Read on for a deep dive into the impact and influence of the Orpheus myth in opera…

The myth

The myth of Orpheus dates back to Ancient Greece, with its roots in even older legends, but the most well-known and influential version of the story comes to us from the great Roman poets Virgil and Ovid:

Orpheus is a poet and musician whose playing of the kithara (a harp-like lyre) is so divine that the birds, the beasts, even the stones and the trees move to the rhythm of his songs. Shortly after his marriage to the nymph Eurydice, the newlyweds are cruelly parted when she dies after being bitten by a viper.

Orpheus playing the kithara surrounded by animals in a Roman floor mosaic in the Museo archeologico regionale di Palermo © Giovanni Dall'Orto

Filled with grief, Orpheus cannot accept the loss of his adored bride, and he decides to journey to the Underworld to bring her back. His musical gifts charm Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the gates, and allow him finally to reach the god of the Underworld, Hades, and his wife, Persephone. He beguiles them, too, with his song, and Hades tells Orpheus that he can take Euridyce back with him, under one condition: she must follow behind him as they emerge from the Underworld, and he must not turn to look at her.

Overjoyed at being set this simple task, Orpheus thanks the gods and begins his ascent. But, unable to hear Eurydice’s footsteps, he starts to fear that Hades has fooled him. As he nears the exit from the Underworld, he turns to see Eurydice behind him, and she is trapped forever.

Devastated by this final separation and unable to return to the Underworld himself, Orpheus plays a mourning song on his lyre and is torn to pieces by a band of Maenads (female followers of the god Dionysus). His head remains intact, and continues to sing as it floats off on the waters.

Orpheus and opera

What gives the Orpheus myth such a lasting power – it was the object of a whole ancient religion, and a source of inspiration for artists right up to the present day – is its insistence on the miraculous power of art to conquer objective reality, even to cross the border between life and death, however momentarily. Orpheus has been a talisman for composers, poets and painters throughout history: ‘Once and forever it’s Orpheus, whenever there’s song’, wrote the poet Rilke in the 1920s.

Specifically, says Laurence Cummings, music director/conductor for Orpheus: Monteverdi Reimagined, “the Orpheus myth tells of the power of music. Orpheus, our hero, can charm wild beasts and silence the winds. No wonder then, that his story was seized upon by the first creators of opera in 17th-century Italy, who wanted to move the souls of their listeners through music”.

The Orpheus legend was the subject of the first three operas ever written: the first to have survived to the present day, Jacopo Peri’s Euridice, was written in 1600. A second version was composed using the same libretto in the same year by Giulio Caccini; and Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo of 1607 was closely based on Peri’s original.

Orpheus: Monteverdi Reimagined

Monteverdi composed L’Orfeo for a court performance during the annual Carnival at Mantua. Through a combination of brilliant craftsmanship, musical innovation and a new approach to drama, he laid the foundation for what we call opera today (although he called it a favola in musica, or ‘fable in music’). As it was written for a happy occasion, his version ends not with the horrific mutilation of the hero, but with the intervention of Apollo, who spirits Orfeo up to heaven, where he recognises Euridice’s likeness in the stars.

Among other twists, it is Charon, the ferryman, rather than Cerberus, who is charmed by Orpheus’ song at the entrance to the Underworld. The ruler of the Underworld is known by his later name of Pluto, and his wife Proserpine (Persephone) also appears, herself the subject of another foundational myth of imprisonment in the dark realm.

In collaboration with South Asian Arts-uk, Opera North’s new production of this seminal work is told through a meeting of the worlds of Indian and western baroque music. “This bringing together of two traditions demonstrates the power and universality of music, and of emotions (rasas) of love, loss and bereavement”, says Keranjeet Kaur Virdee, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of SAA-uk.

“The more I delve into Monteverdi’s work, the more similarities I see with several tragic romances of the Punjab region: Heer Ranjha is the renowned story of the love between a beautiful young woman and a skilled musician, whose happiness is even more short-lived than Orpheus and Euridice’s. And Sorath Rai Diyach, a tale from neighbouring Sindh, revolves around a shepherd-musician, Beejal, whose playing of a stringed instrument entrances those who hear it. It also features a severed head, although not Beejal’s: he meets his end on a funeral pyre.”

The deep sense of the sacred within the fabric of Indian classical music, too, resonates strongly with the Orpheus myth. For Rilke, the ultimate failure of Orpheus’ quest is a symbol of modern society’s remoteness from the world of myth and spirit: ‘[Man’s] senses are awry. And there stand no temples of Apollo…’  he laments in Sonnets to Orpheus.

By contrast, says Jasdeep Singh Degun, our co-music director, composer and sitarist, Indian music has never lost its fundamental connection with the spiritual: “Indian classical music is always ultimately a form of devotion: I remove my shoes as a sign of respect when handling or playing the sitar, and whatever ‘stage’ I perform on needs to be clean and carpeted like a temple or gurdwara. The relationship of music student to teacher (Guru-Shishya Parampara) is also highly ritualised, and begins with a formal ceremony.

“The tanpura drone that’s the basis of most Indian classical music also has a religious significance. For Sikhs, it symbolises the omnipresence of God (Waheguru, meaning ‘wondrous enlightener’) throughout all of creation, and the belief in God as the single source of everything: all the notes of the scale have their origin in this single droning tonic string and the overtones that it produces”.

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Orfeo ed Euridice

In the century after Monteverdi’s death, opera seria became dominant, with ‘serious’ themes and convoluted storylines revolving around showcases for virtuoso singers. In both the music and the drama of his Orfeo and Euridice, Gluck makes a radical break with this tradition, reaching instead for a ‘beautiful simplicity’, and getting rid of the repetition and showboating of traditional da capo arias.

Christoph Willibald Gluck, from a 1775 portrait by Joseph Duplessis in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien (Public Domain)

“When Gluck wanted to strip away what he saw as the excesses of the 18th-century, it was the Orpheus myth that he returned to, to reveal once again the power and eloquence of music”, says Laurence Cummings, who also conducted our first concert staging of Orfeo ed Euridice during lockdown.

Gluck’s opera received its premiere in Vienna in 1762, as part of celebrations for name day of the Holy Roman Emperor. As with Monteverdi’s Orfeo, the occasion demanded a happy ending, and Gluck and his librettist Calzabigi obliged with some further tweaks to the story.

The opera begins after the death of Euridice, with a chorus of nymphs and shepherds lamenting. Amore (Cupid/Love) appears to the grieving Orfeo and tells him outright that he can go to the Underworld to retrieve his wife, on the condition that he not look back at her. This time it’s the Furies (female gods of vengeance) who bar Orfeo’s way to the Underworld with a fantastically menacing chorus, until his music arouses “pity… to soften our implacable rage”.

Orfeo finds himself in Elysium, the paradise where heroes and those in the Gods’ favour are sent after death. Finally, he is reunited with Euridice. As he leads her out of the Underworld, unable to embrace her or even look at her, she misreads his behaviour as irritation and concludes that he has fallen out of love with her. Faltering, she pleads with him to explain, until finally Orfeo relents and turns to look at her, and she dies a second time. His response is the beautiful aria ‘Che farò senza Euridice’ (What will I do without Euridice), filled with desperate grief despite being set in a major key.

As Orpheus is about to kill himself in despair, it is Amor who comes to the rescue again, telling our hero, “You have suffered enough for my glory”, and simply bringing Euridice back to life!

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Orpheus in the Record Shop

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss saw myths not as inert objects, but as working instruments of reflection, that could be translated, paraphrased, and passed down through time without losing what was essential about them.

Fitting into this conception, Gluck’s Orfeo Ed Euridice would go on to influence the heroic quests of Mozart’s Magic Flute, Beethoven’s Fidelio, Wagner’s Rheingold… and a very contemporary return to the Orpheus myth written by beatboxer, rapper and playwright Testament in lockdown 2020.

Testament in Orpheus in the Record Shop © Anthony Robling

“I was commissioned by Opera North and Leeds Playhouse to write a show that would make the transition ‘from isolation to community’ as part of their Connecting Voices collaboration”, he explains. “Through conversation with both organisations, I settled on the idea of a solo protagonist who accumulates life lessons from different characters over the course of a journey, taking the audience through series of ‘worlds’, each with their own rite of passage, before reaching a destination where all the lessons connect together. When I explained this to our original stage director Aletta Collins, she was reminded of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, so I threw myself into the myth and the history.

“Of course, the Orpheus story is ubiquitous, inspiring everything from bossa nova classics (Marcel Camus’ 1959 film Black Orpheus, above) to Pixar films. And as a rapper I know that classical myths have always been a source of inspiration for hip hop culture, from one of its original progenitors DJ Kool Herc (short for Hercules); to Kae Tempest pushing the art form forward in Brand New Ancients; to the latest underground hip hop soul stars Children of Zeus.

“Every generation uses myth as pool to look into and find its own reflection in. It’s not about narcissism, it’s a way of trying to find some order, or at least comfort, in the chaos. In my version, the owner of a Leeds record shop journeys through an emotional underworld to find a love even more vital than the one he’s looking back at and attempting to regain.

“Our show has numerous musical nods to the Gluck opera. Each character Orpheus meets has their own musical leitmotif and when they eventually combine – the melodies are played simultaneously – they create a remix for Gluck’s immortal aria ‘Che farò senza Euridice’. Only on this occasion we know the answer to the question, ‘Where will I go without Euridice?’ And it’s full of hope”.

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