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Captain Kirk, Klingons and an aria: How the Pacific Opera Project remade Mozart, ‘Star Trek'-style

Star Trek opera
Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio” has been set in the Star Trek universe by the Pacific Opera Project.
(Pacific Opera Project)

It’s the final act of Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio” and a tenor channeling ’60s-era William Shatner is belting out a florid aria as he battles a pack of gnarled Klingons. Welcome to the Pacific Opera Project’s update of “Abduction from the Seraglio,” a production that takes Mozart’s tale of kidnapping and beams it into outer space — the final frontier of “Star Trek,” to be exact.

Clearly, Josh Shaw and Stephen Karr, the co-founders of POP, are not afraid to mess with Mozart.

“This is a man who wrote poop jokes in letters to his sister,” Karr, POP’s musical director, says of the composer. “Mozart was in no way a prude.”

Though it’s hard to know what the maestro had to say about Klingons.

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This month marks the 50th anniversary of the original “Star Trek” television series. To mark the occasion, POP is restaging one of its biggest hits: The “Star Trek”-themed rendition of Mozart’s 18th century drama about two women kidnapped by pirates and sold into a Turkish harem, and the brave Spanish captain who comes to their rescue.

The show runs for a single performance on Saturday night at the newly renovated Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood.

So why go where no opera company has gone before?

Frankly, Shaw explains, most English translations of “Abduction” are pretty dated. “They come off as a little corny at best,” he says, “and a little racist at worst.” 

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Tenor Brian Cheney, who sings the lead, agrees: “Although the music is amazing, the story, when traditionally done, is kind of dull.”

Captain Belmonte (played by tenor Brian Cheney) protects Lt. Constanza (Shawnette Sulker) from the evil clutches of Klingon Chancellor Selim (Gregg Lawrence).
Captain Belmonte (played by tenor Brian Cheney) protects Lt. Constanza (Shawnette Sulker) from the evil clutches of Klingon Chancellor Selim (Gregg Lawrence).
(Pacific Opera Project )

Shaw, POP’s artistic director, came up with the “Star Trek” concept through word association. Abduction made him think of aliens. Aliens made him think of science fiction. He tried “Star Wars,” but the stories didn’t line up. So he sat and watched the first 20 episodes of the original “Star Trek” television series.

“That was painful,” he says. But the narratives worked. 

“Mozart’s story could be straight out of an original series episode,” he explains. “It is two girls who are kidnapped in a foreign land and then the guys go save them.”

So applying “Star Trek” camp to the opera for a new English-language libretto proved easy.

“You find where in the opera you can make ‘live long and prosper’ fit and then you find a place for ‘boldly go where no man has gone before,’” says Shaw, “and you just fill in the in-between with a bunch of rhyming words.”

Full Coverage: Boldly celebrating 50 years of ‘Star Trek’s’ television, movies and more »

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For this English-language version, Mozart’s Belmonte becomes Captain Belmonte, a Kirk-inspired character, and the abducted Konstanze becomes Lt. Constanza (played by Shawnette Sulker, in a role channeling “Star Trek’s” Uhura). As Belmonte’s sidekick, Mr. Pedrillo, Robert Norman dons pointy ears à la Mr. Spock. Naturally, there are Klingons.

“I dove right in and watched the entire original series,” says Cheney, of how he approached his role. “I really wanted to study William Shatner and get a feel for his little ticks and his gait. I also watched some ‘T.J. Hooker.’ That was helpful because the fighting and jumping around Shatner does in that show is incredible. Captain Belmonte is really a mix of the original ‘Star Trek’ Shatner/Kirk and just a little bit of T.J. Hooker.”

Captain Belmonte is really a mix of the original ‘Star Trek’ Shatner/Kirk and just a little bit of T.J. Hooker.
Brian Cheney, tenor

The tenor’s operatic bread and butter are typically characters like Rodolfo or Don José in traditional productions of “La Bohème” or “Carmen.” So Cheney is having fun with the parody — even creating a Facebook page for Captain Belmonte, where he posts in-character video responses to fictional fan questions.

For Saturday night’s performance, Cheney says he will implement a “slow crescendo of zaniness” that will include “a Shatner barrel-roll.”

Though the opera’s trappings may be out of this world, Mozart’s memorable melodies remain intact. 

“It’s so singable and so relatable,” says Shaw. “I think people still love that.”

“You really don’t have to be a ‘Star Trek’ fan or an opera fan,” he says of the unusual production. “As long as you enjoy a good laugh and some impressive singing, you’re going to have a really good time.”

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Pacific Opera Project: “Abduction from the Seraglio”

Where: The Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood Hills

When: Saturday at 8 p.m.

Info: pacificoperaproject.com

“Star Trek Beyond” director Justin Lin talks about how he and the crew wanted to find new and fresh ways to approach “Star Trek.”

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