This weekend, the Prince Theater in Philadelphia debuts a new opera festival rising from the remains of an old opera company.
The Vulcan Lyric Summer Festival will feature four works — three regional premieres, and one world premiere: “Maren of Vardo: Satan’s Bride.”
“Maren” is based on a 17th century Norwegian witch trial in which a 12 year-old girl confessed to a romantic relationship with Satan, then rats out her three friends who were later burned at the stake.
It was written by two young musicians who discovered the story while surfing the Internet. Librettist Royce Vavrek had worked with composer Jeff Myers on a short opera, “The Hunger Art,” then in 2009 phoned Myer with a new idea.
“‘Hey, I was on Wikipedia and I found this interesting story about witch trials in Norway,'” remembered Myers of that call. “‘Maybe we could work on an opera based on the subject.'”
Myers and Vavrek started on spec. They were able to finish the opera with a commission from Philadelphia’s Center City Opera Theater. Filled with religious interrogation, supernatural romance, and churning teenage hormones, the subject was ripe for opera.
“There’s not a lot on this subject,” said Myers. “There’s a lot on the Salem witch trials, but this is a relatively fresh-sounding subject for an opera.”
Shortly after commissioning the opera, Center City Opera Theater shut down. By 2013, the company had been developing new works for 14 seasons, and director Andrew Kurtz decided to overhaul the operation.
“The company was solvent. Rather than stopping at a crisis mode, we stopped when we could reflect and think about things,” said Kurtz. “We’d been through the crisis mode, where it’s all about paying the bills. I could see the cycle starting again. I saw the inefficiencies and I saw changes going on around the country.”
One of the changes he saw was an evolution of the operatic form. The line between musical plays and opera had become thin. Kurtz revamped his company as Vulcan Lyric to embrace all forms of musical theater.
The festival runs the spectrum. “La hija de Rappaccini” is a Spanish-language opera about the story of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by the Mexican composer Daniel Catan. It premiered in Mexico City in 1991, but has never been seen in Philadelphia.
“Glory Denied” (2007) is based on the true story of Col. Jim Thompson, a Vietnam war prisoner held from 1964 to 1973.
“‘Glory Denied’ is definitely musical theater, although written for operatic voices,” said Kurtz.
Rounding out the bill is “Heathers,” a straight-up rock musical based on the 1988 cult comedy film with Christian Slater and Winona Ryder, about murdering the popular clique of an Ohio high school. It premiered off-Broadway last year.
All four productions are packed into a single summer festival to better compete in Philadelphia’s increasingly dense theater market.
“There is much less live theatrical performance in the summers in Philadelphia,” said Kurtz. “It’s a vibrant community, and the height of tourist season. That’s a niche we could fill.”
For the rest of the year, the company will focus it energies on its educational programs, and developing new work to show off in the summer.