Lysia (Emily Pulley) demands peace for a piece.
Lysia (Emily Pulley) demands peace for a piece.
Daniel Kramer

Stiff Penalties

They fart. They belch. They think about sex all the damned time. No, we're not talking about adolescent boys. These flatulent, horny characters come from Mark Adamo's newest opera, Lysistrata or The Nude Goddess. So much for the highbrow (read: boring) world of opera, right?

Houston Grand Opera is premiering the work, which is loosely adapted from Aristophanes's ancient comedy. Adamo's hysterical version features a headstrong woman named Lysia who wants her man to stop leaving home for the battlefield. When he refuses, she comes up with a plan and convinces all the women of war-torn Athens and Sparta to go along with it. They decide to hole up at the Acropolis and withhold sex from their studly warriors until the fighting stops. The smart little scheme proves to be harder (pun intended) than the ladies imagined, and it ends up causing a great deal of sexual angst on both sides of the Acropolis. Throw in some "comic mechanical phalli," as Adamo says, and you've got a serious gender war going on.

The lusty humor of Adamo's new show might surprise some of his fans. His most recent hit was an operatic version of Louisa May Alcott's prim, old-fashioned novel, Little Women. That opera, which also originated in Houston at HGO, has traveled around the world since its 1998 opening and soon will premiere in Asia. So how does a man jump from a stage filled with homespun virgins to one filled with girls gone wild?


Lysistrata or The Nude Goddess

Wortham Center's Cullen Theater, 510 Preston.

Opens at 8 p.m. Friday, March 4, and runs through March 19. For tickets and a schedule, call 713-228-6737 or visit $40 to $85.

"After the domestic and naturalistic energy of a story like Little Women, you want something very different," says Adamo. "You want adult rather than adolescent; you want public rather than private."

Story is important to Adamo, who wrote the music and the libretto for both operas. He jokingly sweeps aside any amazement at such a feat, saying he enjoys being his own collaborator. "I always take my own calls," he says, laughing, "and if I have any trouble with myself, I just take myself out and ply myself with alcohol and compliments, and I generally get what I want."

But he doesn't always get it immediately. It has taken some three years to get his Lysistrata from the page to the stage. Bad timing and lack of funding prevented the piece from being produced in 2003 as planned.

Still, looking back, Adamo is satisfied with the way this premiere fits into the history of its day. There were some 900 readings of Aristophanes's Lysistrata around the world in March 2003, just before the start of the war in Iraq. The ancient play has a clear anti-war message. Had his opera opened any closer to 9/11 or the invasion of Iraq, before public opinion about the war shifted, Adamo doubts audiences would have been ready for it -- even if, as he suggests, it's just as much about "war in the bedroom as on the battlefield."

That may be the case. But truthfully, we're always interested in "comic mechanical phalli."


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