Opera takes a look: The continued relevancy of the Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice

Opera promotional posterWhether consciously recognized or not, the Greek myth of Orpheus has permeated visual and performing art forms across ancient and popular culture.

From classical literature to Arcade Fire’s 2013 release, Reflektor,the story of Orpheus and Eurydice has been told and retold throughout the ages. The beautiful opera Orfeo ed Euridice by Christoph Willibald Gluck will be performed by the Ralph Opera Program at Colorado State University Oct. 25-28.

Orpheus, musician and poet of mythological legend, was said to have the ability to charm all living things with his voice. When his beloved Eurydice dies of a fatal snake bite, Orpheus descends into the darkness of the Underworld to ask for her return, hoping his voice can soften the hearts of the gods. His request is granted, but Orpheus must walk in front of Eurydice and not look back until they reach the upper world. Will he overcome the temptation?

The opera was highly anticipated — Empress Maria Theresa attended the first performance in Vienna in 1762 — and, in contrast to the age-old story, the structure of the popular opera itself was extremely influential, marking the first “reform” opera by the German composer.

These compositional modifications make Orfeo ed Euridice the transitional piece out of Baroque opera, and therefore, a critical educational opportunity for CSU opera and orchestral students.

Until this time, opera seria — operas typically based upon historical figures or a classical story line and presented in Italian — was complex, featuring many arias in an A-B-A (da capo) that focused upon the virtuosity of the singers rather than the story itself. Gluck’s reform operas sought to bring the focus to the story by eliminating virtuosic writing for the singers and incorporating the chorus and ballet into the action.

Ralph Opera Program Director Tiffany Blake explains, “In Baroque operas, the A-B-A form returns [to the original melody], even without a reason to do so, and the voice would ornament it and show off, but Gluck wanted to create more momentum in the drama.”

According to Blake, Gluck prioritized storytelling over showcasing the voice.

Enter the chorus

Blake finds that Gluck’s shift to storytelling makes the opera a great selection for a college opera program.

“One of the things that is really wonderful about the work is that it highlights a few students in individual roles, but the chorus is the main role in the opera after Orpheus,” Blake said of the chorus’s responsibility for carrying the bulk of the drama.

“I’ve often heard students say, ‘I’m just in the chorus,’ but they are the relatives and loved ones of Orpheus and Eurydice, they are the furies, they are the blessed spirits … that the chorus plays three very different characters, [being in the chorus] has more meaning in this production,” she added.

For Blake, a focus of the early rehearsal schedule has been an emphasis on the chorus’s character development. In addition to vocal growth, Blake has had her students explore physical movement exercises, building themselves as actors, even while they develop the vocal chops to sing the leads in the coming years.

Dance of the Blessed Spirits

Collaborative nature of opera

Audiences at the last couple of Ralph Opera Program productions have enjoyed the inclusion of CSU Dance students. This time, senior dance major Mary Rodgers has written original choreography for several dance students who portray the ghost of Eurydice, the three cherubs who accompany Amor, and perform the ballets: “The Dance of the Furies” and “The Dance of the Blessed Spirits.”

“The music of the furies in the second act is very exciting, and the movement of the chorus and the dancing really builds upon that excitement,” said Blake.

Blake is also looking forward to the lighting effects that illuminate the translucent walls designed by theatre instructor Zhanna Gurvich, creating the various scenarios in the upper and under worlds.

“The way it looks will be different than what people have seen before on the CSU stage,” said Blake, providing a verbal sneak peek.

Scene from the opera

The role of Orpheus

In opera, female vocalists often wear the pants, which is the case with the role of Orpheus.

“The role has been sung by a lot of different voice types, and it lends itself to a college setting because the range is not super high or low,” said Blake, who went on to explain that the main challenge is the role’s physicality. “Because [Orpheus] is on stage so much and there’s so much dramatic development of the character, it’s tricky for one person to carry it.”

Senior vocal major Angie Lamar and CSU alumna Ingrid Johnson, however, are up for the challenge.

“We’re looking forward to having Ingrid return to join us. She’s a great dramatic role model for our students,” Blake said of the guest singer.

The complete cast is composed of 19 members, including 12 chorus members, four dancers, and three leads who are double cast, splitting the four performance dates.

Scene from the opera

Good to meet you

With a mind for today’s opera audiences, Blake has shortened CSU’s presentation, which is a mash-up of the original Italian version and the subsequent French version. “With intermission, the piece is under two hours. It’s a nice introduction to opera for new audiences, without feeling overwhelmed or bored,” exclaimed Blake.

Just as the story has permeated so many creative endeavors, the beautiful melodies from Gluck’s opera have been widely used. “You’ll leave with the melodies in your ear,” said Blake. “’The Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ is an orchestral movement people will recognize from commercials, movies, and other places outside of the opera.”

You will be taken along on Orpheus’ journey through Hades to Elysium and back to earth again with beautiful music, spellbinding action and deep pathos.

Scene from the opera

Dates and tickets

The Myth of Orpheus (Orfeo ed Euridice) by Christoph Willibald Gluck, directed by Tiffany Blake and conducted by Wes Kenney, is taking place on Oct. 25, 26, and 27 at 7:30 p.m., with a matinee on Oct. 28, at 2 p.m. in Griffin Concert Hall at the University Center for the Arts (UCA).

In celebration of the 10th anniversary of the UCA, adult tickets are just $10. Tickets for CSU students continue to be no charge, and just $3 for youth (under 18). Tickets are available at the UCA Ticket Office or online at csuartstickets.com.

Check out other upcoming events at CSU.