Mighty spirits: Mesmerising cross-cultural production of Orpheus to tour the north

Saturday 23rd July 2022 04:00 EDT

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 concerts of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.

Orpheus, a reimagining of one of the earliest surviving operas, Monteverdi’s 1607 work 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 with early music expert Laurence Cummings. The opera will be sung in Italian and Urdu, with additional sections sung in Hindi, Tamil, Malayam, Punjabi and Bengali. There will be English titles at all performances.

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.

In a production directed by Anna Himali Howard with sets and costumes by Leslie Travers, the setting of one of the most famous Greek myths is relocated to a contemporary wedding party in a British garden. 

The opera takes place on the day of the wedding of Orpheus, a musician of mythical power, to Eurydice. But their joy is shattered when Eurydice dies suddenly, and Orpheus, heartbroken, vows to travel to the Underworld to find his new wife and return her to life.

The cast includes performers trained in western and Indian classical traditions, with tenor Nicholas Watts singing Orpheus and British-Tamil Carnatic singer Ashnaa Sasikaran singing Eurydice. Opera North soprano Amy Freston and award-winning vocalist Deepa Nair Rasiya share the prologue role of Music, while other parts are taken by performers including Chandra Chakraborty as Proserpine, Dean Robinson as Pluto, Yarlinie Thanabalasingam as Hope and Kezia Bienek as The Messenger. 

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. 

Also joining the cast are opera singers Frances Gregory, Claire Lees, Simon Grange and Xavier Hetherington, alongside many other eminent performers of Indian classical music in the UK, including Carnatic singer Supriya Nagarajan, founder of the Dewsbury-based arts organisation Manasamitra, Birmingham-based Hindustani singer Sanchita Pal, London based singer Pandit Chiranjeeb Chakraborty, and Delhi-born khayal singer Vijay Rajput, now based in Newcastle.  

An onstage orchestra of 19 players includes 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.       

Recently announced as Opera North’s Artist-in-Residence, Jasdeep Singh Degun’s previous work with the Company includes Partition, a 2017 collaboration with South Asian Arts-uk in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the division of India and Pakistan, and Arya, a concerto for sitar and orchestra, which premiered in 2020. 

Jasdeep Singh Degun, Music Director, Orpheus, and Artist-in-Residence, Opera North, comments:

“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. 


“In the hope of finding an equal and meaningful meeting point for the operatic and Indian classical traditions, it felt necessary to have sections of new music composed based on Indian classical music. The challenge has been to find the right balance between the different sound worlds, to allow the Indian classical music and the Monteverdi opera to co-exist. I have tried to let the story and music of Monteverdi's L’Orfeo drive the composition process for the new parts: the raags I have selected and the resulting melodies have been informed by the original Monteverdi, however set to the traditional Indian classical taals.”

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