Looking Back at Orfeo

Looking Back at Orfeo

ORFEO - ROH / ROUNDHOUSE (CAMDEN), JANUARY 2015I wanted to throw a glance back at the amazing and intense production of Orfeo which I was part of this winter, clearly not having learnt anything from the story (if only Orfeo wouldn’t have looked back at Eurydice they would have lived happily ever after…), with some thoughts and reflections on how this ambitious production made its way onto the stage.

Orfeo was a co-production between The Roundhouse and the Royal Opera House with an amazing and high-profile artistic team, a superb cast of singers and musicians as well as a collaboration with East London Dance to involve a group of relatively inexperienced young dancers, who me, movement director Liz Ranken and assistant artist Nathan Gordon (former Flawless) worked with over the winter to train and devise with before bringing them into the process with the professional cast for the rehearsals.


But a co-production can be a both a blessing and a challenge. This one brought together two of the biggest performance venues in London in a never tried out format and tried to use this marriage to help opera reach a new and less typical audience. The work with young people added to this ambition, introducing young people to an art-form they might never have encountered before and also using the physicality of the young people as a way of making the opera more visible and accessible for new audiences. Worth to mention was that we were several in the artistic team – including director Michael Boyd and myself, for which this was the first opera we worked on! I think cross-artform projects are very exciting, feels like a natural way to keep the arts evolving, but the problem with those projects is that you never get double (or triple) the time for the rehearsals to allow space for the need of each art-form, in this case the music, singing, acting, dance and with acrobatics and aerial skills integrated as well! This project was incredibly ambitious bringing all these elements together, rehearsed in a very tight time-frame, and putting non-professional cast on the stage to perform alongside the professionals and at points I must admit to had doubts about if it would pull through to the vision painted! I feel passionately about making chances for young people but combining an inclusive outreach with a high-profile performance brings big challenges – and it is a fine balance to introduce them to the exciting professional performance world and to push their limits, but without putting so much pressure on them that it puts them off! In inclusive projects you try to keep a sense of ‘fairness’ – everyone getting their time and attention on stage, whereas in a professional production it is about what story needs to be told and what looks best for that moment. hard for any performer to not get upset about and for our young people a crash course at points. But a crash course that they took on the challenge of!

With the enthusiasm from everyone involved, the seemingly endless faith from both the Royal Opera’s and Roundhouse team in the production, the amazing cast and creative team and also I must say – the brilliant energy of the young dancers, it all fell into place! I really enjoyed watching Michael Boyd work with an eye for detail, characters and psychology of the story without letting any stress showing and magically seeing it fall into place under his and conductor Christopher Mould’s hands in the last few production days. The young performers went from feeling overwhelmed to stepping up to a different level and they loved it there on stage once an audience was brought in – they all really grew. And I must admit that hardly having paid opera any attention before, the singers and musicians totally won me over and I found myself cycling back from rehearsals humming Monteverdi tunes…

As well as the journey with the young people I really enjoyed the challenge of bringing singers into the air, taking into account their very different use and mastery of their bodies and see how that could be translated into a physicality that could work for the acrobatics or aerial demands and for their singing. It is also a very different approach to look at how acrobatics and aerial can work in a theatrical (or in this case operatic) contexts – to frame the story and the singers or as a compliment to the storytelling. Liz, Michael and I discussed in an early planning meeting how to approached the story physically. I approached the acrobalance alternatively as imagery  – temporary scenographies to paint a scene – or as a means to extend a feeling or the tensions present in the story. I created wedding gates and the entrance into hell out of human pyramids, worked with acrobats falling from each others shoulders to symbolise the trust we have to give when we fall in love and we worked with low straps to suspense the dead Eurydice mid-air (a good ab work-out for Mary each evening) to enhance the tension between Pluto and Persephone when discussing her fate.

The end.  © ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey

The end. © ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey

For the end scene I worked with Orfeo suspended on straps 5 metres into the air, reaching out for his dead Eurydice with a aerial drop which in circus terms was very basic, but in an operatic setting kept many audience members (and the Royal Opera’s Artistic Director) on the edge of the seats, with special mention in several review:

The human dimension of the ending packs a powerful punch.’ Guardian Review.

‘An unforgettable tableau in a visual context which will linger in the mind’s eye, as the sounds will in the ear, for a very long time.’ Arts Desk Review

Work like this keeps me falling in love with the possibility of circus over and over again. It shows that even the smallest trick can be highly appreciated if presented in the right setting or format. It shows that our physical expression really can reach into people, making us experience what we watch differently, more visceral and express a feeling or longing that might just be lost in words. It is also lovely to introduce this physicality to people who have never done it before, like lead singers Gyula and Mary who trusted mine and Michael’s vision of hoisting them up on straps and didn’t complain too much (once I explained that there really was nothing to do about the bruises…), rather seeming to enjoy the challenge, the flights and the new-won muscles!


Trust! © ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey

Among the other ups I have to mention is a personal journey of one of our young people – a young boy who I taught on and off for the last 7 years –  since he was 8! He has always been talented but always had big problems about focus and attention. Last year he got himself into trouble and got excluded from his secondary school. I told him about this project and was glad to see him auditioning and getting-in, cycling with him to half-term and Saturday rehearsals out in the deepest of east London. He charmed people, he annoyed people, he climbed the walls, he was slightly horrified when he realised it really was an opera and a lot of the dance was very contemporary (rather than his comfort zone of street-dance and hip-hop), but he stayed with it – learnt his things and got to perform in front of 12,000 people over the course of the performances. The last night he told me that ‘before I couldn’t wait for it to be finished, because it has been really hard work, but now I really don’t want it to stop cause I am loving it’. He is still getting into trouble, this was never going to be a miracle cure, but I was very proud to see him sticking through and working hard on something that didn’t come easy, and appreciate the attention and accolades he deservingly got at the end. I do hope and believe that somewhere at some point this will make a difference for some of his choices in the future. We had 2 other young people from Mimbre Youth Programme involved in the project too and seeing them grow and develop over the years to end up on the Roundhouse main stage was something really special for me!

So despite challenges I was amazed to see that we actually managed to surpass the initial, totally unrealistic expectations! I am very please to have been part of this and had a chance to work with and learn from all the amazing people involved. And am certainly hoping for more exciting cross-artform adventures to come my way.

For some lovely video footage from the rehearsals and the work with the young people and the artistic team’s input you can watch either of these short video edits, first one shares the view from one of the young dancers:

And this one more of the thoughts from the artistic team, involving myself, about involving the young performers:



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