Not waving but dancing

What's a poor singer to do when a dance company takes over the opera? By Nick Kimberley
Click to follow
Pioneering is what America does best, but when it comes to that most modern of musical innovations, period-style performance, the Old World has led where the New World has often feared to follow. While Europe has learnt how to make it new by redisovering the old ways, players in the United States have tended to abide by the grand tradition which period- instrument performances have sought to supplant.

All that may be changing. This Friday, the Boston-based Handel & Haydn Society brings its production of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice to the Edinburgh Festival, giving Europe its first opportunity to hear one of America's leading period-performance groups. Admittedly, the Society has achieved its prominence under the guidance of British conductor Christopher Hogwood, whose work with the Academy of Ancient Music has done so much to establish our own "authentic" style. But Hogwood is adamant that what is evolving in the States has its own identity.

"Although quite a few of the American players did their training in Europe, they definitely have their own performance manners: string-playing, and a lot of the wind-playing, are quite different from the English style. There are fewer period-instrument players there, and they're scattered around the country, so there hasn't been that opportunity to compare and contrast that we have had in London, but it's developing."

Hogwood's work with the Handel & Haydn Society is a clear sign of that development. The Society, founded in 1815, is America's oldest continuously active performing arts group, responsible for transatlantic premieres of, among others, Handel's Messiah (which it has performed every year since 1818) and Bach's St Matthew Passion (premiered in 1889). This Edinburgh visit is the group's first trip outside the USA: since Hogwood became artistic director 10 years ago, he has seen its annual budget multiply sixfold to nearly $4 million, while its activities have expanded to embrace mime and dance as well as collaborations with jazzmen Dave Brubeck and Keith Jarrett. "When I took over, it was a real old-fashioned choral society," Hogwood recalls. "I've been pleasantly surprised how it took to the idea of reforming the whole thing, having young players with funny old instruments making sounds they hadn't heard before, and a tiny chorus instead of a chorus of hundreds. They backed it because they could see that the period-instrument thing was going to happen, and no one else on the East Coast had put the bits together."

Orfeo ed Euridice is the Society's most ambitious project to date. It is also its first collaboration with the Mark Morris Dance Group. Morris has a particular reputation for choreographing baroque and early classical music: his staging of Handel's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (seen at the 1994 festival) travels to English National Opera next year. "I've loved Mark's work for years," says Hogwood. "When we first met, I discovered he'd been doing ballets for PBS television, using recordings I'd made. There was a lovely piece which he danced solo to a Vivaldi piece sung by Emma Kirkby, and every musical gesture and ornament was reflected in what he did. I thought it was incredibly perceptive."

Morris has choreographed dozens of operas in Europe and America, but Orfeo is only the third opera he has directed (after a Fledermaus in Seattle and a Figaro in Brussels, where he was director of dance at the Monnaie from 1988 to 1991). Gluck conceived the piece (back in 1762) as an opera with a powerful dance element: in Morris's version, dance all but takes over the stage, surrounding the soloists with a swirl of non-stop movement while pushing the chorus (vital to the drama) to the sides of the stage.

In Hogwood's view, the chorus in Orfeo is always a problem. "We know that originally both the chorus and the dancers, as Furies in Hades, were all obliged to shout 'No!' to Orpheus because Gluck wanted to integrate them. But mostly choruses can't dance - they're an embarrassment. We decided to have the chorus doing what it does well, which is sing, and have the dancers doing what they do well, which is dance. Mark got a range of gestures for the soloists, mostly intended to be reminiscent of Greek dance; and then the dancers took that gesture, developed it, melted it down, made it more fluent. The story is genuinely told, with nothing done to interrupt the flow of the music."

Modern dance tends to steer clear of anything that might smack of telling a story, and Morris's eagerness to embrace narrative places him at odds with many of his peers. He himself is unrepentant: "Narrative, sadly, is something dance doesn't use any more: it's out of fashion. And I'm thought old-fashioned because I choreograph directly to score. People think that's too obvious, that the idea is tired. My response is, 'How do you know? You haven't tried it for 30 years.' Nor am I interested in having the singers dance. I want them to sing fabulously. Rather than have me dictate every move that they make, I wanted them to arrive at their own style of behaviour. I also have no problem with them simply standing and singing, presenting an aria as directly as possible so that we can all hear it. I know that's not popular but I'm sorry, I love it."

The singer who plays the part of Orpheus is the counter-tenor Michael Chance, who has made the role his own in opera houses around the world. For Chance, discovering the role anew in Morris's production has proved a valuable experience: "I have worked with choreographers who are not very musically aware, but Mark's musical awareness is extraordinary. He choreographed certain aspects of the production very precisely; at other times he surprised me by saying, 'I want you here for this bit, there for that bit, and the rest is up to you.' He prescribed certain gestures, then I had to find a way of performing that wasn't at odds with what the dancers were doing. The point was to find a synthesis that served the piece, while allowing dance to be the principal form, rather than merely bringing in a choreographer for the dance bits."

Although Morris allowed his soloists to work out some of their movement on their own, Chance certainly felt the choreographer's influence at work: "Subconsciously, I think I did disport myself in a different way from how I would in a normal operatic production. I learnt a lot about freeing the body; I felt myself not being afraid to hold my arms in a dancery way. I don't have a dancer's physique at all, but, by wearing a long black robe, I found I could disguise the obvious differences between my physique and those of the dancers - for which I was thankful."

Morris's Orfeo divided critics in the US. Predictably perhaps, dance critics tended to disagree sharply with music critics. Morris isn't worried: "Some people say, 'What are all those dancers doing there? Get them out of the way!' Others say, 'Why isn't there more dancing?' Well, you take your pick. I didn't simply pick an opera with lots of opportunities for dance; I've always loved the score. The arc of the piece is beautiful: huge choruses, solo arias, big blocks of music. It has a spectacular shape. It sounds simple, it is simple, but it's hard to do things that are simple and clear."

n Opens Friday, 7.15pm Festival Theatre (0131-225 5756)