what makes this show unique.

“One of the most interesting parts of the production musically, is the combination of tunes from the 1700s, which everyone would have recognized then, from folks songs to drinking songs, rearranged by one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century, Benjamin Britton,” says Bonnie Koestner, vocal coach for the production.

Holy Sheboygan! a garbage folk band comprised of Lawrence alumns, will be playing alongside the 12-student orchestra to communicate this message. “You’re going to hear the original lyrics and hear how they have amazingly brought them up to the 21st century, yet giving them a really good reference point to what they were back then and how subversive they were,” shares Woodruff. “Hal France is our guest conductor, he’s a world-renowned conductor, a true man of theater.” In addition to France, Woodruff has enlisted accent coaches and fight choreographers to work with the cast.

Like last autumn’s series of Micro-Operas, “Expressions of Acceptance,” this production will be taking place at the Fox Cities Performing Art Center in Appleton. The 13 separate performances took place simultaneously across the lobby, in stairwells, elevators and in every available space the Fox Cities P.A.C. had to offer, creating an interactive, often haunting, experience for viewers. “Expressions of Acceptance,” which was well received, drew its audience from both Lawrence students and Fox Valley residents.

“The Beggar’s Opera” is expected to be met with the same enthusiasm from the community. “It’s a beautiful space,” shares Lizzie Burmeister, Polly Peachum in one of the two casts enlisted for this production. “I think (the space) automatically changes the whole experience for both the actors and the audience because it’s so intimate.”

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