When the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of the Bienen School’s spring opera production, director of opera Joachim Schamberger reconceived Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo as an online project —an experimental opera film, Orfeo Remote.
Often considered the first great opera, L’Orfeo tells the mythic story of Orpheus’s journey to the underworld to rescue his love, Eurydice. Schamberger set his modernized production in 1960s America, juxtaposing the hippie movement’s ideals of free love and connection with the current reality of pandemic-induced isolation. “Orfeo is a story about loss, fear, and taking initiative,” says Schamberger. “In this regard it reflects our current experience in society, and for artists in particular.”
Orfeo Remote is told from the perspective of La Musica, an unemployed musician who takes initiative during a pandemic. “She reaches out to colleagues to create an online Orfeo project,” Schamberger explains. “In this way we explore our own experience through the power of myth, story, and music.”
To prepare students, music director Stephen Alltop recorded every note of the opera at home on his harpsichord and chamber organ. These recordings provided accompaniments for Zoom coachings and reference tracks that performers used in recording their music. Alltop and vocal coach Alan Darling prepared everyone in the cast via Zoom. Students then recorded their individual performances from locations across the country. In total, the project required 1,400 separate audio recordings generated by 60 performers.
Alltop says that for Bienen School vocal and instrumental students, working on this project and this opera has been an educational gold mine. “It is amazing to consider that this ‘fable in music,’ as Monteverdi called it, is 413 years old but as relatable now as it would have been to the audiences of 1607. The variety of music is staggering, in both sonorities and emotions. From the loftiest joy to the deepest grief, it is all there in both glorious sound and timeless words.”
The student performers not only had to sing and act, they also had to become recording engineers and filmmakers. Schamberger coached students on character and interpretation but also on determining shot types, framing, timing, and screen direction. Each student filmed independently, which required great attention to detail in pinpointing each performer’s position within the scene; students might appear “together” when in reality they were shot separately and as far as thousands of miles apart.
“While this is all very complicated, it also provides a wonderful learning opportunity,” adds Schamberger. “Acquiring basic fluency in video and audio production will be increasingly essential for musicians.”
A virtual panel discussion on May 22 gave audiences a glimpse of the exciting production as well as historical background on Monteverdi’s opera. Moderated by Drew Davies, chair of the Department of Music Studies, the panel featured special guest Jeffrey Kurtzman, professor of musicology at Washington University in St. Louis, as well as Schamberger, Alltop, associate professor of musicology Linda Austern, doctoral candidate Jason Rosenholtz-Witt, and voice student Nicholas Lin, who plays Orfeo.
“Orfeo Remote has become a project that excites me creatively and makes me feel connected to my Northwestern peers in a new way,” says Lin. “During Zoom rehearsals, I am inspired by my castmates’ ingenuity, determination, sense of humor, and emotional sensitivity. Since almost all of the singers-turned-filmmakers are out of their element, there is a real sense of vulnerability among us. We are creating art in a new, remote way, and so we must overcome unprecedented obstacles.”
The final Orfeo Remote video will be released as a five-part series on YouTube this fall. Orfeo Remote and related activities were supported by the Evelyn Dunbar Memorial Early Music Festival, founded in 1998 through the generous support of Ruth Dunbar Davee and her husband, Ken M. Davee. Providing exceptional opportunities for performers to prepare important masterworks with the guidance of leading scholars, the festival combines informed performance and scholarly inquiry through master classes, pre-concert presentations, and lectures.