Experience an innovative and unexpected take on a classic with “Pelléas et Mélisande,” an adaptation of French composer Claude Debussy’s poignant symbolist opera created by a team of Virginia Tech faculty and students from across disciplines, along with special guest artists.

The Moss Arts Center presents two performances of the work on Friday, June 25, and Saturday, June 26, at 7 p.m. The performances are available as streamed and as in-person events. In-person performances will be held in the center’s Anne and Ellen Fife Theatre, located within the Street and Davis Performance Hall at 190 Alumni Mall.

“Pelléas et Mélisande” has captivated audiences since its Paris premiere in 1902. Based on a play by Maurice Maeterlink, the work is a symbolist psycho-drama that dissolves time and space. Using immersive recordings, projections, and unusual costumes and scenery, the Virginia Tech creative team reimagines this masterwork, offering a 75-minute English-language version of the opera that pares the story down to its essentials.

Audiences in the theatre and at home will experience highlights of Debussy’s delicate yet often emotionally turbulent score, and will witness the tragic journey of a group of characters who never manage to understand themselves or each other. As one character says in the final moments of the opera, “it is enough to make even the stones weep.”  

The themes of fate and the power of the subconscious in “Pelléas et Mélisande” call for a nontraditional set. Camille Mauclair, the producer for the performance’s premiere in 1902, described his ideal set for the play as “a scene with borders and frames (supporting, sliding), very movable, of large, vague foliage. A simple mechanism permits one to modify the proscenium according to the stage directions. The scenery is harmonized in very dark blue, bluish gray, dark orange, moss green, sea green… and the costumes harmonize with the scenery.” Mauclair goes on to declare that “instead of the drama being set within real scenery and props, it is to be surrounded by a sort of symphony of lines and colors that harmonize with the play and its general feeling.”

A 21st-century director might read that description and assume that the writer was discussing projections, rather than lights and physical scenery. 

The scenery of late-19th-century European theatre was extremely representational — the opposite of Mauclair’s revolutionary vision. Debussy also repeatedly complained about the gloomy sets of contemporary productions that portrayed a stone medieval castle, rather than the nebulous world of his music.

“Unfortunately, the technology was not available in the early 20th century that would allow Debussy and Mauclair to fully realize their artistic visions,” said Ariana Wyatt, associate professor of voice in Virginia Tech’s School of Performing Arts and co-director of the production. “But we have that technology now and thanks to the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology, as well as our multitalented faculty and guest artists, we can combine traditionally disparate fields into a meaningful piece of transdisciplinary work. Using projection mapping, interaction design, historical research, and the traditional disciplines of music and visual art, we have created a world in which Debussy’s masterwork can live without restraints.” 

The development of this project by a team of faculty members with expertise in design, computer science, human-computer interaction, humanities, visual arts, and performing arts was supported by a SEAD grant from the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT).

The creative team originally intended for the production to be performed in the standard format, which includes singers performing the work live on a set. In order to create a performance that could be attended live, however, the team reimagined its concept to create a COVID-safe performance space. The singers were recorded in April, and actors will portray the characters on the immersive set while wearing larger-than-life costume masks. The end result will be reminiscent of Kabuki theatre and create a product that completely embraces the symbolist opera.

In addition to the Moss Arts Center, School of Performing Arts, and ICAT, this production is supported in part by the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Bruce Carver Multicultural Arts Grant.

Pre-concert lecture

Prior to the performance on Friday, June 25, Richard Masters, associate professor of piano and collaborative piano in the School of Performing Arts, will deliver a pre-concert lecture in the Moss Arts Center’s Anne and Ellen Fife Theatre at 6 p.m. Using examples from Debussy’s piano and vocal repertoire, Masters will discuss the influences of orientalism and exoticism on the music of Debussy. This in-person event is free, but registration is required.

Ticket information

Tickets for in-person performances are $20 for general admission and $10 for Virginia Tech students. Tickets for the streamed performances are $10 and free for Virginia Tech students. Tickets can be purchased online; at the Moss Arts Center's box office, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; or by calling 540-231-5300 during box office hours.

If you are an individual who desires an accommodation, please contact Kacy McAllister at 540-231-5300 or email kmcallis@vt.edu during regular business hours.

Parking is available in the North End Parking Garage on Turner Street. Virginia Tech faculty and staff possessing a valid Virginia Tech parking permit can enter and exit the garage free of charge. When not staffed for a special event, visitors may park in the garage by taking a ticket at entry and paying with Visa or Mastercard upon exit. In addition, Virginia Tech has partnered with ParkMobile to provide a convenient, contactless electronic payment option for parking, which may be used at or any parking meter, campus parking space, or lot with standard F/S, C/G, or R parking. Download the ParkMobile app, explore rates, and learn more about this service online.

Written by Susan Bland