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Carolina Performing Arts hosts new opera based on Hemingway novel

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Photo courtesy of Dorian Šilec Petek.

"The Old Man and the Sea" opera's second performance ever was on Saturday at  Memorial Hall, following its world premiere at Arizona State University in November.

The opera is the first time that Ernest Hemingway's estate has allowed anyone to make a musical interpretation of his novel “The Old Man and the Sea.” The 1952 novella follows Santiago, an elderly fisherman in Cuba and his journey to catch and bring home a large marlin.

The opera was created by composer Paola Prestini, librettist Royce Vavrek and director Karmina Šilec. Beth Morrison Projects, which works to create new opera and music theatre, produced and worked on its development. 

Senior associate producer Julia Mendes said that the production involves hundreds of costumes and props. The process of staging a new show allowed for ongoing development and spontaneity, unlike established operas where the material is fixed.

Šilec said that the show will be based on Hemingway’s original story, but not in a classic operatic way. 

“We were trying to find a way to extract certain interesting elements from the novel itself, and maybe give them even more space than Hemingway gave at the time,” she said.

The opera is set in Cuba, and is structured as a dual narrative, intertwining the plots of the novel with Hemingway’s own experiences as he was writing it. 

Šilec said that the opera adopts a wide range of elements and themes, particularly religious allusion, ecology and colonialism — using sports references to symbolize Cuba’s resistance and revolution against Spanish colonial rule. It also highlights the dramatic shift in fishing practices from traditional to industrial methods

“The story is actually the story of every man," Šilec said. "So it's not difficult to somehow find certain elements which we can identify with, especially with the passion for being alive for life itself."

Rodolfo Girón, who plays Manolin, a friend and disciple of Santiago, said this show is distinguishable through the virtuosity and complexity of its music and performers. Prestini’s approach to music and sounds not only enhances the storytelling, he said, but also reflects the emotions and inner workings of the characters. 

Unlike traditional operas that rely heavily on string orchestras, Prestini’s composition primarily features soloists, a choir, a cello and percussion instruments, along with electronic sounds. 

When composing the music, Prestini said that she felt a deep sense of pathos about Santiago’s last opportunity to solidify his legacy as a fisherman, which was reflected in the music.

Because she wanted to capture the pain and glory of Hemingway while writing the novel, Prestini adopted a more contemporary approach that includes songs with references to baseball — a passion of Hemingway's — and a "danse macabre" that replays Hemingway's memories. 

“I tried to create works that show my voice, but also the expansiveness that a voice in opera can have,” Prestini said. "So, I hope people will be surprised by what that sounds like."

Alison Friedman, the executive and artistic director of Carolina Performing Arts, said CPA invests resources, time, theater space and funding to support unprecedented performances like this one. 

She said  UNC students are integral in the production of this opera, working behind the scenes alongside the professional production crew to handle complex tasks such as lighting setup. 

“Every time I take the cable or tighten the bolt on something, I always find work fulfilling because every time I do something to that extent, I feel like it's all in service of something that's going to be really valuable,” Eva Buckner, the student lighting department head at CPA and the lightboard operator for the show, said.

Buckner said she hopes the audience left the show feeling like their week was made better by experiencing a collaborative piece of art.

“["The Old Man and the Sea" opera] allows us to see the familiar from a new perspective, and I think that's one of the powers of a university like UNC,” Friedman said. “It helps you see the familiar from a new vantage point, and therefore expand your worldview.”

@graceogao

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com

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