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Portland Opera Records Philip Glass' Orphee

Portland Opera raises the curtain Friday on the West Coast premier of Orphee, by Philip Glass. It’s based on Jean Cocteau’s classic 1950 film adaptation of the ancient myth of Orpheus - a gifted musician who defies death for love.

The company scored not one, but two big coups with the production: the performance will be recorded and sold by Glass’ record label. And, as April Baer reports, the composer himself paid a visit to see the piece performed.

The story Philip Glass tells in Orphee is a modern update of the legend about a lovesick young musician braving the underworld.

Glass says when he saw the film at 15, it made a big impression on him. The meaning of the film, Glass says, eluded him until he started working on the opera.

Philip Glass “ It‘s a complicated question, because Cocteau doesn’t give you all the answers.”

This weekend, Portland Opera presents the West Coast premier of Philip Glass’ Orphee. OPB’s April Baer talked with Glass about writing the opera, and seeing it staged in Portland.

Glass says he works too much, he rarely gets to hear or see his own works performed anymore.

Here more of their interview…

In this story, a jaded, middle-aged Orphee lives in a slick condo straight out Portland’s Pearl District. Disgusted by the hip, younger writers  busy stealing his thunder, he falls in with a morbid muse,  and very nearly turns his back on life.

Portland Opera’s production premiered at New York’s Glimmerglass Opera – many singers, and Stage Director Sam Helfrich are part of the original team.

Sam Helfrich “When I was first asked to do it, the first thing I did was watch the movie, and that’s what all the designers did too. It took us at least six months to stop talking about the movie.”

Recreating Cocteau’s dreamy visuals  - endless mirrors and optical tricks - Helfrich says, would have been impossible. Instead, his design for the opera uses a double cast, playing out a doppelganger image of the action. Glass thought it was an ingenious solution.

Philip Glass “Part of the fun of collaboration in opera is seeing what creative people – when we work together, with image, with movement, with text, with music, how each of these disciplines has its own voice.”

At last night’s dress rehearsal, Conductor Ann Manson took the orchestra through last-minute preparations.

Ann Manson “Phillip was really thrilled with the first dress rehearsal. You should all feel really good about that. I had a few notes…”

As for Glass’ part of the collaboration, the score of Orphee starts as a bright, simple melody, and gradually builds in waves, deepening in intensity as Orphee mourns the death of his wife Eurydice, and crosses into the underworld to find her.

The opera, which has only been staged twice before, is one of several Glass wrote based on the films of Jean Cocteau.

He says he approaches operas a bit differently from classic composers, like Puccini, who come up with melodies for singers, then write orchestration that directly follows those melodies.

Philip Glass “One of the ways I like to work, and I did this with the Cocteau operas quite a bit, was first to write a kind of instrumental music, and take the words, and transform them into music. The musical impetus is already in the orchestra, and then I find the place for the voice.”

Glass says this method allows him, to guide the dramatic tension through the orchestra’s music, freeing the singers  for singing and acting.

Philip Cutlip, the baritone who sings the lead in Orphee says Glass never pushed singers to their highest and lowest limits just for effect. He’s been through that with other modernist composers. But, Cutlip says, that doesn’t mean Orphee’s score is easy to sing.

Philip Cutlip    “The pre-conception people have about Phillip Glass is that it’s repetitive, and sort of like a sewing machine, tikkatikkatikkatikkatik. But it’s big sections that loop back. The vocal lines never repeat.”

He and the rest of the cast will be under a little extra pressure this weekend, since the entire performance will be recorded. The call from Glass’ record label, Orange Mountain came as a surprise. But it’s a big feather in the company’s cap.

Revenues from the recording will go to Glass himself, the singers, musicians, and stagehands who created the production. It’s unclear how much may be left for Portland Opera after everyone else gets a cut. But General Director Chris Mattaliano is optimistic this will open doors for more prestigious collaborations.

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