This article is from 2007.
Anna Millar talks to composer and performer Rinde Eckert about his decision to combine contemporary opera, storytelling, rock music and video imagery in Orpheus X for the Edinburgh International Festival
The gods are surely smiling on Edinburgh this month, as the American Repertory Theatre rocks up to the Edinburgh International Festival with a modern version of the Orpheus myth.
The brainchild of master performer and maverick musician Rinde Eckert, Orpheus X will see the age-old tale morph into a 21st century epic as Orpheus, the unhappy god of music is updated to rock star status in modern-day America, beguiling not with his lyre but rather with the riffs from his electric guitar.
Reviewers have often commented on Eckert’s imposing stage presence, with one US critic referring to him as a ‘good deal like an overgrown elf demanding attention’. Happily, he lives up to his reputation, as he emerges, a shiny bald head above the throngs of those milling in the New York café where we meet to discuss his latest opus.
With a reputation as a visionary and something of a maverick in the field of classical music, Eckert admits to feeling a healthy ‘sense of mischief’ whenever he is let loose on a classic text.
‘I’m essentially a refugee from opera,’ he says with a wry smile, settling down to a decaf latté. ‘I love the sum of its parts but only on my own terms. I think that so often as a storytelling genre it lacks any irony, so when I take on any new project I think: “What will interest me? Where can I go with this?” In the case of Orpheus X, I just thought: “Greek myths are like elephants; they demand attention”. It seemed like a good challenge for me.’
Reinvented to reflect a modern age rife with disenchantment and disillusionment and set very much against the current climate of celebrity obsession, Eckert hopes to build on the success of his last full-scale production with the ART in 2003. As composer and writer of the award-winning Highway Ulysses, his update of Homer’s epic pleased both critics and public alike.
‘Highway was something that just evolved and worked; a similar thing is happening with Orpheus,’ he says.
Never one to make life easy for himself (or occasionally his audience), Eckert intends to defy expectations of what a conventional hero should be from the start. He explains: ‘I tend to not really like heroes in general; my gut instinct is to bring them down a notch or two. I did Romeo and Juliet once and found five ways of totally trashing Romeo. I liked the idea of really looking at the celebrity world he inhabits and seeing the reality he creates for himself and that which he has inflicted on him. He is essentially quite a boring character historically speaking, and I wanted to play on that and have some fun with it.’
Unlike the Orpheus of the source material, Eckert’s hero is mourning not the death of his wife but rather that of a stranger, a poet named Eurydice, who dies in his arms after being struck by a cab. His life suddenly shattered and strangely affected by the loss of someone he never really knew, Orpheus struggles to find meaning in his existence. Determined to bring back this maybe muse, Orpheus goes to Hades where he manages to persuade Persephone, Queen of the Dead, to release Eurydice to the world of the still-living.
He says: ‘I looked around today’s society and so much of it is this horrifically laughable affair of money and excess. I loved the idea of stripping that right back and looking at what happens to someone who thinks they have everything and then realises they have nothing at all.’
Backed by a four-piece band, Eckert’s score will, he says, incorporate everything from power ballads through to rock arias. ‘When we looked at the original story, the rock star thing came immediately to mind even though it can appear clichéd,’ he says. ‘But that is not the beginning and end of the show. My job is about putting that element together with the more classic traditions of storytelling to create something truly unique.
‘Of course people are going to try and pigeon-hole it and say it’s a rock opera or a rock musical,’ he continues, ‘but the whole idea of a piece like this is to open the gates of interpretation as wide as possible, merging as many different sounds and creating as many inventive scenarios as possible to make a complete piece.’
Ever in pursuit of a spectacle, multimedia aspects will also be sprinkled throughout his show from overhead projections to video loops.
‘It’s simply about imagination,’ says Eckert, draining the last of his coffee. ‘It’s about us trying to create something where the audience can come along, strip themselves of expectation and simply enjoy it.’
Orpheus X, Royal Lyceum Theatre, 25–29 August, 8pm, £10–£25.