Italian Baroque and Indian Classical Music Meet in a New Orpheus

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Go back far enough in time and the myths of different cultures have common roots. For Jung, it was the “collective unconscious”, from which formed the archetypal characters of our popular myths.

Take the story of a man who loses his beloved and defies death to bring her back. In the mahabharata, Indian mythology gives us high-born Ruru, who loses the beautiful Pramadvara when she dies of a snakebite just before their wedding day. Distraught, he invokes Yama, the god of death, and offers half of his own life in exchange to win back his wife.

It resembles the Greek myth of Orpheus playing the lyre, who also loses his beloved Eurydice to a snakebite and travels to the Underworld to retrieve her. His mission is successful, but he loses her again on the return trip (although some versions of the myth also allow this pair a happy ending forever).

Could the two cultures find common ground in a musical setting? That’s what’s promised at Opera North, where Monteverdi’s 1607 opera Orpheus is to be ‘reinvented’ at the Grand Theater in Leeds. While Monteverdi’s story will remain in place, the newly forged music will embrace both Italian Baroque and Indian Classical styles.

Jasdeep Singh Degun and Laurence Cummings during rehearsals for ‘Orpheus: Monteverdi Reimagined’ © Tom Arber

“It’s not about putting Monteverdi Orpheus with a different twist,” says conductor Laurence Cummings. “It’s about the essence of Monteverdi, which is the power of music. This crystallized over the past two years when the pandemic took away our essence. Putting these different styles of music side by side and finding how well they complement each other was a beautiful process. There were times when time stood still, and I hope that will carry over to the audience.

He is paired for this project with virtuoso sitar player Jasdeep Singh Degun, artist-in-residence of Opera North. “I’ve seen musical traditions come together in the past, thanks to people like Ravi Shankar, Philip Glass and Yehudi Menuhin,” he says. “At that time, it could only go so far, because they came from such different worlds. We went 70 years from there. There is a strong diaspora of Indian classical musicians here who have lasted for generations, and 21st century musicians are much more versatile and open to different styles.

There is no other European country with an Indian community of a comparable size that would make this project possible. Opera North uses all Indian musicians born and trained in Britain, a good number even from Leeds, who are grassroots musicians accustomed to creating new work from scratch.

The process was a continuous evolution and the Joint Music Directors worked closely together. They decided on a fairly equal exchange, part Monteverdi, part Indian classical music, and these contrasting styles came together, Cummings says, “like a magnetic force.”

Half of the libretto was translated into Indian languages, and for these parts Singh Degun composed new music in the classical Indian style, taking some of his ideas for the ragas from Monteverdi’s score. If an Indian performer sings a particular character, their part will be in Hindi or Urdu, based on Monteverdi in the first place.

A woman in traditional Indian attire sings as a man and two women watch in a rehearsal room

Singers Sanchita Pal with Dean Robinson, Chandra Chakraborty and Kezia Bienek at rehearsals © Tom Arber

Audiences can expect to see and hear instruments not usually found in the same space: the bowed strings of the violin and tar shehnai, the hammered strings of the santoor, the plucked strings of the harpsichord and sitar and tabla rhythms to name a few.

In writing Orpheus to entertain the carnival season at the court of Mantua, Monteverdi produced the first great opera by a great composer. Since then, the story of this mythical musician has become a popular subject for operas. More than 60 others are listed in musical dictionaries.

In contrast, Indian classical music does not have a similar narrative tradition. When someone asked Singh Degun if it would be possible to bring an Indian composition for the scene where a boatman takes Orpheus across a river, he couldn’t think of just one. Indian classical music is primarily a solo tradition, highly improvised but based on a strict set of rules, and each of the Indian musicians in this production is a soloist in their own right.

“Even having seven singers in a room at once was unusual,” says Singh Degun. “They were in this country for 20 years and knew each other, but they had never worked together before. We have music together, for example when we play for balls, but it’s a very different context, especially since the singers are going to have to perform. I can’t wait to see how they play their characters. Indians are pretty melodramatic anyway.

“We’re all out of our comfort zone,” Cummings says. “In a standard opera production it’s easy to get into the usual rhythm, but in this process you don’t know what it’s going to be like. Everyone walking into the room on the first day felt like they had no idea what they were doing – myself included. People had to come with willing hearts and open minds. There was a spiritual feeling to the room, a meeting of minds that was very uplifting.

If this reinvented Orpheus is a success, where could they go from here? Perhaps the next step is to reverse the cultural exchange: take an Indian myth and create a new opera around it. The experience this time underlined how free Classical Indian and Italian Baroque musical styles are, so the fit should work again.

For now, the public has the opportunity to enjoy the first fruits of this relationship. “It’s so ambitious from Opera North,” says Singh Degun. “It’s not just Indian tap dancing added to Italian opera. It’s a gathering of the best with the best, and it’s great that it’s happening not in London, but in Leeds.

Opera North’s ‘Orpheus: Monteverdi Reimagined’ opens at the Grand Theater in Leeds on October 14 and then goes on tour, operanorth.co.uk

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