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)?

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Trials and ordeals

From Monteverdi’s Orfeo to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus to Jean Cocteau’s surrealist film Orphée, the journey made constant references to previous treatments of the Orpheus myth.

James Maxwell's “recurrere” explored the mirror motif from the Cocteau film. It was performed by two flutes in the theatre’s dressing room, which abounded with mirrors. Video excerpts from the film’s famous mirror scene were reinforced by staging that revealed only one of the flutists in reflection from an adjoining room reflected in the dressing room mirrors.

 

 

Flutist Mark Takeshi McGregor performs James Maxwell's "recurrere" in the depths of the Cultch, while Cocteau's surrealist film "Orphée" gives the audience much to reflect on.

Veda Hille worked from a different fragment of the Cocteau film focusing on the Morse code messages various characters sent each other in the film. Compared to the other composers of the evening, Hille came in as solid art naïf, but on a second hearing, I forgave her shave-and-a-haircut melody chaining and instead rode along with her depiction of Eurydice’s dissolution into death imagery.

Innermost cave

Death

As we re-entered the theatre proper, Patti Allan stared us down menacingly while she cranked on a wind machine. Jocelyn Morlock’s “Orpheus, where north winds never cease” depicted the decisive moment in the myth—when Orpheus looked back. Now less maven and more maenad, Patti recited that searing moment of regret:

“To look back,
blind,
look back in regret”
 
Regret!
Patti Allan and ensemble plumb the depths of the Orpheus myth: "Regret!"

A friend once told me that she could never get started on a creative endeavour because she’d always skip ahead to the award ceremony in her head bypassing all the effort and patience. I remembered the line from a Hafiz poem, “Allow dark times to season you”, which like the Orpheus myth, could be interpreted as a caution for creatives. Sometimes it’s better to keep things in the dark long enough for them to mature.

Rebirth

It wasn’t announced as such, but Barry Truax’s “Orpheus Ascending” landed like the core work of the evening. Not just because it was the longest single work (and it's a fragment of a larger work composed by Truax in 2001), but because it's a piece of great maturity.

According to Alfredo Santa Ana, Truax is the “grand daddy of granular synthesis”. What I found remarkable about his opera was how well his sampled and electronic soundscapes supported the singers. Steve Maddock, baritone, and Carla Huhtanen, soprano soared throughout the many texts Truax had chosen to thread his story together and kept the drama tense over Truax’s rich electroacoustic landscape.

This work marks a turning point in that it reverses most everything from the Orpheus myth and ends joyously as Orpheus learns to trust.

Return and release

Before the show, I’d spoken with Alfredo Santa Ana about Orpheus and the process of creation ever artist goes through. He recoiled from the idea of Orpheus as the suffering artist saying he found it a “slightly old fashioned interpretation of the artist”. I rather cleaved to the idea of the Byronic hero until Alfredo described his creative process on the Orpheus Project.

He liked the collaborative effort in which art is created by a company, where there’s a sharing of ideas and gradually the project takes form. Not a tormented soul creating art in seclusion but a process that reminded me more of a game than an ordeal.

After the Saturday show, I’d put the same question to David Pay and his response was equally elevating mostly because it accounted for the triumphant ending to the evening. After Orpheus lost Eurydice, he let go of attachment (in fact, he literally let go of all his attachments­—his limbs­—thanks to the maenads). According to David, we have a blending of two worlds: the Dionysian (body) and the Apollonian (mind) as the final culmination of the Orpheus myth.

Pity Divine

"For Pity Divine" by Alfredo Santa Ana

Alfredo’s final work, “For Pity Divine”, reminded us with its unceasing optimism that creation is about the whole being. The Orpheus Project brought a kinaesthetic component to formal concert music allowing the audience to be less observer and more participant in the creative process.

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