What will we see in this production that is quintessential ‘Netia Jones’?
Orphée is an opera set to the script of the iconic film by Jean Cocteau and ideas of the poetics of film and film-making lie at the heart of this multifaceted piece and invite a multimedia approach. Like Cocteau, Philip Glass has a special and innovative relationship with film. Projection is central to my stage practice and to my theatrical imagination; it is a wonderful musical, visual and narrative tool and is a perfect medium to work with in a piece like Orphée: a mirror of a mirror, or a mise-en-abîme where everything reflects on something else. There will certainly be projection!
What are the challenges of this opera to you as a director?
Orphée is a chamber opera and the Coliseum is a large stage and auditorium. But the incredible energy, imagination, brilliance and fizz of this score will, I think, help it make the leap across the broad orchestra pit, as well as the fantastic skill and artistry of the cast, conductor and orchestra. The piece never pauses – as in a film, one scene merges straight into the next, moving mesmerically and steadily towards the climax. So we have responded to this by having a very minimal set which in some way is constantly in motion – the scene edges are blurred and we are carried through this wonderful, surreal and touching story.
How do you hope your audience will feel when they leave the Coliseum after this production?
There is an intriguing Cocteau quote – ‘La poésie est une sorte de mathématique supérieure’ (poetry is a sort of superior mathematics). In this score Philip Glass uses mathematical processes to create music of the most intense emotion. It is a story about ambition, betrayal, love, death and immortality and I hope the audience will be drawn, through the mirror frame, right into the heart of this simple, profound human story.
What do you think Glass tells us in this telling of the Orpheus myth?
Every line in the film Orphée refers to a moment in the life of Jean Cocteau – it is entirely autobiographical. Philip Glass’s brilliant recreation of this script into an opera introduces biographical elements of the composer himself, just as every artist brings their own experiences to any work. In this version of the Orpheus myth both Cocteau and Glass demystify the lead protagonist – he is an intensely flawed and vulnerable artist with more than a hint of narcissism. Here we have another myth, alongside the original myth of Orpheus – the myth of the male ‘genius’ and the havoc and harm this myth can bring to the women surrounding them. Cocteau and Glass allow us to question Orpheus, which is extraordinary and revelatory.
Orpheus is told not to look back, but what do you look back on and see as the key turning-point in your career that has brought you to direct this production at ENO?
In 2007 I created a company called Transition Projects with an extraordinary team of musicians, singers and artists. It was an amazing preparation. But the project that really changed my life was one called Everlasting Light for the 2011 Aldeburgh Festival. It was a reflection on our relationship with nuclear energy, explored through music from Gesualdo to Mazulis, with video projected in massive scale onto the Sizewell nuclear power station. It should have been impossible, but it happened.
Sum up for us in three words what this production means to you.
Mathematics. Poetry. Emotion.
English National Opera’s Orphée runs from 15-29 November at the London Coliseum.