University of Toronto and McGill collaborate to stage North American premiere of banned Haydn opera

The cast and creative team behind a new production of Orfeo gather for rehearsalThe cast and creative team behind a new production of Orfeo gather for rehearsal in the Geiger-Torel Room in the Faculty of Music (supplied photo)

Austrian composer Joseph Haydn may have been known as the "Father of the Symphony," but he also penned a number of operas - including one that was declared contraband and shut down before its premiere in 1791.

Now thanks to a collaboration between the University of Toronto and McGill University, that opera - L’anima del filosofo (or Orfeo: The Soul of the Philosopher) - will be staged in North America for the first time. The production, which includes students and professional artists, will be performed on May 26 and 27 at the MacMillan Theatre at University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music, alongside an academic symposium about the opera at Walter Hall on May 27 supported by University of Toronto’s Jackman Humanities Institute in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

Based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the opera was never performed during Haydn’s lifetime after "authorities in London, fearing that the new plot resonated too closely with liberal Enlightenment ideals advanced in revolutionary France, shut down the production during rehearsals in May 1971," says musicologist and Haydn scholar Caryl Clark , a professor of music history and culture in the Faculty of Music who spearheaded the project.

To stage the opera - which lay dormant in Eastern European archives until the Cold War - Clark and fellow musicologist Dorian Bandy , a professor of early music and music history at McGill who will serve as conductor for the production, brought together a cast and crew from both universities along with award-winning theatre practitioners from Canada and the U.S.

Clark and Bandy told University of Toronto News about the challenges of mounting a long-lost opera for the first time and why such an ancient tale still resonates onstage today.

What is the story behind Orfeo?

Clark: With his great musical powers - he’s a singer and lyre player - Orpheus gains entry to the Underworld to rescue his beloved who died of a snake bite on their wedding day. Warned not to look back at her on their journey out of Hades, his passions overtake his rational mind - he looks at her, and she vanishes forever, leaving him to lament into eternity.

How are University of Toronto and McGill working together on the production?

Bandy: Collaborations of this nature are usually between individuals - in this case between me and Caryl. However, both of us have gotten many other people from our respective universities involved in the production. The performances are taking place at University of Toronto, and University of Toronto students are making up most of the cast and chorus. University of Toronto colleagues have also been helping with many behind-the-scenes aspects of the production - from choral preparation and vocal coaching to elements of lighting and design. McGill’s Early Music program, meanwhile, is responsible for the period-instrument orchestra that will be playing in the pit during the production. The performances will really embody an ideal synthesis of the strengths and energies of each university.

What made you want to take on this opera for the first time - and what challenges did you face in mounting a production that’s a North American first?

Bandy: Haydn’s lost Orfeo opera has been on Caryl’s radar for more than three decades! Caryl first learned of this opera as a graduate student at Cornell University, and she spent much of her career working on it - publishing articles, presenting papers at conferences and even delivering pre-concert lectures at productions in Europe. In late 2019, we met at a musicology conference and both agreed that launching a production at one of our universities would make for a stimulating project.

Clark: The challenges of putting together a production of this opera are not unique to Haydn. Opera is expensive, so many of the primary hurdles have involved fundraising. However, equally crucial has been the assembly of a keen and visionary creative team, including our energetic young director Nico Krell , who has taken a leading role in shaping the look, feel and underlying message of our production.

Although the lack of a North American staging tradition for this opera might seem an obstacle - after all, most members of the creative crew were not already familiar with this work when they signed up to be a part of the show - this also affords us a huge amount of artistic freedom and flexibility. The audience will not be entering the theatre with the baggage of preconceptions about the music, memories of favourite past productions and the like - and this means that we will have the pleasure of presenting this piece to many listeners for the very first time, and shaping their expectations and experiences more actively as the performances unfold.

What can attendees expect to learn at the corresponding symposium on May 27?

Clark: Along with colleagues from Northeastern University and Brown University, we will discuss the intellectual context for the opera and the process of mounting this production - and students from both University of Toronto and McGill will present their experiences of preparing the opera for public performance.

Opera and politics are inextricably intertwined. Music, art and literature have the power to shape the thoughts and minds of listeners, readers and audiences, so governments and politicians are particularly sensitive to the potential of theatrical representation and other forms of artistic expression to destabilize society and undermine government authority. Indeed, Haydn’s Orfeo was to have premiered a few months after the statesman Edmund Burke penned his Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790. There are many historical precedents for banning works of art deemed too politically sensitive for their times. Our production focuses on the extinguishing of Enlightenment values and delivers a powerful contemporary environmental message by staging "nature’s revenge."

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