Puccini Kills Me

Dead...again?: Shawn McConneloug and her Orchestra portray the tormented women of opera

WOMEN IN OPERA, in case you haven't noticed, tend to drop like flies. Victims of pulmonary disease, jealous rage, or suicidal desperation, they conveniently ascend to heaven in the fourth act, leaving us to ponder the prosaic bareness of our own love lives. There's Bizet's Carmen, who gets stabbed to death by a jealous former lover. Verdi's Aida, intent on dying by the side of her beloved Radames, is buried alive in some forsaken Egyptian tomb. The diseased duo of Mimi (Puccini's La Bohème) and Violetta (Verdi's La Traviata) die of tuberculosis before reconciling with their estranged boyfriends, while Madame Butterfly, the supreme masochist of the lot, stabs herself upon discovering that her American hubby took another bride. Even the cool-blooded Wagner terminated a woman or two in the interest of romantic calamity.

For local choreographer and opera fan Shawn McConneloug, the carnage has served as something of an inspiration. "Whenever someone asks me to summarize the story of an opera for them, I say, 'She dies,'" McConneloug enthuses over espresso at Sebastian Joe's. "Love, death, passion, and obsession--that's basically what opera is about."

McConneloug and her collaborator and fellow opera buff, the filmmaker Greg Cummins, have long debated harnessing opera's bombast and high-flying emotions for their own purposes, but the idea didn't materialize until last summer, when they began working on What's Wrong with Wanting to Die in Your Arms, an "opera-inspired nightmare," as McConneloug describes it. "We were attracted to the emotion in opera and how it makes us feel as audience members," says McConneloug. "So we've used the conventions of opera to create a somewhat different spectacle."

What's Wrong, which premieres this weekend as part of the Walker Art Center and Southern Theater's annual Out There series, plucks pivotal love and death scenes from a handful of major operas (Salome, The Valkyries, Tristan and Isolde, La Bohème, La Traviata, Der Rosenkavalier) and ties them together in the manner of a mad vaudevillian act. There are opera singers, dancers, video projection, specially arranged music, and lots of familiar operatic conventions like bed scenes, daggers, and romps through Nordic forests. And pants roles being another opera convention, the six women of McConneloug's company play all the parts, from mad Salome and Mimi the consumptive seamstress to the various men who loved them, abandoned them, or stabbed them.

And then of course, there's the little matter of emergency medicine. "What happens when these women actually die, I've always wondered," says McConneloug. "You never see any blood. So we've decided to introduce the emergency medicine aspect as our own little convention. There's amputation, blood, transportation of the wounded. It's all there, out in the open."


What's Wrong with Wanting to Die in Your Arms plays 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, January 21-23 and 7 p.m. Sunday, January 24 at the Southern Theater; (612) 375-7622.

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