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The Return of the Native

John Neumeier directs, choreographs and designs Orphée et Eurydice in Chicago and L.A.
By David Patrick Stearns 

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Carolina Aguero and John Neumeier
© Kiran West
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THROUGH BALLET  and opera are rarely far away from each other, their common ground is often limited to Orphée et Eurydice—Gluck’s classic myth about loss, grief and the power of song that beckons master choreographers into opera companies with which they might not typically collaborate. The latest example is John Neumeier, whose new production opens Lyric Opera of Chicago’s season on September 23 and arrives at L.A. Opera in March. 

“It’s a big chance,” says Neumeier, director of the Hamburg Ballet since 1973. “There are many great opera directors. I am not a great opera director. I’m a kind of an auteur who designs the costumes and scenery as well.” In other words, he’s a theatrical storyteller, for whom movement, costumes and even lighting are all of a piece. This can be seen in his extensive body of full-length works, which prompted Lyric Opera of Chicago to form a collaboration with Neumeier, with the Joffrey Ballet as an essential component. Yet fundamental differences between the spontaneity of Neumeier’s choreographic process and the level of organization necessary to put on an operatic season required significant negotiations. In addition, this Orphic feast had to be moveable, with L.A. Opera and Hamburg State Opera as coproducers. 

A precise, soft-spoken, aristocratic man, the seventy-eight-year-old Neumeier seems more interested in having a conversation than in being interviewed. Originally from Milwaukee, he grew up in the Midwest and might have had a rather different creative life had he settled in the U.S. instead of Europe. He didn’t have his sights set on Europe during his early days as a dancer in Chicago; staying on the Continent certainly wasn’t planned. He studied in Copenhagen and at the Royal Ballet School in London before he signed a contract in Stuttgart, starting in 1963. By 1969, he was director of the Frankfurt Ballet.

DOORS OPENED up in Hamburg, and there he was, reimagining the nineteenth-century full-length ballet not by creating something in the mold of Swan Lake but instead taking on works that hadn’t previously been staged; his efforts included the Mahler Symphony No. 3 (which was hardly standard repertoire in the mid 1970s), as well as Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, his version of which has had roughly 200 performances over the past thirty-plus years. Scanning the 155-plus works that he has created, the uninitiated might assume that he’s either a classical-theater director or a symphony-orchestra conductor. 

Orphée is Neumeier’s first full-length work created in the U.S. Known for being neither radical nor retro, he shares with the late Pina Bausch a dislike for any sort of expressive mannerism, but he eclectically mixes balletic and modern elements. He’s as likely to create a piece around music by Simon & Garfunkel (and mix it in with Chopin) as he is to stage Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. Put an asterisk next to that last one: though he has been asked to take on that gargantuan choral work, Neumeier doesn’t always initially respond to great music with a physical vocabulary. 

“I was asked to do it, but I canceled three weeks ago,” he says in a way that suggests the decision was a not-yet rather than a no-never. “It’s like looking at a mountain and sometimes seeing a path to the top. I don’t know if it’s a good path or a bad path, but I know if I can do it. When I did the Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler—this was 1975—I had a moment between midnight and 2 a.m. when I was listening to a recording and felt an intuitive ‘yes.’ But when I was asked to direct Ring of the Nibelungs, I thought about it for two months and said, ‘I don’t have a Ring in me.’”

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Arnold Böcklin’s painting The Isle of the Dead, left, which inspired the designs for the Orphée et Eurydice sets and costumes

THE MYTH  of Orpheus and Eurydice is a tale to which Neumeier has returned repeatedly, having choreographed the dance sections of the Gluck opera years ago. He also created his own version of the Stravinsky ballet Orpheus. What drew him back to Gluck was its deceptive surface: “I think what fascinates me about it is the fact that it seems like a very simple opera, but practically speaking, it’s not a simple opera,” he says. Or an easy one. Of Orpheus’s first-scene lamentation over the death of Eurydice, Neumeier observes, “He’s singing about somebody we don’t know. That bothers me. We are experiencing a real human tragedy of a man who loved a woman whom he lost. He disobeys all the rules of nature to retrieve her. But she was not an easy woman. It’s not a lovey-dovey relationship.”

The form these ideas will take onstage was far from fully determined as of April. The color palette is influenced by the famous Arnold Böcklin painting The Isle of the Dead, which has terra-cotta cliffs and beige structures tucked amid tall cypress trees, with a white figure approaching by rowboat. But the starting point of the staging will be a ballet studio where two dancers meet. From there, the moveable stage designs will allow Neumeier to keep his options open in ways that few opera directors do, including being able to clear the stage for purely choreographic scenes. The quantity of scenery is such that Neumeier will maintain the option to subtract—though, being a practical man of the theater, he doesn’t see himself cutting elements that have cost huge sums of money.  

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Designs for the Orphée et Eurydice sets and costumes
© Andrew Cioffi

ONE THING Neumeier will not resort to is putting the singers in the pit and letting the production entirely tell the visual story. “I think that’s cheating,” he says. “I don’t want people to come away talking about the lovely music and the beautiful costumes. I want them to see themselves as part of all of the shades of grief in the opera. In our age, we’ve gone through the 1980s and the AIDS epidemic and found that death is not just something that happens to old people. I’m trying to evoke what Gluck wanted—true human emotion.”

Achieving that aim requires bending on all sides. The idea began with Lyric Opera’s innovative general director Anthony Freud wondering why his company had never truly collaborated with the Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet. Joffrey artistic director Ashley Wheater wondered why a choreographer of Neumeier’s stature wasn’t seen more in the U.S., though American Ballet Theatre and several regional companies have presented his work.

Neumeier was invited to restage his Sylvia at the Joffrey in 2015—an experience that turned out to be “transformative” for the company, says Wheater, partly because Neumeier didn’t simply revive the piece but made many changes. The relationship begged to be continued. “When you’re going to create something new, you need that stimulation, because choreography comes from all sides, not just one person,” says Wheater. 

Meetings ensued with Lyric Opera. The 1774 French version of Orphée et Eurydice, with Orpheus written for haute-contre tenor, inevitably surfaced, since it contains the most dance. The first of Gluck’s reform operas, the piece rejects virtuoso vocal display for its own sake, favoring a more expansive manner in which characters examine their emotional states at length. The dances, many of which take place in the underworld as Orpheus tries to retrieve his deceased wife, Eurydice, have been choreographed in the past by Isadora Duncan, George Balanchine and Mark Morris. 

Neumeier was keen to create something new on his home turf, though ideally with the kind of time for experimentation that he enjoys in Hamburg. Thus, he has two to three weeks with the Joffrey dancers before moving into the typical rehearsal period with the singers. Indeed, says Wheater, he will have about fifty percent more rehearsal time than is typical in the U.S. 

“We understand that John needs to keep as much flexibility as possible—and as late in the process as possible,” says Freud. “John isn’t accustomed to delivering set designs a year before rehearsal begins, but that’s something we need to budget in nearly every project and plan technically. John was extraordinarily conscious about working in that timetable.”

Three strong personalities in the same room must have made for some colorful conversations. But when all three parties want to do the project, says Wheater, respect and friendship can be a civilizing influence. “It doesn’t mean we agree on everything, but there are thoughtful ways to have the conversation,” he says. “John is very good at hearing what someone is saying.” 

And there were no arguments within the production team, because Neumeier was doing it all himself. Casually, he’ll say, “I’m the one-man band.” The bigger challenge is having technical rehearsals before he even starts to work with the singers. “I’ve been trying to calm myself about this process,” he says, “and I will do my best.” spacer

David Patrick Stearns is classical- music critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer, chief opera critic for WQXR’s Operavore blog and music reporter for WRTI-FM.

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