BWW Blog: Paul Hopper - Ready, Set, Blood! The Unique Demands of Strauss's ELEKTRA
This week marks the first Houston Grand Opera appearance in 25 years of the most harrowing night of opera in the repertoire: Richard Strauss's 1909 bloodcurdling ELEKTRA. Hailing from one of Greek mythology's most notorious royal families, ELEKTRA follows the title character's quest to avenge her father's murder.
Murder is not uncommon on the operatic stage, but this tale raises the level of psychological drama to a nearly uncomfortable level. Elektra's father was murdered by her mother and her mother's new lover, and Elektra will stop at nothing until the temple walls run with their blood. Literally.
HGO is presenting David McVicar's beautifully grotesque production, which comes to us from the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The finale features a coup-de-théâtre when, after Elektra successfully orchestrates the vengeful double murder, she stands back victoriously as gallons of blood cascade down the steps of the royal palace. The blood pools at her feet as she dips her hands into its warmth, smears it over her face, and triumphantly dances to her own death.
It's a jaw-dropping visual married with one of Strauss's most bombastic waltzes, but it has required HGO's Technical and Production Departments to ask many questions as to how to successfully execute the effect.
The blood arrives via a series of pumps hidden behind the staircase so that the blood appears to waterfall from the top step on down. How much pressure would be required to push the blood through the pumps? How much time should be allotted before the next pump turns on? Could the blood be thicker so that it really looks like human blood?
And then there's the question of the ingredients.
Which stage blood would allow Christine Goerke, HGO's Elektra who "simply owns the role" according to the The New York Times, to bathe in it without staining her skin? And what about the costumes? How will we restore them between performances?
ELEKTRA features one of the largest orchestras in the repertoire, but this production requires an additional symphony of skilled technicians to orchestrate this remarkable effect. And the questions don't stop once the show is over!
HGO has set up shop in one of the largest exhibitions halls in the George R. Brown Convention Center after flooding from Hurricane Harvey displaced the company from our creative home, the Wortham Theater Center, for the entire season. Knowing that the show must go on, we tenaciously created the HGO Resilience Theater and brought many of the modern luxuries of a theater into the space -- bars, restaurants, and patron lounges.
One critical thing missing? Showers. Each of the dressing rooms in the Wortham Theater Center is equipped with ensuite bathrooms and showers, but a convention center? No such luck. Instead of sending cast members home after a performance looking like they just stepped off a horror movie set, HGO has brought in temporary showers for post-performance cleanup.
This, of course, came with its own litany of questions: How many gallons of water would be needed per shower? Where do we fit them backstage, and how will we heat the water? While audience members may need to splash their faces with cold water after the final body falls, that certainly wouldn't cut it for the cast.
HGO has been faced with countless questions this year as we grappled with relocating our entire season with just a few weeks' notice, but these questions have reminded us all why we do what we do. In Elektra, our job is to transport an audience to a grotesque world of family drama in which murdering your mother might actually be the right thing to do. It's a haunting night of opera, but is it worth it? You bet your blood it is.
ELEKTRA opens January 19, 2018. Performances will be held at the HGO Resilience Theater (in George R. Brown Convention Center), 1001 Avenida De Las Americas through February 2. For performance dates and times, please call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org.
Photo courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera