Neumeier's costume rendering for Orphée et Eurydice. Photo courtesy Lyrica Opera of Chicago.

The Surprising Twist in John Neumeier's New Opera for the Joffrey

As a student, Milwaukee native John Neumeier appeared in an opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Hamburg Ballet's artistic director and one of the world's leading choreographers, Neumeier now returns to the Midwest to direct and choreograph a new version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, a co-production of the Lyric Opera, LA Opera and Hamburg State Opera. Set to open in Chicago September 23 with the Joffrey Ballet, the ambitious work will see additional engagements in Los Angeles and Hamburg over the next two years.

How did you come to be involved with this collaboration?

It was initiated by the director of the Lyric Opera, Anthony Freud, but I had already been in contact with Ashley Wheater about a separate project with the Joffrey Ballet. The two things came together—and this was really interesting to me because Chicago was important at the start of my career. I was born in Milwaukee, but most of my training was in or near Chicago.

You've previously created version of Orpheus for Hamburg Ballet. What about this particular production caught your interest?

When I got this offer from Anthony, I just went back to the piece and tried to sense what it meant to me now. Gluck's Orphée was part of a push to reform opera and to make a complete work of art involving music, text and dance. What interests me—particularly in this French version we are doing—is that dance plays such an essential role. When Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, it was considered a revolution in musical theater, because dance moved the plot along. In Orphée, we can see that the same idea had been realized several centuries ago: that dance would not be just a divertissement, but a theatrical element, literally "moving" the plot along and expressing in another form the emotion of each situation.

Another idea in Orphée which fascinates me is its directness in projecting profound human emotions—emotions not used as an excuse for vocal virtuosity, but expressed in simple and direct musical terms. In Orphée, we have a mythical subject which is related in an extremely relevant, familiar, human way.

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It seems that a lot of your work is characterized by stories and subjects that have existed for a long time being told in a modern way.

Absolutely. It's my main premise. Whether it's a story or a symphonic work, ballet is an art of the present tense. When the curtain goes up, we're interested in and moved by the people we see—not by their literary or historical sources. When watching Romeo and Juliet, we're not interested in the question of whether the lovers really lived in Verona or not—we're moved by the conviction of those dancers who are performing for us "now." So I've always tried to find the essential timeless emotions in each situation and find a human movement language to express them. I've often put historical themes into modern dress—hoping the audience may recognize themselves in the honest emotions inspiring my choreography. I believe this was Gluck's intention when he composed Orphée et Eurydice.

Will you take the same treatment with this work?

It will be set in a modern time. It will, in fact, take place in a ballet studio, because dance is at the very core of it. In the myth Orpheus was a musician, but I interpret "music" in a broader sense. So in my version, Orphée is a choreographer, and his wife, Eurydice, whom he loses, is his ballerina.

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Artistic director Bril Barrett (center) in rehearsal. Photo by Kristie Kahns

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July 2021