"He scares me!" says Mark Morris, the director and choreographer of the Met's new Orfeo ed Euridice. He's not referring to any shadowy underworld figure from Gluck's opera. He's talking about his lighting designer, James Ingalls, and he means it as a compliment.
Ingalls, working on his eighth opera at the Met, is just one member of a stellar team of designers Morris has called on to create the striking new production, their visual sensibilities coming together to create an Orfeo that aims to look as good as it sounds. Set designer Allen Moyer, making his Met debut, has extensive credits in opera and theater (he's currently represented on Broadway by Grey Gardens). Famed fashion designer (and Target mainstay) Isaac Mizrahi also debuts with the company designing the costumes. With Met Music Director James Levine at the podium and acclaimed countertenor David Daniels in the role of Orfeo, Morris has an impressive crew of creative artists to surround him for his own highly anticipated Met debut. He's also chosen a piece he knows intimately, having done productions at the Seattle Opera and elsewhere.
"This is the third time I've dealt with this score, and I don't imagine it's the last," Morris says. "I love it — it's so rich. I don't want to talk about history, but this was a reform opera, and it made a real shift in how opera was presented and listened to. There's this notion of trying to keep the language fresh, the same way Monteverdi meant to, and Wagner did later on." Morris calls the opera "a breathless rush back to life itself. It's very lean — there isn't a wasted musical gesture in it. And that's my chance in staging it."
It was about two years ago that Morris got that chance to create an invigorating new look for Gluck's story of the mythological musician who ventures to Hades to retrieve his lost love. His first step in the process of conceiving the production was to meet with the Met's maestro. "Levine made a couple of requests that I was happy to go along with," Morris recalls. "One: 'You mind if I conduct it?' I said that would be great!" The pair also agreed that the opera should be performed without intermission ("which is bad for champagne sales, I'm sure," Morris jokes), that the action should unfold far downstage so that the intimate solo singing could reach audiences as directly as possible, and that a large chorus of 100 should be employed.
These specifications alone created certain immediate challenges regarding the set. "We came up with the idea of something that resembled an operating theater," Morris explains. "It's an amphitheater, and it moves around. The set that contains the chorus looks like a steel or stone slab, a monolith that, as the show progresses, turns into the most delicate glowing gossamer. The set swings around to change the stage shape. It's Allen Moyer's miracle."
Moyer calls the story of Orfeo — with its journey of death and rebirth — "a cyclical thing," which informed his ideas for the set. "We thought about the set in terms of a circle. We looked at a lot of Richard Serra sculpture early on — these big shapes that were pleasing and symmetrical but could also permutate. I looked a lot at pictures of 18th- and 19th-century operating theaters. I was concerned that the circle be a gentle enough arc — a nice soft curve. There were other shapes we liked, but we knew they would make for a really weird sound."
Much of Moyer's design work happened long before he ever put pencil to paper. The process began, rather, with conversations with Morris. "It's important to discover your piece together," Moyer says. "Then you go away and do the stuff you have to do individually. If you have your common thread, you can come together toward the end of the process and still have the same show." Moyer's colleague in this close collaboration was someone he admires. "Mark, it's safe to say, is one in a million," the set designer says. "Working with him becomes its own special event. He has an amazing generosity about him and not a snobbish bone in his body."
Lighting designer Ingalls agrees. "There's nothing else quite like a Mark Morris rehearsal — watching how he does it," Ingalls says. "Everything he does is deeply considered but also comes out of him right then. For him, ideas come from the music and the score, and then movement comes when the dancers are in the room. It's a combination of complete advance thinking about a piece and also being in the moment."
Ingalls works in a similar mode. He too was involved in early discussions and had time to absorb Morris's ideas. But it's only once the set is on the stage that he springs into serious action. "It's a unit set, so my job basically is to be able to change how it looks to convey diff erent emotions. That's the challenge — how light falls on different materials to convey solidity or transparency."
"Somehow you think the music is better because Jim turned on the right lights at the right time," Morris says of his longtime collaborator. "He fixes things I didn't know were wrong. It's a prescient gift he has — he always makes it right somehow."
Morris and Ingalls have known each other since the late-1970s, but the Orfeo collaborator the director knows best is undoubtedly Mizrahi, his close friend for years. "I threatened Mark," Mizrahi attests, when asked how he came to work on the project. "I said, 'If you dare let anyone else design this ...' It's my favorite opera!"
Inspired by Moyer's amphitheater-like bleachers for the chorus, Mizrahi seized on the idea that the chorus, which observes Orfeo's journey, represented history itself. Each of the 100 singers would be cast as a different historical figure: Mahatma Gandhi, Ben Franklin, Marie Curie, Liberace, and others. For the musician Orfeo, Mizrahi thought of a certain breed of pop singer. "I always saw Orpheus as a very lonely, melancholy fellow," the costumer says. "I thought of him as being like Elvis and K.D. Lang, all those masculine figures you see, those lonely, heartbreaking singers."
Perhaps the single driving inspiration for all the designers, however, was Czeslaw Milosz's last published poem, "Orpheus and Eurydice," which Morris came across in The New Yorker and distributed to everyone working on the show. Milosz, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980, wrote the poem on the occasion of his wife's death, two years before his own passing in 2004. The work sets the action in a non-specific modern setting, suggesting the timelessness of the Orpheus legend. The poem is suffused with sadness and yet remains hopeful, all of which affected Morris's vision, as well as David Daniels's interpretation of the title hero. "We've all had loss in our lives," Daniels says. "The emotions of anger and sadness, even elation — it's all in this character in a 90-minute opera."
The theme of grief, indelibly tied to Gluck's opera, also has special resonance with this particular production, as the great mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was originally scheduled to sing the role of Orfeo. She died in July 2006, and the performances will be dedicated to her memory. "She was a brilliant genius, a great artist," Morris says of Lieberson, his friend and collaborator for nearly 25 years. An early rehearsal of Orfeo's funeral scene proved emotional for Morris and his dancers. "We were working on it," he says of the scene, "and everybody sort of choked up, because most of my dancers knew Lorraine. But what a fabulous life. What a great artist! The show is a celebration and a memorial in a certain way."
The celebratory nature of this kind of tribute is in keeping with the opera's happy ending, at odds with the Orpheus myth's tragic conclusion, but a convention of the 1760s when Gluck wrote the piece — and something Morris has no problem accepting. "You have to have a little bit of imagination," he says. "If you can't imagine that Cupid makes you fall in love, you have no business existing. That's how this opera works: it's humane. It's myth and magic and a whole bunch of wonderful things.
"Whenever I can," Morris continues, "I like to throw an opera, as Mae West said once. I love chamber music and I love grand opera and I love all the stages in between. The headaches and the traumas increase enormously when you're throwing an opera. But it's fun, and it's certainly exciting."