As a choreographer and director of a work like Orfeo, what is your starting point?
The music is what usually strikes me first, but of course the story plays an important part. I've done a lot of choreographies based on vocal works, and I believe dancing and singing are basically the same thing. It's just you, without any kind of equipment. I'm fascinated with the interplay between music and text, the painting of words through music. It triggers a corporeal response in me. In Orfeo, one of my favorite pieces is "Che puro ciel," when Orpheus arrives in Elysium. The scene takes place underground, but it's full of nature sounds, bird calls, rushing water. It's an astonishing piece of music — very modern and strange and gorgeous.
Tell me about your ideas for Orfeo and how the production came about.
One of the first things Maestro Levine and I agreed on was casting Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Orpheus. I'd known her for 25 years, and she was an extraordinary, brilliant artist. Her untimely death is a great loss to music and to opera. Fortunately for us, David Daniels, whom I much admire, agreed to take over the part, and we're dedicating the performances to Lorraine's memory. Jimmy and I also decided early on that the production would play without an intermission. The story needs that. Euridice's death has happened before the curtain opens, and then we go through it almost in real time. It's a breathless rush back to life, with not a wasted musical gesture in it.
Does it change the process for you to be both director and choreographer?
Years ago, I decided that when I was going to choreograph, I'd rather be responsible for the whole production. I don't like to be wincing at parts I don't agree with. If it goes wrong, it's my fault. The part that's not different is that it's always about music.
Your friend Isaac Mizrahi is making his Met debut designing the costumes.
Isaac came in with the idea that each person in the chorus is a different historical personage. The only requirement was that they be dead people. So no two choristers are the same. And they're from all over history. There's someone who reminds us of Mahatma Gandhi and Julius Caesar and Maria Callas and Eleanor Roosevelt ... I don't want people spending too much time with their lorgnette looking at who's who, because it's only an idea. It's really people through history, from ancient times to now, watching and listening and singing, and trying to guide Orpheus. I mean, they don't put on monster costumes when we go to the underworld or halos when we go to Elysium.
For his Orfeo, Gluck had to come up with a conventional happy ending, which of course is contrary to the original myth ...
That's not the point. If you can't imagine that Cupid makes you fall in love, you have no business existing. It's not biochemistry — it's magic. That's how this opera works. It's myth and it's magic — a whole bunch of wonderful things.