Famous around the world for his work for Disney, including "The Lion King," and the Olympics, Super Bowl, Metropolitan Opera and Cirque du Soleil, Michael Curry has always wanted to do a project in his home state and adopted home area of Portland. Surprisingly, it has never happened.
"I've been looking for years for a Portland-area project to invest our energies in," says Curry, owner of Michael Curry Design, based in Scappoose. Then, the Oregon Symphony approached him about doing something with Igor Stravinsky's opera oratorio "Persephone."
It was a no-brainer — it was an opportunity to design puppets, costumes and sets for the Oregon Symphony and "I'm a Stravinsky addict."
So Curry, as designer and stage director, has been busy working on "Persephone," the symphony's third "SoundSights" concert, presented May 13-15 at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. It's a fun project for Curry between working on "Frozen" on Broadway, a water show in Las Vegas with resort mogul Steve Wynn, the opening ceremony for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and cool shows in China and Italy.
And it has more life beyond Portland, as it'll be staged in Seattle and other places in the future.
"I'm an Oregonian, three generations," says Curry, who hails from Grants Pass and who has lived in Oregon for the past two-plus decades after living in New York. "This is unique. It's not that I'm exclusive and don't want to work in Portland, but I haven't found the right project. It's been everything from opportunity to economics, and who asks. I saw this as a chance to do something in the Portland area.
"I work in New York, London, Las Vegas ... and yet there are incredible things going on in Portland. ... I'm proud to present this piece in Oregon; I've had people constantly saying, 'I didn't know you were out here (in Portland/Scappoose).'"
Stravinsky created "Persephone" for dancer/actress Ida Rubinstein in 1934 as a ballet tableau, with Persephone speaking her lines and a solo tenor serving as narrator. The story is a retelling of the Greek myth in which Hades, god of the underworld, kidnaps Persephone, daughter of Demeter, goddess of the harvest and life cycles. Hades imprisons Persephone in the underworld, leaving Earth frozen in perpetual winter.
The symphony, led by music director Carlos Kalmar, plays the music while members of the Portland State Chamber Choir and Pacific Youth Choir and tenor Paul Groves sing. Pauline Cheviller serves as narrator.
The "SoundSights" series was created to pair great music with great visuals.
"It's a great visual piece," Curry says of "Persephone," adding that it's "very picturesque, and it paints very vivid images with music and demands a narrative completion."
He has treated Persephone as both a puppet and a human, taken between two worlds. He built the puppet and human makeup and costume to look identical, playing with the duality of existence. Scenery, lighting, projections, physical props and costumes are all intertwined; Curry puts the symphony out front and visuals happen behind.
"I don't want to get in the way of the music, but offer it as accompaniment," he says. "I use the 72-person choir on stage, both children and adults in costumes as characters with manipulation of puppetry and choreography.
"Then we have kind of a lovely transition of forest world, flowers, trees, springtime. That same set goes to the underworld; we utilize effect that brings us to nocturnal UV light; you go to the roots of trees and underworld itself, complete with characters of the underworld. It's a beautiful enchanting world. I made it a point to make the underworld not overly scary. Persephone finally accepts the fact that she needs to live in both worlds, and life needs light."
The puppet work, he adds, "couldn't have been done five years ago." At one point, the underworld is filled with flying ghosts as Persephone discovers herself in the underworld.
It took only "a few thousand hours of design and fabrication," Curry says. "There are some things not represented in our international work; we're using this as a lab in a sense to create some new ideas."
Curry likes the idea of the symphony pairing with visual effects, as it's a good way to attract newer — younger? — audience members.
He's thrilled to be involved with the Oregon Symphony.
"You don't have to be a symphonic aficionado," he says. "Symphonic is more story-driven. I, for one, feel that I'd like to occasionally make pieces that are visually rich. Opera has become more experimental in that way."
Classical music "is so great, it's survived hundreds of years, but it is in danger. It's fragile, it's like protecting the environment. I still love classical music, and I believe my 20-year-old son will like this show a lot."
"Persephone" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday-Monday, May 13-15, at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 S.W. Broadway. Along with Stravinsky's "Persephone," the symphony will play Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 2, Op. 17 (Little Russian)." Tickets start at $23. For more: www.orsymphony.org.