A groundbreaking new staging of Monteverdi’s opera Orpheus is set to open at Opera North in Leeds this October, before touring northern theatres alongside Verdi’s La Traviata and concert performances of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.
Orpheus – a reimagining of one of the earliest surviving operas, Monteverdi’s 1607 L’Orfeo – weaves a new musical and dramatic tapestry from western and Indian classical music.
The new version will feature additional composition and arrangements by Jasdeep Singh Degun, working as co-music director alongside early music expert Laurence Cummings and will be sung in Italian and Urdu, with sections in Hindi, Tamil, Malayam, Punjabi and Bengali (and, you might be relieved to know, English subtitles).
Some passages of the opera are being rescored and arranged for Indian classical instruments including the sitar, tabla and tar shehnai, in addition to western baroque instruments such as harpsichord, theorbo and lirone. The project has grown out of Opera North’s longstanding collaborative relationship with South Asian Arts-UK, a Leeds-based centre of excellence in Indian classical music.
Anna Himali Howard's production is relocated to a modern British garden, where the wedding is taking place of Orpheus, a musician of mythical power, and Eurydice. Their joy is shattered when Eurydice dies suddenly. Orpheus, heartbroken, travels to the Underworld to bring her back to life.
The cast includes western and Indian classical performers, with tenor Nicholas Watts as Orpheus and British-Tamil Carnatic singer Ashnaa Sasikaran as Eurydice.
In addition to playing in the ensemble, santoor player Kaviraj Singh will perform the role of the ferryman Charon, while esraj and tar shehnai player Kirpal Singh Panesar will also sing the part of Apollo.
An onstage orchestra of 19 players will include a baroque ensemble of violin, viola, cello, bass, trumpet, percussion, harp, harpsichord, lirone and theorbo, as well as Indian classical instruments including sitar, tabla, santoor, esraj and bansuri.
The intimate scale, partially improvised and collaborative nature of early opera, where performers were not expected to follow a formal score, offers creative opportunities for Monteverdi’s music to be performed alongside Indian classical melodic and rhythmical frameworks.
Discovering the meeting point for these two traditions and shaping their musical encounter are joint music directors Laurence Cummings, music director of the Academy of Ancient Music, and Jasdeep Singh Degun, a Leeds-born composer and virtuoso sitar player, the latter recently announced as Opera North’s artist in residence.
Jasdeep Singh Degun, Music Director, Orpheus, and Artist-in-Residence, Opera North, comments: “I'm very happy to be beginning my tenure as artist-in-residence at Opera North with this new and exciting production of Orpheus, with a stellar cast of Indian classical musicians and vocalists to Leeds.
“Indian classical music is an improvised tradition based on very strict melodic and rhythmical frameworks called raag and taal, while the nature of 16th-Century opera has a lot of scope for embellishment and improvisation. This makes the two traditions quite compatible with each other, in the sense that there is much opportunity for the performers to breathe life into the written music."