Swell performance: Opera company stages show on a barge

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This opera will have a Debussy debut — at sea!

New company Floating Opera New York will stage its first production — Claude Debussy’s “Pelleas and Melisande” — aboard the Lehigh Valley No. 79 barge at the Waterfront Barge Museum in Red Hook starting on Oct. 14.

The show’s producers say that the National Register of Historic Places-listed ship is all the backdrop the opera needs — despite its setting in a castle.

“Every inch of the barge is an artifact, and it’s a very magical experience to be in the space where every place that your eye lands is not only 100 years old but also is wood and is evocative of the sea,” said Isabel Milenski, the artistic director of the itinerant company. “I saw a piece on the barge, and I almost couldn’t focus on the piece at all — which I hope doesn’t happen for us.”

Yards of nautical rope arranged like two Rapunzel-esque braids and a row boat in the middle of the stage make up most of the set — otherwise players will use the barge itself as a prop, climbing on walls and strutting along its deck as Red Hook Channel laps at their feet, she said.

But it is not just an aesthetic decision to stage the opera at sea, Milenski said.

“The piece itself is very much about water,” she said. “A symbolist work in which water keeps emerging as a place where things are abandoned.”

The five-act drama touches on the cyclical nature of life and death and centers on a fatal love triangle between Pelleas, Melisande, and Pelleas’s cuckold brother Golaud, Milenski said.

The show has limited electricity, and it may get chilly on the water, so audiences should bring a jacket or blanket, Milenski said.

By press time, not all the singers have their sea legs, she said. So you may not want to sit in the front row.

“We have a singer who gets seasick, and she’s having a hard time,” Milenski said. “Every time there would be a swell you could see she would almost throw up.”

“Pelleas and Melisande” at the Waterfront Barge Museum (290 Conover St. between Reed Street and the waterfront in Red Hook, Oct. 14, 16–18 at 8 pm. $30.

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at or by calling (718) 260–8303. Follow him on Twitter @JustTheMax.

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