By Greggory Moore
For three nights in February, Long Beach Opera is mounting a bold production of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice at the Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool.
Recently arrived from his native New York and sitting in a Sunset Beach diner, Gordon quotes from the libretto and reflects on the circumstances surrounding the opera’s composition:
“‘As she slept, he wept bitterly, and dearly / Growing more and more bereft as, in increments, she left.’ That was sort of it; that was my life at the time: every day, something different would happen to Jeffrey that would say, ‘I am going away.’”
In 1995, Jeffrey Grossi was dying of AIDS, and Gordon was his primary caretaker. Among a long list of difficulties was a shortage of money — and so when clarinetist Todd Palmer commissioned him to write a short piece, Gordon did not feel he could turn it down.
But the overwhelmed Gordon eventually had to report that he did not believe he was up to delivering what Palmer had asked for. Then, at 4 a.m. that very night, Gordon suddenly awoke “in a fever” with an image of Palmer as Orpheus with his clarinet as the classical Orpheus’s lyre.
“I ran to the dining room table and wrote the text in an hour,” he recalls. Sensing a strange energy, at 5 a.m. Grossi was awake, and Gordon read him the already-completed text.
“There’s a notion that a myth lives inside of you subconsciously, and then at a certain point where your own story becomes too difficult to tell, the myth transposes itself onto you so that you can tell your story. That is exactly what happened,” Gordon explains. “I needed to tell the story of what was happening to Jeffrey and me at that moment. Then all of a sudden: Orpheus and Euridice.”
Gordon reports that it wasn’t just the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice that informs his version (the Y changed to I to indicate the personal nature of his take, as does the fact that his Euridice dies from a virus) but the classic film version Black Orpheus, which ends on something of a hopeful note, despite the lovers’ fate.
“Orpheus is torn apart, but ‘Down the river floats his head / From which, it is said, music never ceases,’” Gordon notes. “The beauty that comes out of loss and grief is that some people are inspired to say something about it. And very often those are the most beautiful pieces ever created.”
Starting off life as a song cycle, Orpheus and Euridice has been ever-evolving over the last decade, with a 2005 version staged at Lincoln Center winning an OBIE Award.
It was a recording of that version released on Ghostlight Records last year that caught the attention of Andreas Mitisek, LBO’s artistic and general director; and while in his native Austria he approached soprano Elizabeth Futral, who had sung the piece at Lincoln Center, with his vision of the piece, which included adding strings and staging it with water.
Thus was born the spectacle to be staged at the Belmont Plaza pool, which LBO promises “will be transformed into the Earth, the River Styx, and the Underworld in a multimedia vision of one of the world’s greatest love stories.”
Gordon gives a lot of the credit for all that has transpired to Palmer.
“A lot of instrumentalists don’t take the initiative to have works created for them; often they don’t have enough self-esteem,” he says. “It hallows Todd and what he does.”
For his part, Palmer couldn’t be more pleased about what his relatively modest original request has begotten.
“I never expected any of this,” he says. “It’s become one of the most substantial works for clarinet that there is. I just wanted a little song. This just shows you the power of creativity.”
The pair hopes for great things from this production and would eventually like to see a new recording of this version.
“I have this feeling it’s going to be magical to add (strings), especially with these acoustics,” Gordon says. “Something really special could happen there … something magical and unique that couldn’t happen anywhere else.”
They note that staging an opera at a natatorium is artistically risky and credit Mitisek and LBO for having the fortitude to take that risk.
“(LBO) does smaller works and reimagines them — and (doesn’t try to) be L.A. Opera, or Opera Pacific but to take their place as their own kind of opera house,” Gordon says. “How great to take that kind of risk. That’s what theater should be. It’s dangerous. At this point, seeing that live performance competes with reality TV and porno on the Web and 10 million other things that most people find more interesting, if it’s not risky, why do it?”
Here Gordon smiles excitedly: “But this is risky and interesting and unique — and worth coming out of your house for.”
Long Beach Opera’s production of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice, starring Todd Palmer and Elizabeth Futral, will be performed 8 p.m. February 17–19 at the Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool (4000 Olympic Plaza), with free opera talks one hour before the performances. For tickets and information, call (562) 432-2580 or visit www.longbeachopera.org.
*Note: This article was originally published (in an abbreviated form) in the Gazette newspapers.