On Monday, 17th October, it will be 60 years to the day since a spotty, overweight East Leeds slum kid sat down with his mum after tea to watch the local ITV regional news programme, People and Places. There were only two channels back then, both in black and white, and very little popular music shown on either. To end the broadcast, which in those days was from Granada in Manchester as it was the pre-Yorkshire Television era, a group of four musicians played a couple of tunes which made my mum and I stare at each other in disbelief at what we were seeing and hearing. I got the same shiver of frisson last night when watching Orpheus at the Grand Theatre. It was music, beautifully performed and presented, but not as we had heard or seen it before.
Please don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting for one moment that this operatic fusion of classical Italian and Indian styles will set the world alight in the same way as did The Beatles, for that is who the TV ensemble were, but it certainly resonated in as strong a way with those present at the performance.
The fusion of Western and Indian music is nothing new. In another parallel it was George Harrison who first played the sitar on a pop record when the Fab Four cut Norwegian Wood, and I have seen Jasdeep Singh Degun, co-writer of this piece with Claudio Monteverdi, perform his work, Arya, at Huddersfield Town Hall with the Orchestra of Opera North, but this took things to a whole new level. Mr Degun was also co-Musical Director with Laurence Cummings, both of whom played in the orchestra. Unfortunately Sig. Monteverdi could not be present having died in 1643.
To keep the theme going, and I don’t know whether this was the reason Monteverdi’s work was chosen, Orpheus (or Orfeo as it was originally titled) was groundbreaking in itself, being widely regarded as being the first opera masterpiece ever written. It was originally performed in the Ducal Palace on 24th February, 1607 and the instruments used in this production, both Western and Indian, are of the type which would have been played at the time. That being said, the setting was in the present day.
The original story of Orpheus and Eurydice was a Greek myth but was then taken up by the Romans who adapted it somewhat. The basic plot is the same, with the hero, a talented musician, falling in love with nymph of the woods Eurydice, and marrying her. Whilst the wedding celebrations are going on she goes into the forest where she is bitten by a snake and dies. Orpheus goes to try to get into Hades to rescue his bride but he is refused until he charms his way past the boatman and guard, Caronte, by enchanting him with his music until he is asleep. The same ploy works with Pluto and Proserpina, the King and Queen of the Realm of the Dead, who are charmed but manage to stay awake!
Pluto agrees that Eurydice can leave Hades by following Orpheus but there is one stipulation, which is that he cannot look back at her until they are in the land of the living. Just before they exit the Underworld, Orpheus can’t resist checking to see if Eurydice is still behind him, so takes a glance backwards. This breaks the contract and so Eurydice is taken back and Orpheus, despite his pleadings and another shot at the musical charm, has to return home alone where he vowed never to be with another woman as long as he lived. (as a footnote, in one of the pieces of source material I read, Ovid said that he found a loophole in the promise and ‘the only friendship he enjoyed was given to the young men of Thrace’. That bit didn’t make this version!
The opera opens in the back garden of a plain end terrace house which is being set up for a wedding bash. We are instantly aware of the juxtapositioning of the setting and the music, as the happy couple are heralded by a fanfare on a natural trumpet, which is much longer than a modern one and has no valves, but holes in the bottom part of the instrument. The keyboards were also harpsichords rather than pianos. I am reliably informed that there were Indian instruments appropriate to the Baroque period being played. The overall effect was stunning.
I loved the way in which the wedding reception was staged, there were English country dance moves as well as more oriental ones, in which everyone partook. What particularly amused me was the way in which one of the singers added his contribution. I was lucky enough to be invited to see the run-through in rehearsal and noticed that a chap was seemingly bereft of any sense of rhythm but when he had his wedding suit and tie on for the real thing this was a perfect example of the dad dancing you always get at a do like this and added to the humanity of the piece.
Another feature of the party was the way in which Chiranjeeb Chakraborty, and Vijay Rajput, were teasing Nicholas Watts, as Orpheus, by singing a few short Indian musical phrases and signalling him to copy them, like Freddie Mercury with the audience at Live Aid. When he had done this successfully a couple of times, they went into a really long phrase which had him baffled so he just repeated the last bar to two which had the audience laughing out loud.
The set in the first half was a back sheet showing the exterior of the aforementioned house and clouds in an ominous grey. When Orpheus and Eurydice (Ashnaa Sasikaran) left for the temple to give thanks, only Orpheus returned and joined in the party. As an aside – yes another – the surtitles translated the groom once being referred to as ‘Our Orpheus’ which led me to believe that the action is set in Leeds!
At the close of the first half the mood changed as Silvia, The Messenger, sung by Kezia Bienek, appears, to tell the assembled guests that Eurydice was in the forest collecting flowers for a garland to give to her new husband, when she was bitten by a snake and died. Possibly not Leeds then. The reception breaks up, Orpheus vows to search for his bride to bring her back and the curtain falls.
The second half is much more sombre with Orpheus following Eurydice to Hades and negotiating her return. The set has now become a plain black backdrop, still with the same garden plants and cast, although now playing spirits in the Underworld. This was a clever touch.
When Orpheus was spirited back to Leeds, the backdrop of the house literally did drop from the fly to create the effect. He is comforted by his friends and life goes on.
The cast of singers is epic, there being eighteen listed in the programme, each of whom were featured individually at some point, and all were superb. I feel guilty in saying that they, and the musicians, were out of this world, as it implies that there was a chance that they wouldn’t be. I am, therefore, adding this link so that you can see the full cast, creatives and musicians, all of whom deserve the highest praise. https://www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on/orpheus/ They are right at the bottom but on your way down to them you will find links to a trailer, an interview with Jasdeep Singh Degun, and other items to enlighten you on this production far better than I can.
Should you wish to see the opera from the comfort of your armchair, then it is being screened free by operavision 31st October until 30th April 2023. I would urge you to go and see it though, as you can’t beat the live experience. In a previous article I said that I would let you know whether the works I had seen would be suitable for a first-time operagoer in order to take advantage of the Try it ON scheme giving discounted tickets. You might be surprised to learn that I would suggest that this is so far removed from the normal repertoire of Opera North that, brilliant as it is, it will not prepare you for the more conventional shows which are to come. Also, at 2 hours 50 minutes with one interval, although the time flashed by for me, it could be a bit of a marathon for a newbie.
My final point is that I must congratulate Opera North, South Asian Arts and Jasdeep Singh Degun, for their honesty in billing this production as Orpheus rather than Orfeo, and being by Claudio Monteverdi and Jasdeep Singh Begun. I have written in the past about works by great playwrights being destroyed by their content and characters having been ‘adapted’ in the name of progressiveness or wokery, whilst still keeping the classic names and selling them as being by the original authors. Here the opera has been amended to focus on the music and the moral of the story, rather than display the creators’ ‘right on’ credentials.
Rant over. Speaking of the essence of the story, I am wondering whether I should rewrite the first paragraph of this article as there is a lot of looking back involved in it. What the heck, I am bound for Hades anyway!
Orpheus is at Leeds Grand Theatre on Tuesday, 18th October and Thursday, 20th October both at 7.00pm and ends its run on Saturday, 22nd October with a 2.30pm Matinee. It then goes on to; Theatre Royal, Newcastle on Saturday, 5th November at 7.00pm; Theatre Royal, Nottingham on Saturday, 12th November at 7.00pm and The Lowry, Salford Quays on Saturday, 19th November at 7.00pm. To book please go to https://www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on/orpheus/#book
All images provided by Opera North. Photographs by Tristram Kenton
To see what Opera North has in store please go to https://www.operanorth.co.uk/
To find out more about South Asian Arts it is https://www.saa-uk.org/