John Neumeier is director, choreographer, set designer, costume designer and lighting designer for LA Opera’s new production of Orpheus and Eurydice (performed here in its 1774 French revision as Orphée et Eurydice). His staging comes to Los Angeles after performances earlier this season at Lyric Opera of Chicago, and it will be presented next season by a third co-producer, the Hamburg State Opera, featuring the Hamburg Ballet, where Mr. Neumeier is director and chief choreographer. During rehearsals for the Chicago performances, he spoke with Roger Pines, dramaturg of Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Can you explain the appeal of the piece itself?
It’s appealing because of its unique combination of a mythical theme being realized in a very realistic, direct way. I see in this a parallel to ballet itself, which in its form is highly stylized—although its instrument remains essentially the human being. But as far as I’m concerned, Orphée’s essence is a very simple, direct expression of emotion.
I know you’re fascinated by the history of this opera.
Yes, it’s so interesting in that it was the first attempt to create a Gesamtkunstwerk [total work of art]. Gluck and his choreographer, librettist and designer all came together with quite similar intentions for the premiere of the original Italian version, Orfeo ed Euridice, in 1762. Gluck’s basic purpose in Orphée was to communicate simple human emotions without hiding them in musical or vocal virtuosity. As this opera’s director, I need to communicate with the audience through emotions that are recognizable—that are common to us all. We’ve all experienced loss-perhaps not to the point of madness, which I think is what happens in Orphée —and obviously, most of us haven’t journeyed to the Underworld. Nonetheless, we’re dealing with this mythical subject in realistic terms.
Can you describe your own emotional response to Gluck’s music?
It’s a very direct response for me—that’s why I agreed to do this opera. French isn’t my native language. I understand, but I don’t even need the text to feel the emotion in the music. My technique of creating depends upon a spontaneous emotional reaction to music that creates in me the spark of inspiration, the spark of improvisation. I don’t sit in a room and plan steps; I go to rehearsal, I put myself in a situation where there is attention and a sense of expectation. The dancers are waiting for me to do something. Although I have books and books of research regarding Orphée, I must forget everything, listen to the piano as if I’ve never heard this music before, and let myself move without thinking. This music gives me that opportunity.
You’re placing the piece in a contemporary milieu—can you explain that?
This piece is not just a beautiful Grecian myth or a lovely Baroque opera. The love that inspired Orphée destroys him, because he just can’t help it—he has to turn around! This makes me weep, because it’s so true: in our lives we make such firm resolutions and yet our weakness, common to all of us, makes us do such stupid things! I think that’s why I’m putting it in a contemporary setting. Obviously, there are sections of it that are more fantasy-like: what, for example, are these Furies, the people with snakes coming out of their heads who are blocking Orphée’s way? Who are the mystical dwellers of Elysium? I’m thinking also of the presence of Amour [Love], who in my version will always accompany Orphée. I think he, Amour, is in love with Orphée. This is why he has this idea, to take him on his imaginary journey.
You’re the director, choreographer and the designer of sets, costumes and lighting for this production. What’s your goal in wearing these five hats?
In a word, unity. It’s also the sense of not having to explain to another artist that what we’ve planned is wrong. I respect the people I work with very much, and it is truly very difficult for me to say “No, that’s not working,” but I can say it very easily to myself. I started designing when I was a beginning choreographer because I couldn’t afford anyone else. Before I studied dance, I studied painting. That was the conflict in my youth: would I follow dance or be a painter? Dancing won out, but immediately dancing meant for me creating—not only dancing with choreography from someone else, but creating something myself. When I was actually able to put something on a stage, the question was, what does the world of this ballet look like?
My recent productions started from movement, from choreography and, for me, when I create movement, I’m already imagining how the costumes will move. Generally, we have costumes made for the beginning of rehearsals to try out fabrics and cuts. I’m also already seeing the color of the light and imagining the space in which it’s all happening. They are not separate things. Creating a ballet means creating a new world.
What sort of impression would you like to leave the public when they see this production?
I would like them to recognize something of themselves in it. I would like them to be reminded of similar experiences—of sorrow, of anxiety, of anger, of madness, or their own human frailty.
Special thanks to Roger Pines and Lyric Opera of Chicago.LA Opera is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the greater good.