To the uninitiated, attending an opera seems daunting and, well, strange. They imagine quietly devout audience members, leaning forward in their chair, enraptured by gorgeous music. Or perhaps they envision snoring people, slumped back in their seats, taking a $250 nap in public.

Opera wasn't always like going to church; it used to be a lot more sinful. Two hundred years ago, in European opera halls, audience members cavorted with courtesans, gambled, drank and joked around with their friends. Sometimes they even managed to watch the soprano sing her aria. It was more like going to a bar with live music than the hushed ritual it has become.

Pacific Opera Project hopes to capture the fun and excitement that used to accompany a trip to the opera. There may not be call girls and card games, but there's food, wine and camaraderie.]

The company's production of La Calisto, a 1651 opera by Francesco Cavalli, will be staged in the Ebell Club in Highland Park. “It's a real cabaret feel – 32 tables crowded into a small venue,” POP director Josh Shaw says. And like a cabaret, you might find yourself “dragged onstage and made part of the show.”

Cavalli's score to La Calisto was never published; the handwritten manuscript lay quietly on the shelf of a Venetian library for more than 300 years. In 1970, the early-music conductor Raymond Leppard revived the opera in a British production that renewed interest in Cavalli, and in early Baroque operas in general. Leppard's revisions were done in a lavish, 19th-century style disdained by early-music performers today, and it wasn't until 2008 that a more historically-informed edition of La Calisto appeared, enabling smaller companies such as POP to produce Calisto (this marks its L.A. premiere).

Shaw wants to make the plot, a complicated mash-up of lesser-known myths, accessible to modern L.A. audiences. Seventeenth-century Venetians would have recognized these supernatural beings. “Rather than explain who all these characters are, we're just simplifying,” Shaw says. “Gods are coming to Earth, the Earth is their playground, and they mess around with humans.”

See also: 5 Places in L.A. to See Affordable Opera

“Mess around” may be an understatement – Juno gets back at her husband, Jove, by turning his mistress, Calisto, into a bear. “I'm not sure how we'll do that,” says soprano Claire Averill, who sings the role of Calisto.

Averill was in two previous POP productions, and appreciates Shaw's direction for “being entertaining and fresh; storytelling is important to him.” She believes that modern audiences can still relate to these characters. “Sexual tension, love, temptation – those are things that are always relevant,” she says.

Credit: Martha Benedict

Credit: Martha Benedict

Ryan Thorn, who will be Jove, has sung with POP since its first season three years ago. He appreciates Shaw's willingness to collaborate with his singers. “He's more open than anyone else that I've worked with,” Thorn says. “Even if you have a suggestion that goes against Josh's concept of where the show is going, he'll always listen to it.”

An unusual aspect of Thorn's part was that it was written for a baritone, but Jove spends most of the opera cross-dressed as the goddess Diana, singing in a very high tenor range. Some scholars think the scenes where Jove is disguised as Diana were actually sung by the character who sings the part of Diana. Gender issues in opera are rarely straightforward, but the idea of a countertenor singing the female role of Diana who then portrays Jove cross-dressing as Diana to seduce Calisto (who could be sung by a soprano, a high female voice, or a castrato, a high male voice) could give a queer studies professor a weeklong migraine.

Many of POP's productions reduce the music from the original Puccini or Mozart scores, but for Calisto, “we'll have eight players, which is one more than Cavalli had at his premiere,” Shaw says. Musical director Stephen Karr will play harpsichord and conduct. He's also busy preparing additional music for the show. The music to early operas wasn't set in stone; passages were routinely cut, and others were added from entirely different works. Modern performances aiming at authenticity reflect that DIY aesthetic in that they're custom-built for the production.

Karr finds La Calisto appropriate to POP's irreverent approach to opera. “It was like Cirque du Soleil. It was written for Carnival time in Venice,” he says. In the final scene, Calisto is transformed into the constellation Ursa Major. When she ascends to the heavens, her aria parodies biblical passages describing the Virgin Mary. “It's silly and beautiful at the same time,” Karr says.

Pacific Opera Project at the Highland Park Ebell Club, 131 S. Avenue 57, Highland Park. May 1-10.

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