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A scene from the satirical operetta 'Orpheus in the Underworld,' returning to the Mahalia Jackson Theater Sunday afternoon.

Opera companies around the world are facing a serious conundrum: how to fill all those empty seats.

In attempting to find new audiences for its centuries-old art form, the opera world appears to be leaning more and more toward a lighthearted musical theater approach.

This may be anathema to some purists, but “going Broadway” may be a necessary step for the survival of American opera companies, especially smaller ones competing with other performing arts organizations for audiences.

The New Orleans Opera Association’s production of Jacques Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld,” sung in English, is a commendable effort by the company to attract new fans. The operetta is a lively romp through heaven and hell, from the heights of Mount Olympus to the depths of Hades, where the gods and goddesses seem to have had more fun.

It succeeds best, however, when it adheres to the more traditional guidelines of what an opera should be, namely singing and orchestral accompaniment. Much of the work is too “talky,” and excessive dialogue in an opera can become annoying, even when the lines are funny. Why couldn’t someone have transformed these spoken lines into recitatives?

Offenbach’s 1858 operatic version of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and their journey to Hades was a satire on French society and royalty of the composer’s time, the Second Empire of Napoleon III. The work became famous for the closing act’s “Infernal Galop” and its high-kicking dance number, better known as the “cancan,” that caused a scandalous uproar at its debut.

As the title character, Casey Candebat plays a nerdish violinist whose compositions are “dissonant” and “annoying” to his bored housewife, Eurydice, sung by Sara Hershkowitz. Both are in strong voice, and the confrontational interplay between them in the opening scene is pricelessly funny.

Later, Eurydice is equally bored in Hades, until Orpheus and the gods and goddesses arrive for an inspection tour. Hershkowitz then transforms into the glamorous, skirt-raising star of the cancan chorus line, which is far and away the liveliest scene in the show.

Other leading singers include Daniel T. Curran as Aristaeus and Pluto, the very un-Mephistophelean god of the underworld, and Jarrett Ott as Jupiter, the pompous, lecherous supreme god who struggles to keep his bored and rebellious cadre of lesser gods and goddesses in line.

Jeanne-Michelle Charbonnet, as Public Opinion, dressed as a frumpy mock-up of a 1950s Hollywood gossip columnist, was in top voice, with her powerful voice often rising several lines above the staff.

Amy Pfrimmer, with her lilting soprano, was delightful as Juno, Jupiter’s brazen wife who’s no shrinking violet in challenging his authority. Cree Carrico, as Diana, goddess of the hunt, is a rifle-toting “Annie Get Your Gun” prototype who randomly fires into the sky and brings down a bird each time.

Elizabeth De Trejo is exactly what the audience would expect of a Venus: voluptuous, sensuous and teasingly inviting. Angela Mannino, in the "trouser" role of Cupid, is a sweet delight who sends love-tipped arrows into the hearts of the audience. Kathleen Halm, in her limited role as Minerva, makes the most of her opportunities.

Alexander Sibley, as Mercury, evoked some of the loudest laughter from the house when he made his entrance on roller skates. Seth Board as Bacchus, the god of wine, has more to offer the deities than the nectar and ambrosia they have come to despise.

The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, under the deft baton of Robert Lyall, kept pace with the action onstage, never overpowering either the singing or the dialogue.

The stage direction from Alison Moritz was as near to flawless as is possible with so many singers and actors to move around. Diogo de Lima’s choreography, especially in the cancan scene, was of Broadway quality.

“Orpheus in the Underworld” has its final performance at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. 


Orpheus in the Underworld

An operetta in two acts staged by the New Orleans Opera Association. 

WHEN: 2:30 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, 1419 Basin St. 

TICKETS: $26-$225. Sunday brunch $25 extra.

INFO: (800) 881-4459 or (504) 529-3000.