Director Monique Wagemakers, choreographer Nanine Linning and artist Lonneke Gordijn (Studio DRIFT), developed the concept for this opera as a contemporary Gesamtkunstwerk that fully integrates stage direction, choreography and design. Fashion designer Marlou Breuls was brought in to create the costumes. Right from the start, Wagemakers’ intention was to find a new way to make opera. This is why she deliberately sought collaborations with independent artists.

On working with Lonneke Gordijn, Monique Wagemakers says, ‘Lonneke has a fascination for nature; with her installations she operates at the edge between life and death, between day and night, between being frozen in rigidity and getting moving – exactly what Orpheus is about.’ Choreographer Nanine Linning incorporates her strongly personal and physical dance language into this concept. The ten dancers of her Dance Company are part of the cast. Because singers and dancers in this production form a single group and are always onstage, Linning was also involved in the casting of the singers. 

The story of L’Orfeo
On the day Orpheus and Eurydice get married, she is bitten by a snake and dies. Orpheus cannot accept her death. He decides to descend to the underworld, the kingdom of the dead, in a final attempt to retrieve her and thus recover his happiness. He convinces the gods of the underworld to let Eurydice return with him to the kingdom of the living. Pluto gives his permission but forbids Orpheus to look back at Euridice while on the way back to the upper world. Orpheus feels insecure and looks back towards Euridice anyway, losing her for a second time. 

About the character of Orpheus
Throughout the centuries, the myth of Orpheus has inspired many artists, writers, musicians, painters, poets and composers, all of whom have shaped their own interpretation about this demigod. Orpheus is a musician, singer and poet. He transforms his depressions, fears and sorrow into music, into art. He is the personification of the power of music and the archetype of a passionate artist, who reveals the mystery of life and death. The story of Orpheus is about the fleetingness of human nature and the infinity of art.

Orpheus is a demigod who has difficulty dealing with human emotions. He is an expert complainer and is always living in the past; even on his wedding day, he reminisces of the time when he was unhappy. Orpheus cannot let go of the past and this keeps him from experiencing any happiness that may be there. He needs his past in order to write poetry, and make music in order to create.  

Monique Wagemakers explains, ‘This story is about each and every one of us, we all have something of Orpheus in us. When something bad happens, we want to turn back the clock, “If I had only, … I should have …”’. When the moment comes for him to leave the underworld with Euridice to start a new future, he has to let go of his beloved past but is unable to. So he does what he has always done: he looks back.

Orpheus stays inextricably bound with the past, with the things that once were. In the end, he is left behind with his own echo, but even that no longer offers consolation. Apollo intervenes, and at the end of the opera asks his son, ‘Why do you keep dwelling in resentment and sorrow? Don’t you know that earthly happiness never lasts forever?’

The installation: Ego
For this production artist Lonneke Gordijn (Studio DRIFT) developed the overwhelming installation Ego, a handwoven mobile sculpture made of nylon thread measuring 9 x 4.5 x 4.5 metres that fills almost the entire stage. Ego represents the perspective of man and shows how hope, truth and emotions are a direct result of either the rigidity or the dynamism of our thoughts.

Jointly with the interactions of singers and dancers, the sculpture takes us into Orpheus’ inner world. Orpheus is stuck in his own inflexible views about love and life. It is only when his world fully collapses – after he loses Euridice – that he rises above his own self. He has to face the laws of nature, and this new goal in his life completely changes his perspective, suddenly making him a strong figure.

Ego is steered by motors, algorithms and specially developed software. During the performances, Ego is also ‘conducted’ manually so it can react to the tempo of the music. The motions of the sculpture depict Orpheus’ emotions, fears and strength. Ego is therefore not only the stage decor but also a soloist in this production.

A homogeneous group onstage
Director Monique Wagemakers and choreographer Nanine Linning chose to present the ten singers and ten dancers as a homogeneous group, and together with the installation Ego as a single organism on the stage. Everyone in this opera is part of Orpheus’ inner world. Ego is his universe. 

The other characters as such are not always recognisable as separate roles. All the singers and dancers remain onstage during the entire performance. The work process reflects this, as they always rehearse in a single studio. In this way, the theatrical direction and the choreography organically flow into each other.

The daily regime and rehearsals include strength training, exercises in energy awareness, the body’s architecture, spatial relationships with each other, carrying and lifting each other, relaxation and tension, breathing techniques for movement and singing, and forming one single body as a group.

Linning, ‘By having the singers and dancers work physically together every day, the rough edges disappear. This results in a really exciting work process in which the entire cast is invited to see, feel and listen outside the beaten path. The dance language for this opera is eloquent without being anecdotic. As an artist and choreographer, this opera challenges me to create theatrical dance that integrates the poetic texts and fantastic atmospheric music. The bodies of the singers and dancers tell with and without words about Orpheus’ quest in search of happiness.’ The production’s dancers are part of Linning’s own Dance Company Nanine Linning, based in Germany.

Fashion designer Marlou Breuls further developed the concept in the costumes for the entire cast’s singers and dancers. She chose close-fitting, skin-coloured costumes made of gauze. PVC strips are integrated as lines into the costumes, following the bodies and movements of the singers and dancers. Each cast member wears a costume with a unique line pattern that tells a different story for each individual and produces different effects with the lighting and projections. For the scenes in the underworld, Breuls includes materials such as pleated jackets and skirts that accentuate the movements of the singers and dancers. 

The music
Conductor Hernán Schvartzman sees L’Orfeo as a timeless opera, ‘It is wonderful to see how an opera that is 400 years old can still be a contemporary work in each time period. Our making of a contemporary version, with its daring artistic choices, fully fits with the intention of Claudio Monteverdi. Further elaborating on the work of his predecessors of the Camerata Fiorentina in 1607, he even created an entire new art form: opera.’ 

‘In general, composers of Monteverdi’s time were not that accurate when notating instrumental scores. By contrast, Monteverdi goes into great detail in this opera, with a rich palette of colours and strong symbolic connotations: flutes for the shepherd, organ and harp symbolising Orpheus’ harp, and trombones and regals for the underworld.’ ‘I am very pleased with the collaboration with Baroque ensemble La Sfera Armoniosa; they are specialised in 17th-century music, and their musicians have played with the best ensembles around the world.’ 

The composer and his music
During his life, Monteverdi (1567-1643) was the greatest promoter of the brand-new genre of opera, and his musical fable L’Orfeo is the only work from that initial period that still manages to be both exciting and moving. The composer follows the tradition of his time by placing the music fully in service of the text, but what distinguishes him from his contemporaries is the outstanding inventiveness with which he does it.

For the declamation of the text, Monteverdi comes up with countless different musical formulas that never sound contrived. There are no arias such as those we hear in operas of later generations. Even the highlight of the opera, the long monologue Possente spirto, in which Orpheus has to deploy all his musical talents in order to enter the underworld, can hardly be considered melodic to our ears: it sounds more like a beautifully ornamented recitativo. Monteverdi alternates these deep and virtuoso moments with lighter scenes in which he uses his most beautiful melodies for choral and dance music. 

L’Orfeo (Claudio Monteverdi) is an opera production of the Nederlandse Reisopera and a co-production with Studio DRIFT and OPERA2DAY. The concept was developed by director Monique Wagemakers, choreographer Nanine Linning (Dance Company Nanine Linning) and artist Lonneke Gordijn (Studio DRIFT). The stage installation (Ego) was developed by Lonneke Gordijn. Costumes are designed by Marlou Breuls.

Musical director is conductor Hernán Schvartzman, and the production is accompanied by the Baroque ensemble La Sfera Armoniosa. The dancers in this production are from Dance Company Nanine Linning.