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New opera ‘The Grand Hotel Tartarus’ explores disease, desire in evocative score

The guests at The Grand Hotel Tartarus raise their glasses to a decadent feast. Composed by professor Richard Danielpour, the opera will premiere Tuesday in the Freud Playhouse with an additional performance Thursday. (Courtesy of Robert Baker)

“The Grand Hotel Tartarus”

Freud Playhouse

May 21 and 23

8:00 to 10:00 p.m.

By Reid Sperisen

May 20, 2024 1:36 p.m.

This post was updated May 21 at 7:55 p.m.

At the Grand Hotel Tartarus, all may not be exactly as it seems.

On Tuesday, the premiere of the original opera “The Grand Hotel Tartarus” will be held at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse with an additional performance Thursday, following two preview performances last week. The opera was created by distinguished professor and Grammy Award-winning composer Richard Danielpour, who wrote the libretto and composed the score. The opera follows the story of six characters who find themselves at the titular hotel, which is overseen by the sinister Mr. Lucian. Danielpour said the concept came to him after observing people of questionable character while on a disastrous trip to the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas in February 2020 and added that the project has been in the making for the past four years. He said he wrote the piece during the anxiety-filled first months of COVID-19 lockdowns.

“After a few days of staring at the ceiling at 2 a.m., I had started thinking already by the middle of March that this series of hallucinations could turn out to be an interesting opera,” Danielpour said. “Just to alleviate the insomnia, I got my iPad, and from my bed I started sketching out what became the libretto for ‘The Grand Hotel Tartarus.’”

Danielpour said the characters in the opera are partially inspired by real people and are often a composite of multiple personalities. Even the names of the characters hold a symbolic meaning, he said, from the coincidence that Cardinal Georg Rottweiler shares the nickname of Pope Benedict XVI, whom the character was loosely based on, to General Butch Laturb’s last name being “brutal” spelled backward. Danielpour said he felt sorry for these characters as he was writing them, since the opera strives to reinforce the idea of compassion rather than condemnation.

[Related: Second Take: Broadway must ditch musical film adaptations for original stories]

In order to effectively communicate the opera’s theme of the possibility of redemption and emphasize the need for self-forgiveness as the gateway to freedom in life, Danielpour said he wrote the opera in constant rhyme, even sometimes resembling Dr. Seuss’ work. Danielpour said the opera is a dark comedy with a tender ending and therefore needed to conclude with a sense of reconciliation. The decision to place the lyrics in rhyme created a sense of buoyancy throughout the show, he added.

Troy Robertson – who is set to receive a doctorate of musical arts in choral conducting next month – portrays Mr. Lucian in the Gold cast of “The Grand Hotel Tartarus.” Robertson said his character is pompous, calculating and persuasive, and he added that Mr. Lucian excels at encouraging the hotel guests to continue to indulge their temptations, resulting in an internal conflict rather than an interpersonal one. Robertson said Danielpour’s music contains strong influences from Leonard Bernstein and blends elements of opera with musical theater and jazz.

“The music being beautiful is an outpouring of how easy it is for Mr. Lucian to spin these beautiful ideas and stories,” Robertson said. “Even though there’s sinister meaning if you dig deeper behind what he’s actually saying, he sings it so beautifully that it almost hypnotizes you.”

Dressed in a silver and white suit, LaMarcus Miller's Mr. Lucian sits onstage surrounded by guest services women. Exploring themes of desire and disease, the opera performances are split between two casts. (Courtesy of Robert Baker)
Dressed in a silver-and-white suit, LaMarcus Miller’s Mr. Lucian sits onstage surrounded by guest services women. Exploring themes of desire and disease, the opera performances are split between two casts. (Courtesy of Robert Baker)

For Leela Subramaniam, a former Daily Bruin contributor and doctoral student in music performance specializing in voice, performing the Blue cast’s role of Veronica Vera requires a great deal of self-awareness and breath control. The soprano said using long sweeping lines symbolizes Vera’s innate honesty and acknowledgement of the truth, but when Vera is less certain, her lines are shorter, more explosive and emotionally charged. Danielpour said Vera is the only character who succeeds at finding redemption. Alongside delicate strings, wind instruments and the violin, Subramaniam said she has been able to explore the richness and colors of both her middle and lower voice while experimenting with her ability to produce soft sounds.

“I’ve been using my voice to lead it through the text in that way where I can explode,” Subramaniam said. “Then, sometimes, I really need to plan how I’m phrasing something and making the line blossom based off of the text and the situation on stage.”

Aran Denis, a first-year theater student, said they juxtapose seductive sensuality with sanitized corporate energy in their portrayal of a guest services woman at the hotel for the Blue cast. Denis said their costume, which includes a hat, a full face of makeup and a wig with pin-curls reminiscent of a 1940s pinup girl, helped them get into the mindset of playing the character. Likewise, Denis said the facial expressions of their character change throughout the story, shifting away from the wide eyes and toothy grin that they start the performance with.

“As the show progresses, the smile drops, and the eyes come alive,” Denis said. “It’s like dropping this facade and showing the audience and the six main hotel guests who we really are and what this place really is.”

[Related: Aquilah Ohemeng innovates with ‘PASS US NOT: Holy Ghosted’ choreography]

First-year theater student Ian Pirotto also plays one of the guest services women for the Gold cast and said “The Grand Hotel Tartarus” is the first production they have participated in that has a double cast. Pirotto said precise movement was critical for the guest services women through a combination of choreography and blocking. Their movements resemble robots or puppets, Pirotto added, to express ideas such as pleasure and sin.

Director Peter Kazaras, a distinguished professor and the director of Opera UCLA, said the execution of the production took more than a year, and the large cast includes around 41 people with seven principal roles, six secondary roles and a chorus. Kazaras said “The Grand Hotel Tartarus” will be his last as the director of Opera UCLA after 17 years at the helm of the program ahead of his retirement in July. He said he is optimistic for the future of opera because there has been a large increase in contemporary operas produced by people from marginalized communities, including women and people of color, who push the bounds of opera while continuing to celebrate the human voice as the oldest instrument.

“The sound of the human voice is something that has an effect on other human beings that is unlike any other sound,” Kazaras said. “I’m not saying it’s better or worse, but I’m saying that it is something that speaks directly to the soul. It speaks directly to our deepest memories and some speech in particular awakens feelings within us that transcend the analytic.”

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