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Squonk Opera: It's Not Your Mama's Magic Flute

An avant-garde performance band from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is currently on tour with their latest show. Squonk Opera's Inferno is a multi-media spectacle that combines music, drama, video and puppetry in a presentation inspired by Dante's Inferno.

The great 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote about a journey through imaginary hell. But the new Squonk Opera production that played just outside of Washington in October is based on what some have described as a real hell happening today in Centralia, a small town near Pittsburgh. For more than 40 years, an underground coal mine fire has been burning there, turning a once close-knit mining community into an abandoned industrial site and ghost town.

"We figure it's the perfect setting, a real-life setting for Dante's Inferno. Sort of a hell on earth," said Jackie Dempsey, Squonk Opera's co-founder, as well as composer and musical director. She says Squonk Opera is not opera in the traditional sense but refers to a medium that combines many art forms. "We put the 'squonk' out front to let people know that it's ridiculous, and it's not like Mozart or Wagner."

She's right about that. Onstage, a giant five-meter-high wall of coal turns into a video screen. Sometimes the performers in the videos interact with the live performers onstage, giving the illusion of as many as 75 actors onstage. Other times, shadow puppets, and pop-up and inflatable structures are depicted on the video screen. The five-member band includes a piano and accordion, played by Ms. Dempsy, as well as electric and acoustical guitars, wind instruments and a vocalist. Composer Jackie Dempsey says the quirky humor and special effects of this show and other "Squonk" productions appeal to a wide range of audiences.

"Little kids get a lot out of it. We do some school shows for them because of the big puppets that we use. We have a giant mouth coming out with a 10 foot (3 m.) tongue that comes out and licks the audience," she said. "I mean, kids squeal when that comes out! We shoot marshmallows at the audience; they really get into that."

In its 10 years of existence, Squonk Opera has been a challenge for most critics to categorize. The company has been described as everything from "absurdist theater," to "shattering the boundaries between music and theatrics," to "Debussy meets Godzilla." Squonk musical director Jackie Dempsey says she and co-founder Steve O'Hearn have been inspired by the works of experimental composers Philip Glass and Meredith Monk; the internationally acclaimed Circque d'Soleil; and the physical comedy of Penn and Teller. But she says she shies away from identifying Squonk Opera as "performance art."

"We stay away from that term just because there's no nudity, it's not autobiographical, and it's not really about oppression. So it's much lighter, it's a lot more fun than performance art," she explained. "We do combine media the way performance art does. But it is sort of a friendlier approach so I think it's really 'new' performance art."

Squonk Opera's Inferno will tour to other U.S. cities through 2003.