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Tricia Miles
School of Music

Ryan Piurek
Media Relations

Last modified: Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Reality TV meets the opera

IU Opera Theater to showcase U.S. premiere of Sven-David Sandstrom's musical comedy, "Jeppe"

An ordinary person's life, complete with drunken outbursts, humiliating pratfalls, and more than a few dramatic moments, is broadcast on live television for the entire world to see.

Another reality TV show? No, believe it or not, it's the opera -- straight from the creative mind of Indiana University School of Music Professor Sven-David Sandstrom. Sandstrom's Jeppe, the modern-day tale of an alcoholic poet-turned-media celebrity, will receive its U.S. premiere at the IU Opera Theater on Feb. 7, 8, 14 and 15. All performances will be in the Musical Arts Center beginning at 8 p.m.

"This will be a very unique, very different experience for people coming to see the opera," said Sandstrom, who hails from Sweden and has taught composition at the university since 1999. "I have to say it's quite thrilling."

Jeppe has already thrilled European audiences with its blend of Danish folklore, biting comedy, sharp language and melodious music. Last fall, the opera received its world premiere at Folkoperan, a Swedish opera house that has received international acclaim for its unconventional productions and distinctive character. Sandstrom's Jeppe, which was inspired by Ludvig Holberg's classic 18th-century play, Jeppe of the Hill, earned rave reviews from critics overseas and praise for its already-heralded composer.

Sandstrom, who is considered an artistic rebel in Sweden, surprised his contemporaries with the grandiose and magnificent The High Mass, a 90-minute composition that received its U.S. premiere at IU in 2001 and has been compared to both Beethoven's Missa Solemnis and the mass settings of Bruckner. Sandstrom might surprise a few more people with Jeppe, which he describes as quite the opposite of The High Mass and much of his previous work. "It's nice, beautiful and light," Sandstrom said. "I like to call it a musical comedy."

"The High Mass was public music in a way, but it was very driving," he added. "It was strong and powerful music, almost dangerous. The music here, while still dramatic, is much lighter. There's nothing to be afraid of here."

Sandstrom, who has produced nearly 200 compositions in virtually all genres of Western music, admits the idea of making a musical comedy is rare in today's opera. Jeppe centers on a death-obsessed, alcoholic poet with terrible writer's block and a penchant for making a fool out of himself. His life is one series of comedic mishaps after another until a Ted Turner-like media mogul named Harry comes up with the idea of creating a reality TV show with Jeppe as the leading man. Jeppe suddenly becomes a soap opera star and the life of the party, until the drunken poet finally wakes up and realizes he's being made to play the fool. The lead role of Jeppe will be shared by IU doctoral student Taylor Hightower of Knoxville, Tenn., and guest artist Michael Weinius, who performed the title role in the world premiere of Jeppe at Folkoperan.

Beneath the light music and comedic action, however, is a deeper and more profound meaning, Sandstrom said. The composer has attempted to illustrate this meaning with an elaborate set that comments on society's obsession with reality TV. The set, designed by IU scenic design professor David Higgins, features a 12-by-18-foot projection-screen TV and 10 smaller TV sets surrounding the performance space. It also includes an inclined platform and a trap door in the middle of the stage as well as a separate "floating" stage that can be converted into a floor, a wall or a ceiling. All of Jeppe's comedic travails, from his drunken falls to his delirious rants, will be shown live on the various televisions around the stage with supertitles (the opera will be sung in English) super-imposed on the giant screen.

"This opera, which features the ravings of a drunken poet, is actually meant to be a commentary on our society, a society that is so interested in reality TV," Higgins said. "Claes [Fellbom, the stage director] and I thought that using live-action TV would reinforce the idea of exploitative TV that really drives this opera."

Sandstrom hopes American audiences will respond to the opera the same way those in Stockholm did. He said he continues to make changes to the text to make Jeppe more up-to-date and easily accessible to an American audience. Some character names have been changed and American pop culture references added, including one to Elvis Presley.

"It was a beautiful situation there (in Sweden), but now we're in a new country, a new climate," Sandstrom said. "I don't know for sure how well it will work, but the stage design is so smashing and the play itself so extraordinarily realistic, I have to believe audiences here will be thrilled."

Tickets for Jeppe are on sale now at the Musical Arts Center box office (open 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday) and at TicketMaster outlets, by phone through TicketMaster at 812-333-9955, and online at "Informances" will be held in the MAC Mezzanine one hour before curtain time at all performances.

For more information or to arrange an interview with Sandstrom, contact Ryan Piurek at 812-855-5393 or