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ANU's digital L'Orfeo is light fantastic

Stunning imagery combines with wonderful music for the School of Music's version of Monteverdi’s opera.

Just as stars might align in the heavens to bring about an event of great fortune, so it seems that many factors have come together to predict a spectacular event, as the ANU School of Music stages Claudio Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo this month.

The Greek hero Orpheus, mentioned in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII as a being who “made trees, and the mountain tops that freeze, bow themselves when he did sing” and could tame even “the billows of the sea” has inspired countless works of art. His name has become synonymous for the power of music. The earliest opera to feature him was written by Jacopo Peri in 1600 and was followed soon after in 1607 by this Monteverdi work.

Its forthcoming production will have a digital staging designed by multimedia artist Andrew Quinn with lighting by Alessandro Chiodo; Cate Clelland will direct and head of the school Peter Tregear will conduct.  Add to this a stellar group of singers led by internationally acclaimed tenor Nicholas Mulroy as Orpheus, Paul McMahon as Apollo and Livia Brash as Euridice, a chorus of School of Music students and staff, a period orchestra led by Rachael Beesley with Erin Helyard on harpsichord, Matthew Manchester, cornetto and Tommie Andersson playing the theorbo, and costumes designed at the School of Art, and you can begin to get a picture of this unique production. The opera will be sung in English using Anne Ridler’s translation.

Just to ensure that the astronomical digital imagery is correct Nobel Prize winner, Professor Brian Schmidt, who is currently leading Mount Stromlo’s effort to build the SkyMapper telescope which will provide a comprehensive digital map of the southern sky, is collaborating in this production. “Brian was very keen that if we used astronomical imagery it should be correct,” Tregear says.

Tregear is incredibly excited about this production. “We’ve got the dream team here,” he says. He first met Nicholas Mulroy several years ago when both were singing in the Choir of London and Mulroy told him how he’d love to do a gig in Australia. “So this timing was just perfect. And Andrew Quinn’s digital set is incredible. The set can move to the music and it picks up the musical symbolism as well.”

Quinn is well known for his work on the digital effects for films such as The Matrix and Tomb Raider and has created digital sets for the Hungarian State Opera and backdrops for the 2012 Biennale of Music in Venice.

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Mulroy is currently touring with Symphony Australia. Last December he sang the role of The Evangelist in the ACO’s performances of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. “He’s one of the leading performers in early music in Europe today,” Tregear says, “and he’s always wanted to sing Orfeo.”

In his biography Alessandro Chiodo says that he loves to experiment and dare to be different, “to seduce through the camera lens and to govern light on the body...”

“We should be poking our head above the parapet,” Tregear says, referring to the innovative production of this opera. “A digital set can do what a physical set can’t, although we’ll use some black box shapes. It doesn’t just mimic reality. And a digital set doesn’t end when the show ends – it’s infinitely recyclable. There’s been interest from overseas in using this set for other Orfeo productions.”

Tregear also feels that through this type of staging you can appeal to a younger generation with the visual imagery. “It’s  generation defeating, a portal to reconnect with young people.”

The opera is full of meaning, Tregear says. “It’s about the rebirth of humanism and what a marvellous thing Man is; the power of love and new beginnings. It reminds us all why we are here.”

It’s also full of wonderful music like the famous aria where Orpheus tries to persuade Caronte, the ferryman, to row him across the River Styx to enter Pluto’s kingdom, and when Caronte refuses, lulls him to sleep by playing a soothing melody on his lyre.

“And there are stunning images at the opera’s end,” Tregear says. “Stars start to appear and Orpheus ascends to the heavens with Apollo who is represented by a stylised star.” That’s the eye-catching image on the beautiful posters that advertise the opera.

Monteverdi was something of an innovator himself, bringing existing musical forms and modes together and, while L’Orfeo was not the first opera, it is the earliest surviving one still regularly performed today. Perhaps you can picture the composer watching this new staging in wonder and nodding in approval.

“I do think this is going to be quite an event,” Tregear says.