Looking back at Orpheus

If you are familiar with the legend of Orpheus, you will know that looking back is severely ill-advised. But as today marks World Opera Day, we're throwing caution to the wind and doing just that, as we revisit SAA-uk and Opera North's bold production ‘Orpheus: Reimagined'.  

Claudio Monteverdi's L'Orfeo has remained the bread and butter of the opera world ever since its first intimate staging for a court performance in Mantua. Having set the stage for a new way of approaching and experiencing the operatic genre with his musical innovation, 400 years later, Orpheus: Reimagined took a leaf out of Monteverdi's pioneering spirit, exploring yet a new dimension of what opera could be. 

The unlikely worlds of Western baroque and Indian Classical music were cast to retell the ancient fable to a contemporary audience. Though it was a daring and uncharted journey that weaved together the likes of the sitar and the violin, the santoor and the trumpet, Hindi with Italian, it was this marriage of melodies and heritages that ultimately charmed and touched the hearts of those who listened. And just a few weeks ago, its legacy was firmly established as it took home the award for Achievement in Opera at the UK Theatre Awards 2023

The operatic universe has had its fair share of critique when it comes to representation and diversity on-stage. With casting rarely featuring POC actors and musicians, Orpheus: Reimagined was refreshingly different with many leading characters played by a South Asian cast. Kaviraj Singh, who played the santoor as part of the productions musical ensemble as well as taking on the role of the formidable Caronte, took us behind the scenes. We also spoke to Keranjeet Kaur Virdee, artistic director at SAA, whose self-described role as fly on the wall gave us an intimate look at what it took to bring this work to life. 

When portraying Caronte, Kaviraj delivered the infamous boatman's lines in Hindi rather than Italian, which was a rare depiction of the character. Explaining how he emulated the callous character through the scarcely done avenue of Hindustani vocals he recounts, “I had done some research for the character of Caronte and had seen that he was usually shown to be quite a large, unruly looking being. And in the opera a bass voice is usually chosen to portray him. We don't quite have the same distinction of vocal ranges within Indian music, however I felt a powerful voice would be needed to convey his character, so I worked on adding a depth into my voice along with using the musical elements we have in our music”. 

Though his performance was effortless and captivating, he notes that during the earlier stages of performing this scene, there were many challenges he faced along the way. “I was new to this style of performing,” he explains. “As Indian classical musicians we would usually sit and perform our music. However, in this case, we were taken out of our comfort zone. Even just standing and singing felt alien at first, let alone moving around a space. But the more we rehearsed the more I got to learn from Nick, who played Orpheus. He was amazingly patient and so willing to pass on his knowledge and experience”.  

As it happened, the differences between the western baroque and Indian Classical traditions came with challenges beyond just the music. If you were there, you may recall the luscious set abound with florals and greenery, but during the earlier stages of production, it grew some weeds of concern. In a candid recollection, Keranjeet tells us how the South Asian musicians, who typically play their instruments seated, were not placed equally to their western counterparts on stage because of an absence of risers. She explains, “I didn't want any of the musicians on stage to feel lesser than the others, and I didn't want them to be seen as being physically lower down. So, they brought some beautiful Rajasthani carved risers in so that everyone was placed in an equal way”. 

It was all part of a respectful process of listening, learning, and remedying so that this production would do an equal justice in representing both musical heritages and the artists who embodied them. There was a resolute intent, Keranjeet notes, from initial conversations right the way through to curtain call that this would not be a fusion. She adds, “To me, a fusion is just very tick boxy. There's always one more dominant artform and the other is just there as a supporting character. When Opera North and SAA-uk came together to discuss the potential of this production, we all said, if we're doing this, there has to be a balance”.  

There are, of course, existing works within the operatic universe such as Bizet's The Pearl Fishers that explore South Asia. Though, written during the colonial period, it presents a problematic representation that reinforced stereotypes and reductionist interpretations that exoticised South Asian people. Thankfully, the world has progressed much since then. And unlike the audience of the 19th century, we are part of an inter-connected world, where learning about different cultures and heritages is not half as restricted. Cross-cultural music collaborations are one important way Keranjeet suggest we can learn from. She explains, “I see music as a medium through which people evolve. It's an evolution that's safe and creative, but which accounts for our changing world and the population of the country. Artists from different backgrounds can come together and share everything that they have in common while celebrating everything that makes them unique, just as was the process for Orpheus: Reimagined". 

The safe space that the stage opened out to open and honest conversations was one the audience was welcomed into.  When speaking to Mussarat Rahman, the founder of Intercultured Festival who was amongst the audience, she shared with us how the bridging between South Asian and western culture on stage was reflective of her own life growing up in a modern Britain. “I was brought up in an era where my mum listened to Lata Mangeshkar and Mohamed Rafi, and I listened to a lot of music including western and reggae”, she says. “When I hung in spiritual circles, my friends played classical Indian music, so my taste in music adapted to sounds from around the world. I think it was an inspiring thing to combine both eastern and western music and cultures because most of us are children of two nations.  

Although impressed with the diversity that Orpheus brought to opera with the cross-cultural music that lay at the heart of the production, it was in fact the set that had an even more lasting impression on her. She reflects, “It was the first half that really stood out to me, where everyone was gathered in what looked like an estate. I thought that it was so different because you would never usually see an opera on an estate".  

As well as opera's infamous overlooking of marginalised ethnic groups within casting, issues of inclusivity extend to audiences, particularly from working class backgrounds. Labels of ‘too expensive', and ‘posh' have often been assigned to the artform and have served for some as deterrence to engaging with opera. There is a history behind the perceptions of pomp. And during the 18th and 19th century, the opera was more of a flashy, social extravaganza than an evening of musical and creative celebration. The audiences were basked in light and visibility, more so than the performers so that boastful dresses and ornate accessories could have the spotlight. Once again, a lot has changed since then, and this new staging of Orpheus set out to show that opera can be by, for, and about people from all backgrounds. 
There is a still a long way to go to ensure that regardless of background, everyone can feel that they belong at the opera, if they wish to go. Mussarat explains that to incite a change in perspectives, there must be more exposure educational opportunities for marginalised people to experience opera. Putting it directly she says, "If there's no representation then there's no calling. I feel it should be rolled out nationally through schools as an educational tool to introduce opera to communities or maybe even have community operas instead”.   

Orpheus: Reimagined was a success in so many ways. From broadening the scope of what opera can be, to striving towards making the artform more accessible, both on and off-stage. While, of course, there are things to be learnt, and lessons to take-away, Orpheus: Reimagined showed that music is a powerful tool in uniting people. And perhaps most importantly it showed that differences are all the more beautiful when they come together.  

Image credit: Tristram Kenton
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