Skylight Music Theatre and Milwaukee Opera Theatre Recreate an Offenbach Classic
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: Ariana Douglas (Coppélius), John Kaneklides (Hoffmann), Cecilia Davis (Olympia) and Jill Anna Ponasik (Stage Director) in rehearsal for "The Tales of Hoffmann." Photo by Mark Frohna
When it comes to reprising his role as the title character in Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann, John Kaneklides deeply relates to the piece’s message of self-discovery.
“How I see it is almost like we need to learn from our past and approach it in a way to help us move forward,” Kaneklides says. “Although it’s an opera and it doesn’t have a ‘moral,’ it definitely is a piece you will go away from learning something, even though it’s steeped in comedy.”
Presented by Skylight Music Theatre and Milwaukee Opera Theatre, The Tales of Hoffmann follows poet E.T.A. Hoffmann on his quest to find love, the ideal woman, and the balance between love and art. The story takes us through three of Hoffmann’s previous romances including Olympia, a mechanical doll; Antonia, a woman with a mysterious illness; and Giulietta, a courtesan who steals his reflection in an exchange for a diamond.
As for Kaneklides, his own journey of self-discovery came from realizing he was on the wrong career path. After majoring in finance and music at Winthrop University, he worked as an internal auditor for five years, but regretted his decision to give up his passion for music. He started taking voice lessons again and went on to compete at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, a program designed to discover promising young opera singers. He received an Encouragement Award, which he says truly did just that.
Kaneklides now works as a New York based opera singer, and is in Milwaukee for his first time to perform in The Tales of Hoffmann. Kaneklides previously traveled to St. Petersburg Opera Company in Florida to play the role, but says the two productions will be vastly different from each other.
The Skylight and Milwaukee Opera Theatre production will be performed in English under a new adaptation and translation by Daniel J. Brylow, which brings the show’s original run time of three hours down to just two hours. The production also went from having 20 singers, 15 men and five women, to an ensemble of 13, with eight women and five men. The new orchestration by Kerry Bieneman distills an opera written for a full orchestra into one that uses two pianos, a harp and percussion.
“The band will be on stage so the musician’s technique becomes part of our stage action,” says Jill Anna Ponasik, stage director for The Tales of Hoffmann. “It also allows us to delight in the peculiar and otherworldly facets of the score.”
Ponasik, who also serves as artistic director for Milwaukee Opera Theatre and artistic associate for Skylight, describes Hoffmann’s tales as the basis for the fantasy genre, setting the tone for future suspense writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Steven King.
“(The Tales of Hoffmann) feels like a very 19th century Twilight Zone in a lot of ways,” Ponasik explains. “The humor and the strangeness comes from the incongruity of the supernatural meeting the everyday world. We consume so many things today that have that appeal of the off-kilter or the slightly deranged.”
As part of the adaptation process, Ponasik spent a semester working on The Tales of Hoffmann with her opera students at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Along with performing scenes in the show’s original language of French, the students were the first ones to sing in Brylow’s new translation.
“Just the ability to have 20 imaginations all cooking on the same story for four months gave us this really rich context,” Ponasik says. “It was funny for me to then go into the rehearsal hall and not need my score at all.”
According to Kaneklides, getting to portray a character that goes through such an emotional journey is rare for a tenor, and has been a rewarding experience for him. He explains that tenors are more commonly casted as the love interests, and as a result don’t experience the same character arc as the hero. Of course, the humor that comes with the role doesn’t hurt either.
“When most people hear opera they don’t think ‘fun,’ Kaneklides says. “Here you’ll be laughing so much. It’s so fun to follow the emotional journey of the characters.”
The Tales of Hoffmann, presented by Skylight Music Theatre and Milwaukee Opera Theatre, runs March 16 – 29 at Skylight’s Cabot Theatre. For tickets call the box office at 414-291-7800 or visit skylightmusictheatre.org.