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Philip Glass' 'Orphee' has contemporary spin

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In Greek legend, Orpheus was the greatest singer in the world. His music and poetry charmed every human being, made the trees and rocks dance and the rivers stop their flow. When his wife, Euridice, died on their wedding day -- the result of offending a vengeful goddess -- Orpheus persuaded the gods of the underworld to allow him to bring her back from the realm of the dead. The stipulation, however, was that he mustn't look at her on the journey back to Earth. He failed and lost her a second time.

This "greatest singer" story has appealed to composers from the very birth of opera. The two earliest extant operas are settings of "Euridice" by Peri and Caccini, dating from 1600.

'Orphee' by Philip Glass

Where: Pittsburgh Opera at Benedum Center, Downtown.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday and May 2; 7 p.m. Tuesday; 3 p.m. May 4.

Tickets: $12.75-$160.75; 412-456-6666 or opera.culturaldistrict.org.

Monteverdi followed with "The Fable of Orpheus" seven years later. The most famous operatic "Orpheus and Euridice" is that of Gluck, whose 1762 setting contains a lament -- "Che faro senza Euridice" -- that is still considered by many to be the most perfect melody ever written. Offenbach wrote a delicious parody operetta, "Orpheus in the Underworld."

This week, Pittsburgh Opera will present "Orphee" by American composer Philip Glass, who based his opera on a classic 1949 film by French author-director Jean Cocteau. The film retells the story through the eyes of an undervalued contemporary poet, and Mr. Glass has set the original French movie script almost line for line, with his quirky, hypnotic style that has come to define minimalism. Mr. Glass eschews that term, preferring to say he writes "music with repetitive structures."

Baritone Matthew Worth, who performs the title role, says, "the term minimalism minimizes who [Glass] is as a composer. Other composers are more vocal-line-centric. Glass is color-centric, especially in the orchestral part."

The 36-year-old singer from Connecticut performed Mr. Glass' "Orphee" with Virginia Opera in 2012 but did not work directly with the composer. He describes the vocal writing as "serpentine."

"The line itself snakes," says Mr. Worth. "Consonants slither through the vowels, and our job is to make vertical lines horizontal and smooth. The biggest challenge is taking difficult, complex rhythms and transforming them to sound like colloquial [French] speech."

The Pittsburgh and Virginia productions were both directed by Sam Helfrich, who "created a different world from that of the movie."

"In a movie," Mr. Worth explains, "you can go from set to set, but an opera keeps us on the same stage for 21/2 hours. Sam transports us into different settings while remaining in one place."

The opera premiered in 1993 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. By fortuitous coincidence, the original creator of Mr. Glass' title character, baritone Eugene Perry, resides in Pittsburgh. Mr. Perry recalls that the stage director for the first production was Francesca Zambella, who went on to do several notable productions at the Metropolitan Opera.

"The part of Orpheus was originally higher than it is now, too high for a baritone," he says. "Mr. Glass was flexible enough to change things for us. He was very accommodating and very supportive of the singers.

"Philip Glass' music never gets in the way of the voices. You get the flow from his vocal line, like in speaking."

Mr. Glass himself has a Pittsburgh connection. In 1962, he came here as composer-in-residence for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, something that sounds like an anomaly in today's world of tight budgets and cuts to public arts programs.

Times have changed for the Baltimore-born composer, who turned 77 Jan. 31. He wrote his first opera, "Einstein on the Beach," for his own Philip Glass Ensemble in 1975. He became involved in film and TV about the same time, composing for "Sesame Street" in 1979. Among numerous film scores, "Candyman" and its sequel have been perhaps his most lucrative and successful.

Unlike Cocteau's misunderstood "Orphee," Mr. Glass has been rewarded and acclaimed. The website www.celebritynetworth.com lists his net worth as $35 million. Three of his film scores have been nominated for Academy Awards, but even this artist has not escaped feeling unappreciated. He lists as the low point of his career "not winning an Oscar for 'The Hours.' "

Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.

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