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An Orphic Happening

Some of the most creative minds in New York have joined forces for what promises to be one of the hottest tickets of the season. 
by Henry Stewart. 

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Aucoin and Costanzo, performing The Orphic Moment at the Peabody Essex Museum in 2014
© Kathy Tarantola
Orpheus actually wanted to lose Eurydice again.” —Aucoin
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Director/designer Doug Fitch, in his Brooklyn studio
Portraits by Kevin Thomas Garcia
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Choreographer Winokur
© Joanne Bouknight

ORGANIZERS AT NATIONAL SAWDUST, the much-hyped new-music venue that opened in October in once-industrial Brooklyn, asked Anthony Roth Costanzo to be guest curator for two nights in March. The countertenor, fond of interdisciplinary approaches, settled on an evening about Orpheus that ties together works by his friends and favorite artists and also enlists some new collaborators to create what’s sure to be the most ambitious concert of the New York season.

It’s called “Orphic Moments”(Mar. 23–24), and it features a New York premiere by rising composer Matthew Aucoin paired with Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, with direction by Doug Fitch; a banquet by chef Patrick Connolly; choreography by Zack Winokur—plus participation by soprano Kiera Duffy, violinist Keir GoGwilt and filmmaker Pix Talarico, along with a chorus and orchestra from Manhattan School of Music. It’s hard to imagine an audience will fit in the room, especially while maintaining the intended small-scale feel. “It’s intimate operas designed for intimate spaces, and when you have this experience, there’s nothing like it,” Fitch says. “You can’t really do these things at the Met or Los Angeles Opera.”

Costanzo conceived what he calls a cinematic structure—starting with the crux of the drama, then rewinding to the beginning. The evening will begin with Aucoin’s Orphic Moment, a fifteen-minute dramatic cantata for countertenor, solo violin and chamber ensemble, set in the climactic moment when Orpheus turns and looks at Eurydice, killing her again. When I ask Aucoin by phone what prompted him, as composer and librettist, to retell such a classic story, he laughs. “I think that Orpheus actually wanted to lose Eurydice again,” he says. “Because if you think about any Orpheus opera, the structure of the piece is basically—scene one, Eurydice dies the first time, and Orpheus mourns it beautifully. And he seems to have a lot of fun grieving over her and making this beautiful music. And then, in the next, he goes down and promptly loses her again and then gets to sing the most beautiful music again, and it’s even more beautiful the second time! 

“So there’s this weird sense that her death is just an excuse to make music—that he would sacrifice even his relationship to it. And I tend to think that we composers, who have experienced relationships being hurt by the primacy of music, can sympathize with this asshole.” Such selfishness is reflected in Aucoin’s score, in which Orpheus has a countertenor’s voice, but Eurydice speaks as a violin, without words. “It’s sort of like those Charlie Brown adults,” Costanzo says. “He can’t hear what she’s saying to him—he can only hear his own thoughts.” 

After the Aucoin piece, the show fills in what happened before the Gluck begins—a wedding feast, ending with a foodstuff to represent the bridicidal snakebite. Fitch, who will design the meal with Connolly, was still kicking around ideas in November, when we spoke in his sunny apartment, lined with leafy houseplants, in still-industrial Brooklyn. Perhaps, he says, there will be pyramids of food, served on long wooden boards, and when you get to the bottom, you find a syringe filled with pomegranate liqueur, which a dancer injects into your wine. Banquet, poison, “represented in two crazy, abstract, Doug Fitch ways,” Costanzo says.

As you talk to Fitch for just an hour, it’s easy to sense his runaway imagination. He directed inventive, well-received productions for the New York Philharmonic of Ligeti’s Grand Macabre (during which he met Costanzo),in 2010, and Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen, in 2011. He knew Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert from Harvard and designed Gilbert’s apartment several years after graduation. “Then Alan said, ‘Okay, now it’s time to do opera,’” Fitch says.

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Director/designer Doug Fitch in his Brooklyn studio
© Kevin Thomas Garcia
 

Opera has been just a part of Fitch’s career. He has also made furniture. And he studied cooking at La Varenne, in Paris, like another friend from Harvard, Mimi Oka. “We both shared an interest not only in food but in very experimental food,” Fitch says. Together they collaborated on what they called “Orphism,” reviving a post-Futurist art movement that had never attracted much attention, even though it was named by Apollinaire, who described it, Fitch says, as “a category of painting that was purely nonobjective—painting about the act of painting.” 

Fitch and Oka made art-banquets called Orphic Feasts, in which you might sit on a sculpture and then realize it’s made of baked goods you’re allowed to eat. They prepared dishes such as “Bacchanalian Child’s Foot in Prosciutto Shoe.” Fitch sees it as metaphor—literally consuming art, which is “food” for the soul, in the guise of actual food. 

At the National Sawdust concert, after consuming such fodder, the audience will hear the Gluck, with Costanzo in the title role. “There’s just something about it that not only fits my voice,” he says via Skype while on break from a rehearsal in Chicago for Bel Canto, “but fits the way that I like to express music.” Costanzo has a modest budget but also a commitment to do a full-scale production, which is how he came to involve the Manhattan School of Music, with the support of its president, James Gandre. (Costanzo is on the artistic advisory committee at MSM.) He gets a high-quality student orchestra and chorus; they get to work in a professional context, outside of the classroom, with access to working artists and attention from the press, in what Costanzo calls one of “the hottest venues around.”

It’s a unique way (and I didn’t even get to the projections or the live films or the dancers/shadows) to tell a story that’s been interpreted in the last 400 years by everyone from Monteverdi to Birtwistle, Rilke to Arcade Fire. Aucoin names “Orpheus and Eurydice,” a poem by Jorie Graham (with whom he studied), as one of his favorite iterations, because she captures the way “Greek myths depict ... things that happen at a subconscious level,” Aucoin says. “Someone once said of [Graham] that it seemed like she believed the myths really happened, and she said, ‘It’s not that they happened. It’s that they are happening.’” spacer 

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