Getting to the bottom of The Orpheus Project

Whenever you set out to create something new, it’s a descent into the unknown. But was The Orpheus Project a descent or merely a clever format for a concert (Hades with A/C)?

Photos courtesy Jan Gates

The Orpheus Project, which ran July 17 to 20 at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, followed the Orpheus mythic journey through all the twists and turns of the theatre itself—rehearsal rooms, backstage, dressing rooms, hallways, and both stages.

Orpheus was a great musician who travelled into the underworld to retrieve his recently deceased wife, and would have succeeded had he not broken the one condition for her retrieval: he must not look back. But he did and the rest is history, or rather, mythology.

What drew me to The Orpheus Project was to find out how far Music on Main's Artistic Director David Pay and his troupe of 12 performers playing mostly original works by 8 composers intended to take his audience on the journey Orpheus had taken. Was it a descent into the unknown or merely a clever format for a concert (Hades with A/C)?

Call to adventure

The call to adventure came swiftly from actor Patti Allen who mounted a ladder in the lobby as audience members sipped their drinks and organized themselves into their colour-coded group assignments. Patti would play many roles throughout the evening, but for now she used charm to prepare us for the journey we’d soon be taking. “Now’s your last chance”, she said, “Drink up and pee.”

Before the descent

Before The Orpheus Project, audience members gather for their colour-coded group assignments. Photos courtesy Jan Gates.

Then the tiny orchestra played a spirited arrangement (by Alfredro Santa Ana) of Monteverdi’s Orfeo overture to announce the beginning of the journey. Orfeo, written in 1607, strides the Renaissance and the Baroque so it sounded as much like a masque as an overture. We weren’t yet back to Classical times yet, but the door was opening.

People dispersed to various parts of the building in groups of approximately 30 persons. As a result, the programme order varied and no group saw the entire show. My first night had left me a little troubled­—as if I felt I’d only experienced half the journey—so I returned two nights later and joined a different group.

The threshold

Whenever you set out to create something new, it’s a descent into the unknown. I took heed from how author Julia Cameron had described the creative mystery, “We need to trust the darkness”, so in I went.

Our first stop took us to a stairwell in which soprano, two flutes, and cello performed Cassandra Miller’s “Nemico Orfeo” based on Stefano Landi’s 1619 opera La Morte di Orfeo. Despite the once-again Baroque source material, I began to sense the mythic journey was underway. Miller’s writing hinted at pagan realms and the concrete stairwell soon took on a cave-like appearance. I imagined the walls of Lascaux during prehistoric initiation rites.

“Stop running, companions,
I see, I am not mistaken,
a fierce wolf.”

Friends and allies

We were never alone; guides held up banners matching our coloured wristbands and silently motioned us onward after each piece finished. There were also oracles who told us stories and encouraged us to imagine deeply.

Poet Colin Browne gathered us up with a story that rooted us to the spot like a cypress grove. Drawing on prepared material (on which he freely extemporized), Colin was a gentle paternal oracle with a sincerity of purpose and a solid grounding of the mystery into which we’d entered. After preparing us for what lay ahead, he bid us on with a song.

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