We all have some Orpheus inside us

Monique Wagemakers is the director of Nederlandse Reisopera’s new production L’ORFEO which is currently on tour throughout The Netherlands. In this interview she talks to Ingrid Bosman.

What Orpheus goes through is not a grieving process, say the creators of L’Orfeo. Director Monique Wagemakers: ‘Orpheus cannot let go of the pain from the past. That keeps him from experiencing happiness when it’s there.’

Director Monique Wagemakers has just been consulting with the lighting designer and the technical director of the Nederlandse Reisopera (Dutch National Touring Opera). The exceptional design of this L’Orfeo (1607) needs a great deal of attention: Monterverdi’s ‘primal’ opera as a contemporary Gesamtkunstwerk, led by Wagemakers, artist Lonneke Gordijn of Studio Drift and choreographer Nanine Linning. They developed the concept together, to be joined later by fashion designer Marlou Breuls. Each is an artist in their own right, with an international reputation. It is an intensive process, admits the director, but most of all an ‘amazing’ experience.

Between life and death

The designer duo Studio Drift merges nature and technology in wondrous installations. In Orpheus it is mainly Lonneke Gordijn who is involved: where her partner Ralph Nauta contributes primarily with the technological input, she works on the natural elements. Monique Wagemakers: ‘With her installations Lonneke 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.’

The work of Nanine Linning fits seamlessly with this. ‘I am interested in the instinctive’, tells the choreographer after having identified a connecting thread throughout her work. Averse to compartmentalising, she combines dance with design, video, technology, visual arts and fashion. Her performances, like those of Bacon and Khôra, are renowned for their intensity. ‘She has a pronounced, strong and very physical choreographic language, with an immense range of expression’, describes Wagemakers.

Dream team

So there it is, the ‘dream team’ that had to find an answer to what constituted the director’s basic question. How come the mythical singer Orpheus has kept inspiring countless artists through the centuries? Wagemakers: ‘What touches all those composers, poets, painters, writers and others so deeply that they want to tell the story again and again? After all, it is in fact a very unassuming story. Ovid barely gives it a couple of pages in his Metamorphoses.’ She knows: artists are needed to answer this question.

The young fashion designer Marlou Breuls was brought in for the costumes. Whereas normally speaking one would recognise the characters simply by their clothing, the distinction is much less

clear here, explains Monique Wagemakers. ‘Ten singers and ten dancers form a homogeneous group, one single organism. Together they are, as it were, the one body from which the story is told.’

Artwork depicts emotions

The singers and dancers are continuously on stage, where in different combinations they are now part of the organism, later blending with their environment or becoming a character. Like Euridice, who even after her death remains part of the totality. The director assures that regardless of its unusual form, it remains an opera. ‘This is not experimental theatre. You are sucked right into Orpheus’ world.’ It is a world in which the dynamic and ever-changing installation of Studio Drift depicts the emotions of the mythical artist, who with his singing attempts to save his beloved Euridice from the underworld.

What drives Wagemakers herself to be yet another re-creator of this story? ‘I have of course concentrated on the essence of the music and the libretto. What happens exactly? Basically, Orpheus remains stuck in the past. When there is happiness, he is not able to feel that happiness. Even on his wedding day he reminisces of the time when he was unhappy and alone. Meanwhile, while plucking flowers Euridice is bitten by a snake and dies. And after this terrible thing happens, he refuses to accept it.’

Turning back time

And yet, there we are, always facing ourselves in the mirror. Wagemakers: ‘We all have something of Orpheus inside us. At disastrous moments we only want one thing, and that is to turn back time. “If I had only, I should have” …’ Orpheus takes action and rescues his beloved back from the netherworld. But in the process he cannot resist the temptation to turn back and look at her, so he loses her anyway. Why does he look back? Because it’s what he knows, is Wagemakers’ simple answer. ‘Looking towards the future, he has never done that and is unable to. It also explains his lack of confidence. The smallest thing sends him into a panic and he looks back again.’

In fact, Monteverdi’s music also reflects a transition between the Renaissance and the Baroque. Wagemakers: ‘You hear that Orpheus is still dwelling in the past, whereas the future is already revealing itself in the Baroque, where there is more room for emotions.’ To her, the fragmentary character of the music is widely compensated by its depth. ‘The music touches your soul, it is so pure. Striggio’s libretto deals remarkably often with ‘Happiness’. Orpheus really is the symbol for the power of music. Orpheus’ quest, which keeps inspiring everyone … the music lets you feel what he’s going through and how he deals with it.’

Living in the moment

To Wagemakers and her peers, it is clear: ‘What Orpheus is going through is not a grieving process’. For the team, this opera is much more about the inability to live in the moment and feel happiness when it’s there. And it has always been that way, even though in our times it is sort of the ultimate goal. Wagemakers admits that it can be hard to get things going in life. ‘Don’t look back too much, don’t focus too much on the future. Be happy in the moment.’

She makes a reference to what Apollo says to his son Orpheus at the end of the opera. ‘Why do you keep dwelling in resentment and sorrow, don’t you know that earthly happiness never lasts forever?’

Ingrid Bosman, 2019