Robert Carsen on the steps of the Four Seasons Centre, where Orfeo ed Euridice is now playing. Photo by Miles Storey/Torontoist.
Most would think that an opera written 250 years ago could be considered “old”—but not opera director Robert Carsen.
“I always think, there’s nothing old and there’s nothing new⎯it was new when the composer first wrote it. No one sets out to write something old-fashioned or to repeat themselves,” he tells us.
Dealing with works written anytime between the 1600s and this year, it’s the job of the Toronto-born director to treat each one as relevant. To most it seems a daunting task, but over 30 years in the business he’s become one of the world’s most renowned theatre-makers, in demand with companies across Europe and the United States. But for now, for the first time in 19 years, he’s come home. His interpretation of Orfeo ed Euridice by Christoph Willibald Gluck, first produced in Chicago in 2006, opened at the Four Seasons Centre with the Canadian Opera Company this past weekend.
The ever-pressing problem for contemporary opera companies and artists is to promote an art form that is commonly considered to be of another era⎯one with different problems, different morals, different norms, and different lifestyles, speaking to an audience that is more accustomed to text-speak and abbrevs over arias in Italian or German. Obvs.
But with Orfeo ed Euridice, Carsen doesn’t have to look far to find room for modern interpretation. In fact, Gluck was in a similar situation when he wrote it in 1762. Tired of operas with meaningless pomp and needless extravagance, Gluck’s “reform” cycle attempted to strip an opera to its bare essentials to highlight what was important: the story, the characters, and the music. Based upon the Greek myth of Orpheus who travels to the underworld to save his wife, Orfeo ed Euridice showcases the universal themes of love and death, which need no further pageantry. Almost 250 years later, Carsen is still taking cues from Gluck, with a straightforward production that emphasizes the drama between the characters and the performances of Lawrence Zazzo as Orfeo and Toronto’s Isabel Bayrakdarian as Euridice (returning from the critically-praised production at the Lyric Opera of Chicago), instead of relying on the frills and frivolity of elaborate costumes and sets.
“I tried to respond to his simplicity and directness, it’s a show based not in fantasy but human experience,” he says. “I’m inspired by a lot of the things that inspired [Gluck]. Sometimes it is enough to do what the composer wanted to be modern.”
Opera has never lost its relevance to Carsen, but he does realize that the intensity of the music and style doesn’t resonate with today’s techno-junkies and soundbite sirens. But he says it’s the aspect of a shared human experience, especially strong in Orfeo ed Euridice, that makes the theatrical experience more necessary than ever.
“Live theatre is unique because of the alchemy between actors and audience. It’s essential as we become more isolated with computer screens and iPods. Seeing other characters experience joy, suffering, love, pain…it’s important to us as human beings.”
With some innovative work from the Canadian Opera Company and its general director, Alexander Neef, which made the COC one of our Heroes in 2010, Toronto is slowly coming around to this idea. A mixture of established classics with updated perspectives, like Carsen’s Orfeo, with new productions that challenge the traditional notions of an opera, like Nixon in China, and more aggressive outreach programs are reigniting the city’s excitement over the art form. So much so, in fact, that Carsen has noticed the change. “It’s a much more integral part of Toronto’s community culture,” he observes.
As the saying goes, the fat lady may have begun singing 400 years ago, but she’s not out of breath yet.
Orfeo ed Euridice runs until May 28 at the Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen St. West). Tickets can be purchased by phone at 416-363-8231 or online.
This article originally stated that Alexander Neef is the artistic director of the Canadian Opera Company. In fact, he is its general director. We regret the error.