Taking time to feel love and pain

Stephen Langridge looks out over the Athenian skyline from a sixth-floor balcony. The capital has become the British stage director’s second home these past six months as he rehearses with the Greek National Opera (GNO). «Orpheus and Eurydice,» in its French version and featuring a tenor in the lead role, premiered for the very first time at the GNO’s Olympia Theater last week. Langridge is a well-established director, best known for the work he has done with prison inmates and people with special needs on productions such as «West Side Story» and «Julius Caesar.» «Yes, we do go to hospices and prisons, not in order to show something to a passive audience but to involve people who may not have set foot in a theater or at an opera,» says the director. He also explains the process: «We arrive on a Monday morning and spend two to three weeks preparing a production with around 20 or 30 inmates. Normally we are talking about an entirely new production. The basic concept may be based on a well-known play, but once we’re done with it, the unsuspecting audience can hardly recognize the original source.» Langridge continues: «It is important to tell, in your way, people who are unfamiliar with this sort of thing, ‘Look, you’re welcome to join.’ You highlight the concept of access. But, let’s not restrict ourselves to the idea of a prison or a hospice, because it limits the scope of this type of initiative. Often, out there in our open societies, we encounter a plethora of mental ‘prohibitions’ that bar certain categories of citizens from participating. Imagine, for example, an elderly lady who loves the blues but will never go to a blues club because she won’t see any other people her age.» Langridge and his associates do not claim to put on operas for therapeutic purposes. «We are not trying to change people who are in prison. We work professionally with non-professionals and produce art. Similarly to the myth of Orpheus, there is a process in the production of art that is not an entertainment ‘snack,’ but a real human dynamic. Orpheus achieves the unachievable in his own way, through music and love, and there is a message in that for all of us, whether we are in prison, in a hospital or sitting at our desks.» The projects at the prisons and hospices are not state-funded, explains the director, but private initiatives. Numerous artistic bodies in the UK have been developing similar projects since the 1980s within the framework of their education and social missions. As far as the human dynamic is concerned, Langridge says that «although you may find limited amount of organization, there is a lot of passion and a huge need for expression. In a more professional environment, you normally find the opposite: a high level of organization but limited passion. By the way, that is not the case at all in Greece.» According to Christoph Willibald Gluck’s version of the tale, Orpheus appears denuded of all his trappings. «In Gluck, there is only Orpheus and Eurydice,» says Langridge. «The composer has focused on Orpheus and his inability to accept his loss. Through the tribulations of Hades, he discovers that the only way to win back his beloved is through love and art. The focus of the opera is on pain and Gluck is unrepentant. It is this very obsession that makes the opera so contemporary. It seems so sparse in terms of dialogue or the manner we have got used to imagining the opera being. It’s as if Gluck is inviting us to observe details that we normally overlook.» In this production, Langridge has attempted a balance with the present. «When you watch 18th century operas you can see how unrealistic they are. Even ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ seems completely unreal. If, however, you focus on the emotions and the human experience, it all seems painfully real… What we did was place the heroes in an environment the audience can connect with. We wanted to discuss the pain of loss and to examine Gluck’s direction. We arrived at the frightening realization that when you love someone, when two people are in love, pain is unavoidable. This is the case even in the positive parts of the opera: that despite the pain, the trouble is worth it. It is better to love and hurt, than to never make the effort and keep a distance. This is something so simple that we are in danger of forgetting. Because we are always in such a rush.» «Orpheus and Eurydice» is on at the Olympia Theater (59-61 Academias) on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday and February 7 and 9. The lead roles are performed by Canada’s Colin Ainsworth as Orpheus, Elena Kelessidi as Eurydice and Vassiliki Karayianni as Eros. The music is conducted by Giorgos Petrou, the stage designs and costumes are by Giorgos Souglidis, the lights are by Eleftheria Deco and the choreography by Fotis Nikolaou.

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