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An innovative new staging of Monteverdi’s opera Orpheus is set to open at Opera North in Leeds this October and come The Lowry on Saturday 19th November.

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, Malayalam, 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 European 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 Sasikaransinging Eurydice. Opera North soprano Amy Freston and award-winning vocalist Deepa Nair Rasiya share the prologue role of Music/ Sangeet, while other parts are taken by performers including Chandra Chakraborty as Proserpina, Dean Robinson as Pluto, YarlinieThanabalasingam as Nambikkai (Hope) and Kezia Bienekas Silvia (The Messenger).

In addition to playing in the ensemble, santoor player KavirajSingh will perform the role of Caronte, 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 Birmingham-based Hindustani singer Sanchita Pal, London based singer ChiranjeebChakraborty, 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.

The intimate scale, partially improvised and collaborative nature of early opera, where performers were not expected to follow a formal score, offers creative opportunities for Monteverdi’s music to be performed alongside the Indian classical melodic and rhythmical frameworks of raag and taal. Discovering the meeting point for these two traditions and shaping their musical encounter are joint music directors Laurence Cummings, music director of the Academy of Ancient Music, and Jasdeep Singh Degun, a Leeds-born composer and virtuoso sitar player.

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:

“I’m very happy to be beginning my tenure as artist-in-residence at Opera North with the new and exciting production of Orpheus. As well as acting as joint Music Director on the opera with the brilliant Laurence Cummings, I have been fortunate to compose new music alongside Monteverdi’s masterpiece. I’m very excited to be bringing such a stellar cast of Indian classical musicians and vocalists to Leeds – these are, quite literally, the best of the best Indian classical musicians in the UK!

“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’Orfeodrive 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.  

“The new music has been composed to play to the strengths of each vocalist as well as acting as a springboard for improvisation so each performance will be different each night – that’s the beauty of Indian classical music and I’m very keen to showcase that on the operatic stage.” 

Anna Himali Howard, Director, Orpheus, comments:

“I am enormously honoured and excited to be working with an incredible team of artists and musicians to bring together two exquisite musical forms. We have chosen to set the ancient story of Orpheus and Eurydice against a backdrop of modern Britain, in which the love and grief of ordinary people feels epic. As the musicians and singers gather together to tell the story in a garden, the music will transport us to mythical worlds.

“This is a very special collaboration, and it presents us with unique opportunities to express the themes of the story: the joy of love, the pain of loss, and what happens when the underworld comes to you. We are able to draw from multiple traditions, disciplines and aesthetics to tell a story which has a universal experience at its heart. I hope that audiences will be captivated and moved by the transcendent music and intimate storytelling of the piece.”

Keranjeet Kaur Virdee, Chief Executive and Artistic Director, South Asian Arts-uk, comments:

“This collaboration with Opera North celebrates South Asian Arts-uk’s 25-year commitment to ‘Preserving the traditional, facilitating the contemporary’: truly investing in talent and ensuring that it has an environment in which to grow and fly. The outcome is that we have artists who have the confidence and ability to collaborate on bold new expressions, without the need to apologise for their own identity or to undermine others.

“I imagine that when Monteverdi composed Orpheus he would have met with diverse musicians who influenced him creatively. Now, through this collaboration we have the opportunity to bring together a cast who are masters in their own right, who can break down boundaries and cross borders through music to touch our hearts and minds. Ultimately, they remind us that we are all humans with lots of shared similarities and particularities that deserve to be celebrated unapologetically.”

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