Opera: It's Monteverdi. But not as we know it

Trisha Brown is perhaps America's most daring choreographer. Why, then, is she directing an opera? Jenny Gilbert met her at the premiere of 'Orfeo'
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THE PHILOSOPHER Rousseau had a thing about opera - he loathed the sight of it. In 1761 he wrote: "You see actresses virtually in convulsions as they rend from their lungs the most violent undulations; both fists clenched against their breast, the head thrown back, veins bursting, diaphragm heaving ..."

Some would say that not a lot has changed. Although today's soloists may be better trained to camouflage their technical exertions, the very act of singing seems to demand a stage demeanour that would never pass muster in a play. When characters "speak" to each other on the straight stage, they don't stand rooted to the spot, emoting with upturned palms. Audiences would fall about laughing. But in opera we accept certain stylistic anachronisms in the belief that, give or take minor variations, there's only one way to display the sheer animal power of great singing. Stand and deliver.

Enter Trisha Brown. Those who know Brown as that dance avant-gardiste who used to do things in New York lofts with Cage and Cunningham in the 1960s may be surprised to learn that she has just made her operatic debut as director of Monteverdi's Orfeo (1607), which premiered in Brussels last month and comes to the Barbican this week. It's a far cry from her early dance experiments walking up the sides of tall buildings. And although her line of enquiry has since taken her into much more intricate and formalised kinds of movement, she didn't engage with non-contemporary music of any kind until two years ago when she set Bach's Musical Offering.

It was her designer who suggested she turn her hand to opera. So she started going to see some, but "couldn't see my position aesthetically in the work I was looking at. I saw Berg's Wozzeck at the Met and was disturbed that Berg was out there changing music history, but the way it was presented was 19th-century. That to me is against the law!" Singers, she discovered, do what they're told to do. If they're not told anything (which is more often the case), they fall back on conventional gesture. And so it goes on.

It's no accident that the opera Brown has chosen to put her stamp on is the very first great work in the history of opera. Her vision opens as she means to go on, with ravishing simplicity. With the soprano muse of Music hidden off-stage, what we see for the first five minutes is a fluffy cherub gambolling on invisible wires across a huge illuminated glove of pale blue, as if buffeted by the musical airs. When later, a chorus of shepherds and nymphs appears on stage (in unisex loose white suits) they string out across its breadth like a formation of swallows. No question of any nymphing or shepherding. Their spare but precisely synchronised body and arm gestures are a kind of semaphore for the poetic text: a raised palm moving across the face to signal the movement of the sun, a sudden starburst of fingers at the repeated mention of scattering seed. There is "real" dance too, with figures sensuously weaving and bounding, and generally whisking up a froth of joy to match the music's buoyancy. The dancers are from Trisha Brown's own dance company, and don't sing, though she deliberately makes them indistinguishable from the solo and chorus singers, who do, in fact, indulge in some gentle movement with great flair.

The director - who is almost frail with exhaustion when we meet in Brussels - admits that putting movement on the singers was "a very labour-intensive aspect of this production". The European cast of singers, as one might expect, had varying levels of physical aptitude, and she had limited time to work with them. She started off with her own dancers in New York and was "constantly undermined by the question: can a person do this and sing at the same time?" She didn't know. So she sent her rehearsal director to take singing lessons from an opera coach, explaining that she wanted the singers to have "a kind of physical animation, short of dance but beyond normal acting, and certainly a distance from conventional behaviour".

The coach seized on the idea with relish. Brown had devised a snake- like movement for Euridice's first solo, a kind of premonition of her fate. "The voice coach got really into it," says Brown. "She said, well, you're doing an undulation through your torso, so as you're folding your body forward you have to find points where the singer can stop and breathe. And we went on from there." Every soloist in the opera has some unfamiliar physical feat to perform while singing - two soloists lean into one another at 60 degrees while tracing the circumference of a circle with their steps; an Apollo lets his whole body rotate as a spoke in the giant golden wheel of a sun. Each idea posed different technical problems - to balance singing needs with aesthetic ones - solved only by the most detailed research.

It was even harder to persuade the singers that they could and would dance. Brown struck lucky in her Orfeo, the British singer Simon Keenlyside, who is a former athlete "and loves to move". But at first even he baulked at the demands. "He said, 'It's lovely, Trisha, it's refined, it's like a gem, but I know I couldn't possibly do it ...' What I told the singers when I gave them forms that were difficult was: try for it. If you can't get it, I'll adapt it to you. I do that with my dancers all the time." Realising early on that she oughtn't overburden the singers with movements entirely alien to them, Brown encouraged them to make certain freeze- frame poses their own. A collection of tiny plastic play-figures bought from a toy shop offered a range of gestures, and each singer chose his own.

"And it really worked!" she beams. "In slow motion the Pastori [shepherds and co] go into these gestures - they're not dance, they're not conventional, they're disconnected from their task: you don't know they were originally a construction worker or a farmer or whatever. But the singers have made that gesture their own, and it's real to them."

Not content to fall back on a translation, Brown worked closely with a Renaissance Italian specialist to study the poetic metre as well as the ramifications of the Orpheus myth and its social context. The conductor, Rene Jacobs, expressed disbelief at the first full rehearsal, when he found that Brown and every one of her dancers knew Monteverdi's score down to the last ritornello and repeat. "For once I'm not alone," he said. "There's someone else who respects the text."

Brown reflects that "all my life has been a preparation for this". Director's opera - opera in which one creative force bends every aspect of the production to one big idea - can never be the same again.

! 'Orfeo': Barbican, EC2 (0171 638 8891), Wed-Sat.