Orpheus in the Underworld Behind the Scenes

School News
by Charlotte Force

This story is ancient and well-known – Orpheus’ beloved wife Eurydice passes away. Heartbroken, Orpheus follows her to the underworld, braving godly queens and a three-headed dog to find her. When they re-unite, he is allowed to take her back to the land of the living on one condition: that he not look back to check that she is following him.

This is not that story.

The original title is Orphee aux enfers, which translates from the French as Orpheus in the Underworld. It’s an opera bouffe composed by Jacques Offenbach to a text written originally in French by Ludovic Haleyy. First performed in 1858, the opera revisits the old Greek tale of the loving couple of Orpheus and Eurydice in a reinterpretation that is satirical, sometimes shocking, and modern even by today’s standards. It is one of Offenbach’s burlesques, featuring the “Infernal Gallop” number that shocker audiences in the premier, and is now known outside of classical music as the “can-can”.

In this piece, Orpheus and Eurydice are indeed married. They also happen to despise each other. Each is in love with someone else – Eurydice is in love with Aristeaus, and Orpheus is in love with Chloë, shepherd and shepherdess, respectively. This is not a story of a man retrieving his precious wife, but a series of poignant – comical and dramatic – events about the gods interfering with mortals. The couple is married, Eurydice dies, and Orpheus looks back… but you’ll have to see the opera to know what happens in between in Offenbach’s "profanation of holy and glorious antiquity," as Jules Janin reviewed back in 1858.

LaGuardia’s production of Orpheus in the Underworld, directed by Mary Ann Swerdfeger and conducted by Joseph Meyers, is set to open April 1st. Preparations started way back in Fall semester in the vocal department’s Opera Workshop, where students prepped and auditions for parts in the show. After months of hard work and late nights, vocal students, tech majors, LaGuardia staff, and consultants have come together to piece together a truly incredible production. They started dress rehearsal just a week ago and are now doing run-throughs, right until Thursday when they will run previews and Friday – opening night!

Today, I went and took a sneak peek at the preparation that goes into a dress rehearsal. The Saturday night cast was doing a run of Act II, so I got to see the incredible costumes – from Orpheus to Pluto to a person dunked in a lake – wigs, make-up, and mics flowing out of every room. The level of detail was the first thing that struck me – no hair goes un-pin curled, and no chorus member goes un-costumed. The costumes are gorgeous and colorful. Modern textiles and a medley of styles combine to create an air of Greece with a touch of 19th century France. There is still experimentation, from costume fittings to the proper adhesion of mics (apparently, rubbing alcohol makes the tape stick better) – but it’s obvious that the ginormous working cogs of such a huge production are set in place and working.

I find it hard to wrap my head around just how much work goes into the productions LaGuardia puts on, and the fact that every cast and crew member shares my teachers and classes and school. Honestly – it dumbfounds me. It’s not just the fact that everyone contributes incredible talent, but the honest to god dedication it takes to pull off a bona fide opera. But I won’t gush. You will – when you come to see the show.

See behind the scenes (or... in the basement) of Orpheus in the Underworldl!

Performances of Orpheus in the Underworld are April 1st through 3rd!
April 1st - 7:30pm
April 2nd - 2:00pm & 7:30pm
April 3rd - 2:00pm