Nkeiru Okoye can't help laughing as she explains the over-the-top, outrageously oddball plot of her comic operetta "We've Got Our Eye on You." "Modern opera can be silly, it can be very humorous," Okoye, director of theory and composition at SUNY New Paltz, says. And silly and full of humor, "We've Got Our Eye on You" certainly is. With a nod to Monty Python and 1981's Clash of the Titans, the operetta is set in ancient Greece and tells the story of the Graeae, three mythological sisters who are figuratively and literally man-hungry, and have one eye between them that they're forced to share. Workshop performances of the opera will take place on March 1 and March 5 at 8 pm at the Julien J. Studley Theater on the SUNY New Paltz campus.
The catalyst for the plot—take a deep breath before reading further—occurs when Pythia, Oracle from Delphi, visits the Graeae and prophesies that a man bearing the mark of Zeus will be "known" (in the Biblical sense of the word) to all three. Meanwhile, Perseus, a would-be hero, attempts to find the Graeae and charm them into revealing the whereabouts of Medusa. After leaving the Graeae, Pythia encounters Perseus and warns him of the same prophecy, but he brushes it off since he is madly in love with another. As you can probably guess, Perseus's faith in his own fidelity is not exactly well founded, and when his dedication to monogamy fails, all kinds of comic complications ensue.
The operetta's story and music is by Okoye, with libretto by David Cote. The workshop performance at SUNY New Paltz is directed by Susan Einhorn. It features a cast of students and professional mezzo-soprano, Patrice P. Eaton, who will be portraying the role of Oracle of Delphi. The performance will last about 60 minutes and though a workshop production, it will include full costumes and props.
Prior to "We've Got Our Eye on You," Okoye wrote the opera, "Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed that Line to Freedom," which told the very serious story of the famous American hero. It was a successful project and one that consumed Okoye's creative energies for several years. "When a project like that is over there's kind of that sense of, 'Well, what do I do now?' It's sort of like this postpartum type thing," Okoye says.
At that time she was approached by fellow New Paltz professor Kent Smith. "He asked if I could write a small opera, like a one-act opera about sisterhood because he had three sopranos that he thought were ready for some type of opera experience," she says. She loved the idea and knew she wanted to do something funny, but didn't know what until she happened to catch a scene from Clash of the Titans in which three mythological sisters shared one eye. "There's so much comedic potential there," says Okoye.
As she began to research the mythological basis for these characters, she also decided to turn the classic hero's story on its head. "In most myths and most operas, the hero goes in and deflowers the virgin—that's because men write those," she says. She thought, "I'm totally not writing that story. What if the virgins decide they want something from the hero? And I just took it from there."
In the mythology on which the story is loosely based, the Graeae are old, monster-like and according to lore not exactly easy on the eyes, but in this telling they've gotten younger and somewhat less ghoulish at least in appearance—they still sing gleefully in one number about how to properly cook the men caught in their mantrap.
"We've Got Our Eye on You" is sexually charged but not sexually explicit. "In this entire thing I did not use the word 'sex,'" Okoye says. The operetta is all innuendo and suggestion, and hides a social message among the laughs, one particularly resonant on a college campus. "There's an anti-hooking-up message," she says. "If you wait, true love will come to you."
"We've Got Our Eye on You" will be staged on March 1 at 8 pm and March 5 at 3 pm at Julien Studley Theater at SUNY New Paltz. (845) 257-7869; Newpaltz.edu/music/concertseries.html