Richard Danielpour’s Opera The Grand Hotel Tartarus Is Not Just Any Luxury Hotel

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Opera UCLA to premiere this new opera May 17, 19, 21 & 23 at the Freud Playhouse at UCLA

Grammy Award-winning composer Richard Danielpour found the inspiration he needed for his new opera in Las Vegas. It was mid-February of 2020 and he had been invited to give a series of lectures and masterclasses at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. It was recommended he stay at the Bellagio, a hotel famous for its opulence and hospitality.

What better accommodation could there be?

“It was a disastrous three-day stay,” said Danielpour. “Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. When I finally made my way back to Los Angeles, it was with a wicked fever. I was bedridden for a week with Influenza A.”

Feverish and in and out of consciousness, Danielpour had real nightmares about his Las Vegas hotel featuring a host of nefarious characters: corrupt politicians, vicious crime bosses, murderous military strongmen, all overseen by an elegant and confident—almost omniscient—hotel manager who carried himself with the bearing of an old-school European aristocrat.

From these fever dreams of a fantastical Las Vegas hotel was born The Grand Hotel Tartarus.

The opera begins in the lobby of a gilded and opulent hotel where six guests have arrived, none of whom have a clear idea of where they are or how they arrived. We eventually learn that each has committed grave and shameful sins. The guests are greeted by a gracious host with an aristocratic bearing who urges them to delight in the many sensual pleasures that the hotel offers.

“Each of the characters grapples with guilt, but not all in the same way,” said Peter Kazaras, who directs the opera. “And each of them slowly comes to realize that they have a choice to make about whether to stay and try to fulfill their insatiable desires, or to seek redemption and leave.”

The Grand Hotel Tartarus is a dark comedy, fast-paced and humorous, but one that directly tackles several social and moral quandaries in recent times. Many of the characters feel ripped out of modern headlines—the corrupt politician who tries to buy his way out of problems, the Catholic cardinal who shielded abusers in the clergy, and the self-made business tycoon who thoughtlessly tramples on others while enjoying fabulous wealth.

Danielpour, who wrote the libretto as well as the score, had many of these themes in mind as he translated his fever dreams into an opera. The opera became an allegory about diseases and addictions, but also about forgiveness and reconciliation.

“For me, this opera is about confronting feelings of shame and guilt,” said Leela Subramaniam, a DMA student in voice who plays the role of Veronica Vera, a doctor who has shot her husband. “There is a boldness and fierceness to the character I sing, but also a fragility, and very real attempts at forgiveness and reconciliation. It comes through in Danielpour’s music, which is lyrical and intensely beautiful.”

Opera UCLA’s production of The Grand Hotel Tartarus draws from professionals as well as talented students. Both choreographer Nicola Bowie and director Peter Kazaras are well-seasoned professionals with dozens of national and international credits to their names. Music will be performed by UCLA Philharmonia under the direction of Neal Stulberg and Jakub Rompczyk. The cast is drawn from The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, the UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television and will also include professional singers.

“This is a professional-level production from a superb artistic team,” said Kazaras. “Nicola Bowie is a graceful and exciting choreographer, the sets are gorgeous, and we are showcasing some extraordinary professional singers and new talent.”

At its heart, the opera is a comedy, however dark, and that allows it to get deeply into subjects of guilt, despair, hope and redemption. For Subramaniam and the singers, this is definitely the moment to address these themes. “My hope is that the audience can see themselves in this opera. We all have these feelings, and we all have to learn how to let go of our guilt and shame.”

Not that those heavy themes are the only takeaway from an opera that owes its origins to Las Vegas.

“Don’t forget this is a comedy,” said Subramaniam. “Above all else, it’s a good time.”

The Grand Hotel Tartarus will have four performances: two previews on Friday, May 17 and Sunday, May 19; two performances on Tuesday, May 21 and Thursday, May 23. All performances will be at the Freud Playhouse at UCLA. Free Admission. All shows open to the public.