- Andrew Alexander For the AJC
Dancers in the balcony. Giant spheres dangling from the ceiling. A procession that begins in a Zen garden.
It all sounds about as far as you can get from a typical evening at Symphony Hall. But then, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s production of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s 1761 opera “Orfeo ed Euridice” promises to be anything but typical.
The unusual fanfare around the event centers on the participation of renowned countertenor David Daniels in the starring role of Orpheus. But the ambitious production features significant contributions from many other acclaimed visiting artists, including Daniel Arsham, whose installation “Hourglass” currently occupies the Anne Cox Chambers wing of the High Museum. For “Orfeo,” he has created two enormous orbs to hang over the stage.
And then, of course, there is the special alchemy that occurs when ASO Music Director Robert Spano and Glo founder/choreographer Lauri Stallings collaborate.
At first glance, they seem an unlikely pair, the dapper, tuxedoed conductor of classical music and the scrappy, independent choreographer known for edgy performances on the city streets. But “Orfeo” actually marks the fourth time the two artists, and good friends, have worked together.
“The first time I saw her moving artists dance to my own music, I burst into tears because it was coming from such deep understanding,” says Spano. “Lauri’s musical sensibilities are so keen.”
The two first met in 2011 when they collaborated on a production of Finnish composer Kajia Saariaho’s 1991 ballet “Maa” for the contemporary chamber ensemble, Sonic Generator.
Spano and Stallings reunited for a September 2014 performance of “Rite of Spring” at the Goat Farm Arts Center, where Stallings’ company, Glo, is based. Spano played Stravinsky’s piano transcription of the orchestral work, as well as a portion of a new original composition, and Stallings choreographed. They worked together at the Goat Farm again in September 2016 for “cloth/field,” in which Stallings choreographed movement for Spano’s performance of his completed piano composition.
Throughout their work together, Spano has often ventured into territory not typically associated with a conductor of classical music: He’s played piano barefoot, he’s assumed the lotus position, he’s donned a kilt, and he’s even danced.
“Among Lauri’s many and wide-ranging gifts is her ability to work with amateurs, people with no previous dance or movement experience, and make something beautiful happen. I’ve loved walking way out on that limb with her,” says Spano.
“It is rather a remarkable thing to see a world-renowned conductor dance,” says Evans Mirageas, ASO’s vice president of artistic planning. “I don’t think you’d get (Chicago Symphony conductor) Riccardo Muti to do it.”
For “Orfeo,” Stallings’ choreography will be performed by seven female dancers beginning in the balcony and eventually migrating onto the stage of Symphony Hall. But 45 minutes before each performance begins, one of the dancers will migrate from Arsham’s Zen garden installation at the High and lead attendees into Symphony Hall for the concert.
Stallings’ choreography is a natural fit for “Orfeo,” says Spano.
“From the beginning, ‘Orfeo’ was conceived as a work involving dancers and sets and theatrical presentation. A synthesis of art forms has always been at the heart of opera.”
To that end, the Atlanta Symphony enlisted renowned Scottish director James Alexander to oversee the production. Says Mirageas, Alexander is especially adept at pulling together multiple elements like dance and visual art while also keeping the symphony orchestra at the center of the work.
ASO Media will record the live performance, which, somewhat surprisingly, will be singer Daniels’ first complete recording of the very work that has won him some of the greatest acclaim throughout his career. Given his pick of supporting soloists, he chose renowned soprano Susanna Phillips to sing Euridice and rising star soprano Janai Brugger to sing the role of Amore.
Because the concert will be recorded, dancers will have to move, step, jump and breathe in near total silence (something Stallings describes, with remarkable equanimity, as a “healthy, new challenge”). But perhaps most challenging of all, her community-minded, philosophically-driven company must enter for the first time into the formal world of opera. If Stallings has occasionally pulled Spano out of his comfort zone, then it seems, in this latest collaboration, he is pulling her out of hers.
“It’s like he already sees what’s inside the clay,” she says. “He’s a nurturer. That’s special. I don’t know many conductors, but I wonder how many of them are as nurturing as he is. He doesn’t have a lot of personal time, but there he is devoting those resources to rising composers, visual artists, choreographers.”
Throughout it all, Stallings says that the insightful guidance of Spano has been invaluable.
“When costumes came up, I asked the obvious: ‘Can the dancers be naked?’” she says. “There was just a long silence. No one ever responded. I think they were just like, ‘Come on, Stallings. Figure that one out.’ … It’s been a form of debate and bargaining. That’s always the case, whether the movement is finding its way into a traditional environment or an urban space.”Folding her own particular aesthetic into the enormous, smoothly-running machine of the Atlanta Symphony hasn’t always gone without a hitch, Stallings admits.