Trisha Brown admits she knew zero about opera until recently - which makes her production of `Orfeo' all the more extraordinary.
American choreographer Trisha Brown admits that she knew "zero" about opera 12 years ago. That was before she collaborated on a production of Carmen in Naples in 1986 with Italian director Lina Wertmuller. There she helped out with problematic singers (what Brown terms "diva maintenance") and played a specially created role of a sorceress. Opera as a genre immediately cast a spell over her. "Carmen never left me," she asserts. "That was an extraordinary experience. The only thing wrong was not controlling the context because I was not the director."

She put that right earlier this month when her own version of Monteverdi's Orfeo premiered at the Theatre de la Monnaie, in Brussels, with Simon Keenlyside and Carlo Allemano alternating in the title role. The production, with Robert Aeschlimann's striking, modernistic sets and musical direction assured by baroque specialist Rene Jacobs, comes to the Barbican next week as part of the BITE:98 festival.

Strangely enough, 62-year-old Brown is just about the last choreographer you would have expected to turn her hand to opera. She first came to prominence in the early Sixties as one of the founding members (with Merce Cunningham) of the Judson Church Theatre, which aimed to scrap dance traditions and develop new ways of moving. Early on in her career, she swore that she would never dance to music in bourgeois theatres. Instead, she performed in gymnasiums and art galleries and sent her dancers out on rafts into the middle of lakes. Most of her work has been performed against a background of silence. Indeed, before Carmen, she had not choreographed to music since her university days in the Fifties, preferring to explore the inherent musicality of movement.

Her desire to direct an opera, however, changed all that, and much of her dance work of recent years can be seen as preparation for the task. In 1995, she created her first choreography to music, M.O., to Bach's Musical Offering. She followed this with Twelve Ton Rose to three Anton von Webern quartets and also presented If You Couldn't See Me (1994), a solo in which she danced throughout with her back to the audience. "I asked myself what it must be like for Orpheus to have to keep his back turned to the woman he loves," she says.

When she created If You Couldn't See Me, she was intending to direct Gluck's Orpheus but finally plumped for Monteverdi's version because of its relative simplicity. "It's an easy opera and has few characters," she says. It also has numerous dance sequences, and Brown was further reassured by the thought that the Italian composer had as little experience of the operatic genre when he created the work as she did, for Orfeo is generally considered to be the first opera in musical history. Its premiere took place on 24 February 1607 in a room of the ducal palace in Mantua. It was created as entertainment for the carnival, and its originality is indicated by a letter written by a Mantuan the day before its first performance. "It should be most unusual as all the actors are to sing their parts," he stressed. "It is said on all sides that it will be a great success."

It was, and so is Brown's production. In preparation for it, she saw numerous operas, sat in on rehearsals at the Met, read pastoral poetry and researched baroque music. "I taught myself baroque polyphonic composition only to find out that's what I'd been doing in my choreography all along," she says. She seems to have been quite undaunted by the task in hand and even declares that creating the work was "like a vacation".

"I'm an abstract choreographer, and that means there are a billion possibilities," she explains. "Faced with all those choices, I have to create a structure, a vocabulary, a rationale. It's hard work, and I've found that, in opera, I had a story, character, music and the history of prior productions. And so it created a solid foundation for creating the work."

The production opens with a quite exquisite aerial ballet, which recalls some of Brown's early work. She has always been fascinated by the question of gravity and has attached her dancers to the sides of buildings, had them spiral down tree trunks and held them up on the ceiling with a net. In Orfeo, a female dancer, dressed in what look like bloomers attached with invisible string, floats, dives and rotates above the stage.

The other dance sections are performed by nine members of her own company, and the sublime choreography concords perfectly with Monteverdi's score. The movements are fluid, light and precise. The structure is very much like that of music, with great use made of counterpoint, symmetry and synchronisation. The singers are not kept idle either. Brown makes them run, perform karate-like movements and even sing while balancing on one foot.

The most original aspect of her direction, however, is the fact that the singing is accompanied by simple movements and hand gestures, many reminiscent of the Chinese arts of t'ai chi and qigong. She prepared the cast for this with classes that explored the transfer of weight from one foot to another and developed a greater consciousness of their bodies.

"It was really quite amazing," enthuses Allemano. "It's one of the most challenging things I have done. The gestures and singing enhance each other, and the movement she has chosen has a mystical, deep quality." On the whole, the idea works beautifully, though Brown does labour it slightly too much, and, by the end, the gestures become a little irksome.

Elsewhere however, her direction has some nice touches, such as when Eurydice falls off the front of the stage into the cloaked arms of Death and Apollo spins round on a bright yellow sun. Aeschlimann's sets are both minimalistic and innovative, his use of colour quite striking. There is simply one word for Jacobs' musical direction - enchanting.

As for Brown, does she have plans for other operas after this impressive debut? "By all means," she says. "But I'm going to take a break after this one. I think I'm going to make some gorgeous Trish Brown choreographies and not worry for a while."

`Orfeo' is at the Barbican, 3-6 June, 7.45pm; box-office: 0171-638 8891.