Christopher Mirto remembers “The Puppy Episode” as one of the funniest TV moments of his life.
Actually a two-part episode of Ellen DeGeneres’ eponymous sitcom that aired in spring 1997, “The Puppy Episode” marked—in hilarious fashion—the long-rumored coming out of the program’s central character as well as the comedian who portrayed her.
Now a new opera inspired by the watershed moment will receive its world premiere at Oberlin: The Puppy Episode, composed by Matthew Recio with libretto by Royce Vavrek, will be presented in two performances Wednesday and Thursday, February 16 and 17, in Warner Concert Hall. Each performance begins at 7:30 p.m. and the performance on February 16 will be streamed live.
The production will then be taken on the road—with its student cast and instrumentalists intact—for a professional debut with Opera Columbus in May 2022. It will be presented as part of the company’s “40 Days of Opera” series.
Code named “The Puppy Episode” by Ellen producers to keep the surprise under wraps, the landmark episode was preceded by a content advisory, although its content would be considered innocuous by today’s standards. The initial broadcast was followed by a passionate and divisive reaction from many corners of society, including criticism toward the series and its star for being “too gay.” It was widely hailed by many in the LGBTQ community.
“I was in middle school when the episode came out,” says Mirto, an assistant professor of opera theater at Oberlin and director of the production. “For a young kid in Oklahoma who wasn’t openly gay yet, it was a moving experience to see that episode. But it was such a scandal to see it happening!”
Similar to the sitcom, the opera revolves around the experiences of multiple characters recognizing their sexual identities at different stages of their lives: They include a single adult female, a high school boy, a middle-aged woman in a heterosexual marriage, and an elderly woman in a nursing home.
The cast of six singers will be complemented by an eight-member ensemble directed by Assistant Professor of Conducting Tiffany Chang ’09.
“It’s a period piece that, fortunately, most kids don’t have to live through anymore,” says Mirto. “It’s really a beautiful story, and it’s a cool piece to be able to do in this community, and to have kids see relatable, real people on stage. I’m so glad they can comfortably be who they are today, but it was so much harder in the ’90s.”
Based in Chicago, Matthew Recio has served as the Vanguard Emerging Opera Composer for Chicago Opera Theater—where The Puppy Episode initially was workshopped—and as composer in residence at the Luzerne Music Center in New York. He was the first commissioned composer for the Cincinnati Song Initiative’s 2018-19 season, a winner of the Cincinnati Camerata Competition, and a two-time winner of the NOTUS Composition Competition at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, where he completed a doctorate in composition.
No stranger to the stages of Oberlin, Canadian-born librettist Royce Vavrek partnered with composer Du Yun ’01 on the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Angel’s Bone, which was staged at Oberlin in 2018. A frequent collaborator with Missy Mazzoli, he provided the libretto for her opera Proving Up, which was presented at Oberlin in 2019. One year later, he returned for the world premiere of The Wild Beast of the Bungalow, a collaboration with composer Rachel Peters. Over the past four-plus years, Vavrek has made numerous trips to campus to work with students in pre-production workshops and attend their performances.
Admission to Oberlin Opera Theater's production of The Puppy Episode is free. Reservations are required and can be made through Oberlin's Central Ticketing Service website.
A talkback session, featuring Mirto, Recio, Vavrek, Chang, and Oberlin musicology professor James O'Leary, will take place at the conclusion of both performances.
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