Myth meets music at Music on Main’s The Orpheus Project

Music on Main’s ambitious The Orpheus Project lets composers and performers riff on the tale while their audiences roam the Cultch

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      David Pay, artistic director of Music on Main, has been challenging the uptight conventions of classical music for a while, bringing artists such as pianist Jane Coop to jazz bars, staging casual concert series at Heritage Hall, and launching the cutting-edge Modulus Festival.

      But nothing he’s tackled thus far quite matches the ambition of The Orpheus Project. Billed as an “immersive musical event”, the production is an exploration of the Orpheus myth that will have audience members roam the entire Cultch theatre (from stage to dressing rooms), discovering various performers and artists along the way.

      “When I see things that I really get excited about artistically, I kind of want to possess them,” Pay relates, in conversation with the Straight at a Fraser Street café. “If I see a piece of visual art I like, I want it. And when I see a performance of music I’m crazy about, I want to put it on-stage.”

      A few years ago, Pay recalls, he saw an immersive theatre work by the English performance group dreamthinkspeak, and was motivated to do something similar.

      “I thought, ‘I want to figure out a way to do this. I want to interact with this,’ ” he says. He decided to take his starting point from the myth of Orpheus, a legend that has inspired artists for millennia—from ancient poets such as Ovid to 20th-century French experimental filmmaker Jean Cocteau, whose 1950 film Orpheus reimagines the myth in post–World War II France. There are also the countless operas: Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 L’Orfeo, one of the earliest surviving operas; Christoph Willibald Gluck’s 1762 Orfeo ed Euridice, the composer’s best-known work; and Philip Glass’s 1993 Orphée, based on the Cocteau film—to name just three.

      “There are a couple of new operas happening right now that are about Orpheus,” Pay notes. “He still appears in poetry. Robin Blaser, a great poet who lived in Vancouver, wrote poetry with Orpheus in mind.…It’s a myth that continues to inspire creators.”

      The best-known tale starring Orpheus is the story of how the great musician—whose playing could charm even inanimate objects—descended to the underworld to retrieve his bride, Eurydice, who had died of a serpent’s bite. Hades, god of the underworld, allowed Eurydice to leave under one condition: that Orpheus would not look back at her until they both had exited the underworld. But just as the pair were about to surface, Orpheus glanced backward, only to lose her again forever.

      “When I go back and read the Greek myths, even though you’re reading about gods and queens and war…it’s all about emotion, and it’s all about you,” Pay muses, explaining the show will be a series of nonchronological riffs on the theme. “That’s the ultimate goal with The Orpheus Project—that at the end of the night, we see ourselves. We understand ourselves better because we’ve gone through this experience of seeing a bunch of artists relate and react to what Orpheus is about.”

      Pay has brought together an impressive list of talent, commissioning new works from local and Canadian composers Jocelyn Morlock, Veda Hille (who will also perform), Cassandra Miller, James Maxwell, Barry Truax, and Alfredo Santa Ana. He has also programmed work by Louis Andriessen and George Frederick Handel. Amiel Gladstone has been brought on as theatrical adviser, alongside Adrian Muir on lighting design and production, and Naomi Sider on design. Performers will include host Patti Allan, soprano Carla Huhtanen, baritone Steve Maddock, flutists Laura Barron and Mark Takeshi McGregor, harpischordist Christopher Bagan, violist Matthew Davies, and cellist Rebecca Wenham. (At the time of writing, details of the performance were still being worked out.)

      Reached by phone, Hille explains the appeal of taking part in Pay’s labour of love. “He [Pay] is a very exciting force in this city in terms of getting new music happening,” she observes. “And Orpheus has a pretty rich history, which makes it pretty daunting in some ways, but it’s always good to try things that are daunting, right?”

      Hille reveals that her assignment from Pay consisted solely of scenes from the Cocteau film: “The clips he sent me are nuts,” she admits, laughing. “It’s very, very surreal, as of course you would expect.…It’s essentially a bunch of surrealist phrases being sent over Morse code. And it got me thinking about the time in the underworld, which of course is a fascinating part of the myth, and how people who are dead or almost dead or almost passed over would try and communicate to the living world or Orpheus, but they’d already be dissolving as personalities. So maybe it would come out as a very abstract and obscure cry.”

      That cry will be delivered by Hille, who will play five Casio keyboards and be joined by Maddock on voice. “I’m considering giving the audience flashlights and having that be the lighting,” she reveals—but nothing, at the time of writing, had been confirmed. “I love being given assignments, because I follow my own thing often enough, and every once in a while you want someone to throw you a curve ball,” she adds.

      In addition to meting out obscure assignments to composers, The Orpheus Project has thrust Pay into a new role: that of creator, as well as presenter—although he doesn’t see it as a big leap.

      “I do think of my practice as being curatorial and artistic,” he remarks. “[I have] had musicians sit in the audience when they weren’t playing. I’ve always played with the relationship between audience and artist in a way that’s different than sit-and-observe, so we feel equality between audiences and artist.”

      He concedes, however, that “this is the first time I’ve done something so theatrical, and the first time I’ve asked an audience to move so much during an event. There have been times when I’ve been like, ‘Oh no, what have I done?’ ”

      He adds, with a laugh: “There was an Internet trope that was going around about the life cycle of creative ideas: ‘This is the best idea ever; I’m not sure I can do this; This is fucking stupid; Oh my God, I might be able to get it done; Oh my God, this is the best idea ever!’…I’m at ‘Oh my God, I might be able to get it done,’ on my way to ‘Oh my God, this is the best idea ever!’ again.”

      The Orpheus Project runs at the Cultch from Thursday to Sunday (July 17 to 20).