Can't pin down this pin-up girl

By Susan Bonicillo
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, January 19, 2006

Arizona Opera presents Marilyn Monroe version of 'Semele'

The old girl's still got it.

The icon of Marilyn Monroe still looms over pop culture. Both Madonna and Anna Nicole Smith have copied her famous scene "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" from the movie "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." And though she'd be about 80 years old had she lived, Monroe's still a pinup girl.

It was this exact mixture of legend and her self-destructive behavior that served as the inspiration for the pop-art-influenced set and costume design for Arizona Opera's latest production, "Semele."

Composed by George Handel, "Semele" was first performed in London in 1744. It was originally structured as an oratorio, a piece of musical theatre that features no spoken words, costume or set.

However, it's getting the full opera stage treatment. Along with its Andy Warhol-esque design, this Baroque piece is coming full circle to the contemporary world.

The creative team of the opera's director Chas Rader-Shieber, set and costume designer David Zinn and lighting designer Lenore Doxsee recreated the story and transported it to the glitzy, glamorous age of the disco era. Pop art abounds, and the ghost of Warhol clearly hovers over this production.

The premiere of "Semele" will mark the first time in the company's 35-year history that it will be performing a Baroque piece, according to Arizona Opera's Artistic and General Director Joel Revzen, who will also be conducting the opera.

Crediting the recent upswing in the popularity of Baroque was just one of the reasons for bringing "Semele" to life.

"Every major opera house is including Handel's operas into its repertory, as they are very theatrical," Revzen said. "The music to 'Semele' is gorgeous and powerful. There's also tremendous humor in this piece."

Part comedy and part cautionary tale, "Semele" serves as a warning against all of those hyperambitious people who become enamored with their own image.

"Our director [Rader-Shieber] thought who in the last few years in our culture has exemplified this sort of person who gets caught up in her own beauty and vanity and winds up self-destructing," said Revzen. "And what better person for this than Marilyn Monroe?"

Seeing the similarities between the title character and this legendary screen actress, the design followed a set designed after the art of Warhol, the pop artist renowned for his famous silk-screen images of the actress.

"A Baroque opera in period, powdered wigs and stiff gestures would not relate to a modern audience," Revzen said. "'Semele' does lend itself to updating and holds relevance for today."

The story revolves around the Semele myth, an adaptation from one of the stories featured in poet Ovid's "Metamorphoses."

The god Jupiter falls in love with the mortal woman, Semele. Seeing that his wife Juno may have a problem with his new girlfriend, Jupiter hides Semele away.

However, Juno discovers Jupiter's infidelity and seeks revenge on the mortal woman, bringing about her downfall by playing on her insecurities of being a mortal woman among gods. It's a plot point that Revzen hopes will ring familiar with today's audience.

"Our media culture has created superstars. And we've created these people to be gods, from sports stars to movie stars," Revzen said. "They appear bigger than life and many times society tries to emulate them when they're really just people.

"Semele is not happy about being mortal. She wants to be a god so she attaches herself to a male god figure, and she gets so caught up in vanity and overreaches her own mortality to become bigger than life."

With a visually ambitious set and four veterans from the Metropolitan Opera in the cast, "Semele" promises to be an auspicious 2006 debut for the Arizona Opera Company.

Performances will be held at the Tucson Music Hall tomorrow and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.

Tickets range from $25-$117 and can be purchased online at or through Ticketmaster at (520) 321-1000.

Student rush tickets (bought an hour before performances) are heavily discounted to $15 with proof of university affiliation. Students can buy up to two discounted tickets.