It was once a common way to flatter your patron: Write a work about the classical Greek gods; everyone would know they were stand-ins for the king and his court.
But in a little-known one-act opera written for the second marriage of Joseph II, heir to the Austrian throne, in 1765, Gluck threw in a curve. The singers would be four archduchesses drawn from the court itself.
"I don't know how these amateurs--aristocrats--sang this stuff," said composer Lloyd Rodgers, who directs a production of Gluck's "Il Parnaso confuso" (Confusion on Mount Parnassus) tonight at Cal State Fullerton. "The music is very bravura."
Maybe arts education was just better in the 18th century.
Rodgers will use four student singers and his student Diverse Instrument Ensemble. Heather Calvete will sing Apollo, god of all the arts. Margit Jensen will sing Euterpe, muse of lyric poetry; Amy Palm is Melpomene, goddess of tragedy; Karen Kudinoff, Erato, muse of love poetry.
"We'll do it as a staged opera, but in a stark, modern manner," Rodgers said. "Very simple costumes. Elaborate makeup. Very stark light pools at the front of the stage.
"The action is very static. Essentially it's a series of tableaux. The ensemble will be playing behind them in vague darkness."
The plot is simple: Apollo tells the muses that some illustrious people are getting married. They have the honor and the responsibility of creating the entertainment for the event.
"At first, they are excited about it," Rodgers explained. "Then they get afraid that they're not up to the task because these people are so important. So they start arguing about what to do.
"Apollo comes back, chastises them, and they finally get their act together."
The work is based on a libretto by Pietro Metastasio, who had virtually a lock on early opera librettos. Numerous composers, including Gluck, Scarlatti and Mozart, set his more than two dozen works to music more than 800 times during the 18th and early 19th centuries.
Rodgers revised and reorchestrated the piece from a scholarly publication.
"I've eliminated notes, added things, recomposed the piece a little. But it's mostly there," he said.
"I've stripped it down to its bare essentials in terms of counterpoint, harmonic structure and rhythm. It's not quite as gallant as it was. It's a little tougher than the original, maybe clearer."
His new scoring for his eclectic group includes flute, clarinet, various saxophones, mandolin, trombone, tuba, vibraphone, three electric guitars, an electric bass and two electric keyboards. The original orchestra consisted of horns, oboes, strings and a harpsichord.
"We're singing it in Italian, which is part of the pedagogical purpose," Rodgers said. There will be no translation, but there will be a scene-by-scene synopsis provided in the program. The opera lasts about an hour and 20 minutes.
"There's a lot of variety in terms of textures, tempos and emotional attitudes--everything from pleading allegro things to very gentle things dealing with love and sensuality. Then there's a triumphant duet at the end for Apollo and Melpomene, with all the singers coming in for the coda."
Apollo was originally written for a woman, not for a castrato, as was common for the heroic role in those days, probably to suit the archduchess who would be singing the role. Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice," composed three years previously, for instance, cast the famous castrato Gaetano Guadagni as Orfeo.
"The arias are as beautiful as anything he was writing at the time," Rodgers said.
"The quality is not that much different from 'Orfeo.' It's very high-energy music, which is one of the reasons I chose the piece. This may be the only production since the premiere."
* Lloyd Rodgers will conduct a staged version of Gluck's one-act opera "Il Parnaso confuso" today in the Little Theatre at Cal State Fullerton, 800 N. State College Blvd. 8 p.m. Free. (714) 773-3371.