"There is this moment when Proserpina eats the pomegranate seeds that is just incredible to listen to," says Ken Rus Schmoll, director of the American premiere of Proserpina, an opera based on Johann von Goethe's interpretation of the myth. "It's so emotional, because this is such an iconic story. Everything that she sings in this opera is anchored in this notion of being a woman in a loveless marriage."
If Schmoll has to get anything right, it is this scene. In many ways, it's at the forefront of what this story is about, the part of it we should be paying attention to. It's the moment when she is at the depths of her despair."
Last year, German opera fans were thrilled with Wolfgang Rihm's take on Proserpina. The soprano, chorus, and orchestra piece was named "2009 Production of the Year" by Opernwelt Magazine. This year, Spoleto Festival USA enjoys a wholly new re-imagining of the opera, which is in part based on a local Charleston treasure.
"The German director set his production in a gynecology office, which is a very German thing to do," says Schmoll. "It's actually not so crazy when you really look at the nuances of the text. My tendency is not to go for a match, conceptually, but to create something completely new that will provide context for the audience."
To achieve that same surreal mix of timelessness, strange beauty, desolation, and hope for restoration, set and costume designer Marsha Ginsberg looked to the preserved 19th century architecture so familiar to residents of the South Carolina Lowcountry.
"The idea was to create a domestic space that would echo the idea of various states of age and decay," says Schmoll. "Much of the set design, which is quite specific in the paint and detailing, is inspired by the architecture of the William Aiken House. It provides a nice connection for the audience. The space is empty of furniture, so it is all walls, ceilings, and doors. It is beautiful but barren. That's important to the story."
Above and beyond the sumptuous set design, he believes that audiences will be enraptured by soprano Heather Buck's performance in the title role.
"It's a difficult role to sing, but it is beautiful," he says. "The music has its eccentricities, but it is actually quite lyrical and romantic."
Finding lyricism in the tale of a woman who is in the depths of despair is quite a challenge, but it was that challenge — making the opera accessible to an American audience — that drew Schmoll to the project.
"Goethe's work, on which this is based, is a pretty incredible piece of poetry, but it is not well known. The reason for that is because it is a fragment of the myth. He wrote it as a kind of response to a personal tragedy. But it is such an iconic story. That is why it holds our attention."
On one level, the myth provides a supernatural explanation for the changing of the seasons. Proserpina is plucked from a field of flowers by Pluto and taken to the underworld to be his bride. Her people learn what has happened and arrange for her release. But before she is allowed to see the sun once more, she is deceived into eating a few pomegranate seeds. And, sure enough, just like every girl's mother warns, once you eat the food of the underworld, you are forever bound to that dark realm. For part of each year, she walks the earth, warmth and fertility following in her footsteps; for the other part, she returns to the underworld, and the earth grows cold.