'Orfeo ed Euridice' is a 'visceral experience,' says opera director

By Don Maines
April 6, 2016

Orfeo ed Euridice" is an opera that "puts the pedal to the metal," says its dynamic director, Leslie Swackhamer.

"It is straight-ahead storytelling," said Swackhamer, a Lynn Park resident, who directs the show's April 8-16 performances as the final offering of the 20th anniversary season of Opera in the Heights (Oh!).

The group's venue, Lambert Hall, said Swackhamer, "is so intimate the music literally vibrates in your body. The music is fantastic, and it's a visceral experience you can't get in a bigger opera house."

"Orfeo ed Euridice (Orpheus and Eurydice)" is based on an ancient Greek myth in which a man, refusing to accept that his beloved is dead, strikes a bargain with the gods to allow him to journey through the underworld to retrieve her. The catch is that he can't look at her until they are both safely back among the living.

More Information

Want to go?

What: "Orfeo ed Euridice"

Where: Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Blvd.

When: 7:30 p.m. April 8, 14 and 16; 2 p.m. April 10

Details: 713-861-5303,www.operaintheheights.org

"Somebody being so obsessed that he would go to Hell and back is very romantic," said Swackhamer.

The director's own husband, Ten Eyck Swackhamer, squired her across country when she decided to leave her career as a high-powered Washington, D.C. trial lawyer to study directing in Seattle, Washington.

"Practicing law made me money but it didn't make me happy," said the director. "We cut ties to stability and packed up and moved."

Swackhamer had grown up in Bradenton, Florida, as "a nerdy redhead" with dreams of becoming a brain surgeon.

However, when she arrived at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, she "fell in love with the study of history" while also pursuing theater as a hobby.

Swackhamer was playing the mayor's daughter in a production of "The Music Man" when its choreographer fell ill and Swackhamer was asked to replace her.

"Afterward, the director took me aside and said, 'You really have the directing gene.'"

When she moved to Houston 10 years ago, where her husband is general manager of the Alley Theatre, Swackhamer "pretty quickly" gravitated toward Stages Repertory Theatre.

"It is my artistic home," she said.

However, to Houston fans, Swackhamer's hits shows at Stages, such as "The Great American Trailer Park Musical," might have eclipsed her national reputation as a director of operas.

Following "Orfeo ed Euridice," for example, Swackhamer is inked to direct "Madame Butterfly" at both the San Francisco Opera House and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in the nation's capital.

"About 30 or 40 percent of my work is opera," she said.

"Travel is tricky," she added, explaining that she and her husband have a daughter, Sarah, who is a sophomore at Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart in Houston.

"Her interests are debate and robotics," said her mother.

Swackhamer previously directed "Don Giovanni" and "Macbeth" at Opera in the Heights, which she said "has reconnected with our mission" by casting "young talent" in major roles in "Orfeo ed Euridice."

Swackhamer also enjoys new play development and theater administration, including her work the past five years as executive director of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the Houston-based international competition for female playwrights.

In press material, Oh! principal conductor Eiki Isomura said that Christoph W. Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice was "a game-changer" for opera.

"At a time when the art form had become a vehicle for vocal display, Gluck sought to integrate all the aspects of the medium, stripping away anything he considered superfluous, in service of authentic storytelling," said Isomura. "It proved a powerful model for opera as a total art form, influencing generations of progressive composers ranging from Mozart to Wagner."

Swackhamer said "one whole section takes place in Hell. It is breathtaking."

"I'm excited to have (veteran Houston choreographer) Krissy Richmond work on movement and dance, which is so pivotal in this opera," said Swackhamer. "She is a consummate artist, having been a principal dancer with the Houston Ballet, and going on to enjoy an international career. A Houston treasure, she brings elegance and creativity to everything she touches."


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