Bluebeard greets you on your way into the theatre. Played by Kirk Thomsen, he’s a cordial presence at entrance. He’s there to co-host an evening of short operatic stories that all fit into a larger narrative. The production in question is a program of Impossible Operas. The show is a collaboration between the voices of Milwaukee Opera Theatre and the moving shadows of Quasimondo Physical Theatre. It’s an appealing evening of song and story that feels deliciously surreal in so many interesting ways. It’s a deeply enjoyable evening of musical storytelling in a cozy environment that’s been put together by the show’s creators Tim Rebers, Brian Rott, Jeffrey Mosser, Anja Notanja Sieger and Jill Anna Ponasik.
Jessi Miller provides an emotionally engaging counterpoint to Thomsen in the role of Judith--Bluebeard’s wife. Singers flank the physical theatre action as shadow puppetry of various styles is project into the darkness above the stage. Some of the puppetry is quite haunting. Some of it is every bit as weird as the stories that it accompanies. There’s a sharp wit about it that can feel pleasantly disorienting as the stories glide across the stage under the power of extremely beautiful voices.
Bluebeard and Judith usher the audience through a series of conceptual doors beyond which lie tasty, little bites of a variety of different operas. There are some classic, iconic bits of music including ongoing excerpts from Wagners Ring Cycle. (At one point Judith and Bluebeard take to Wagner’s classic a bit like it’s a series on Netflix. The title card comes-up on the screen above the stage and Judith takes note, calling to an off-stage Bluebeard: “The Ring Cycle’s back on again!”)
Mozart’s The Magic Flute makes a brief appearance. There are also some pieces that feel relatively obscure to the casual music lover including Bellini’s The Sleepwalker and the high weirdness of Prokofiev’s The Love of Three Oranges.
And...uh...Prokofiev. Uh...yeah: It’s one thing to read Prokofiev’s story. (I know I’ve don that much before. Even listened to it once or twice.) It’s another thing entirely to actually watch this thing play-out live onstage with shadow puppets. It’s irresistibly surreal and whimsical, but with an endlessly endearing center that makes it one of the more memorable moments on the entire program. (Absurdist surrealism is so underdone. I desperately need more of this sort of thing in my life. Can someone please have a Dada festival? I need to see The First Celestial Adventure of Mr. Antipyrine, Fire Extinguisher. Thanks.)
The two central characters provide the wraparound story that all of the other mini-operas snuggle-up into. Those familiar with the story of Bluebeard’s Castle (the subject of the opera by Béla Bartók) know to expect a tragic and bittersweet ending. This is a pleasant evening’s operatic stories, though. All of the stories have something to do with love and they all seem to have some sort of happy ending. Can Judith and Bluebeard find happiness as well?
Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Quasi Mondo’s Impossible Operas continue through May 28th at The Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre. For more information, visit Milwaukee Opera Theatre online.