Penn prof’s comic opera plays at Barnes Foundation

Pair Shakespearean poetry and Italian Renaissance painting with 21st-century video games and an international art fair and you get “Biennale: A Comic Opera,” a new multimedia production co-sponsored by the Penn Humanities Forum.

Wendy Steiner, the Richard L. Fisher Professor of English Emerita in the School of Arts & Sciences, wrote the opera with composer Paul Richards, and is producing it at the Barnes Foundation, located on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Beginning opening night, Friday, Oct. 4, at 6 p.m., the vast Light Court of the Barnes will become an Italian piazza with musicians serenading the crowd until sundown. Then, the stage comes to life with singing and projected imagery.

Performances are also slated for Friday, Oct. 11, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 12, at 2 p.m. in the Barnes Auditorium. Tickets for Oct. 4 are $10 or included with admission to the Barnes Foundation/free for members. Tickets for the Oct. 11 and 12 performances are $35.

“Biennale” is both the name of the opera and its setting: the Venice Biennale, one of the world’s most famous art fairs. Steiner has attended the affair many times as a commentator on contemporary culture.

The opera follows Kate, the beauty secrets editor of a women’s magazine. She enters an interactive art exhibition at the Venice Biennale where she’s dazzled by the multimedia installation and the attention of the artist who created it.

“She can’t tell whether what passes between them is real or merely part of the artistic experience,” Steiner says.

Outside the installation, in a conversation over coffee, the artist reveals his addiction to the video game “Assassins’ Creed II.” The game’s villain, Caterina Sforza, is based on a 15th-century Italian noblewoman who, like Kate, was a beauty secrets expert.

The idea for the opera came to Steiner four years ago while she was attending a lecture on Renaissance “secrets books” at the Penn Humanities Forum, a program that she founded in 1999.

Steiner explains that “secrets books,” long ignored by historians of science, were collections of recipes for cosmetics, cures, charms, and poisons that contributed to the rise of modern chemistry and medicine.

“The secrets in question sounded to me like the table of contents of modern women’s magazines,” Steiner says. “‘Biennale’ sets high art against domestic art and the alchemy of love.”

For Steiner, writing the libretto was “hours of delicious imagining and language play.” She particularly enjoyed brainstorming with composer Richards and her visual collaborator Andrew Lucia.

Gary Thor Wedow conducted Steiner’s first opera and returns as conductor of “Biennale,” with Mary Birnbaum as stage director. Sopranos Naomi O’Connell and Caroline Worra and baritones Christopher Burchett and Jesse Blumberg star with an orchestra of cello, clarinet, electric guitar/bass, and two electronic keyboards.

For more information about the opera, and show times and locations, call 215-278-7200.