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Northwestern Opera Theater launches ‘Orfeo remote’ mini-series

Full-length, first-of-its-kind opera required 1,400 audio tracks and 1,300 video tracks for 60 performers

The pandemic could not stop Northwestern University Opera Theater from proceeding with plans for a fully realized production of Claudio Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo.”

Faculty and students at Northwestern’s Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music used 21st-century technology to rehearse and film the 17th-century opera during the remote spring and summer academic quarters. The completed work, “Orfeo remote,” an opera mini-series, will launch Jan. 15, 2021, on YouTube. Subsequent episodes will be released weekly through Feb. 12, 2021.

The ambitious production was helmed by Bienen School faculty members Joachim Schamberger, director of opera, and Stephen Alltop, senior lecturer of conducting and ensembles. To create the five-episode mini-series for two separate casts, the team recorded 1,400 separate audio tracks and 1,300 video files for the 60 performers total.

The effort represents the first full-length, student-performed opera filmed entirely remotely with cast members in separate geographic locations.

“‘Orfeo’ is a story about loss, fear and taking initiative,” Schamberger said. “In this regard it reflects our current experience in society, and for artists in particular. The temporary suspension of the arts in performance is an enormous loss, and fear of how it may come back is in the minds of the entire artistic community.

“Here we tell the story of ‘Orfeo’ through the lens of an unemployed musician who takes initiative during a pandemic. In this way we explore our own experience through the power of myth, story and music.”

Widely considered the first great opera, Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” tells the story of the mythical poet and musician Orfeo and his journey to the underworld to rescue his love Eurydice who died on their wedding day.

Schamberger sets the 400-year-old opera against the current pandemic. The opera opens with La Musica, an unemployed musician, who gathers her fellow artists to tell the story of Orfeo’s trip to hell.

In their “opera within a film” telling, the story is set in the 1960s on a hippie commune where young lovers Orfeo and Eurydice experience both the ecstasy and the perils of the counterculture movement. When Eurydice’s life is tragically cut short, Orfeo takes a spiritual trip to a psychedelic underworld to bring her back to the world of the living.

Collaborating from a distance presented challenges as well as opportunities. Students needed to learn filmmaking and sound engineering, as well as singing and acting. To achieve a seamless looking final product, Schamberger’s Zoom coaching sessions covered shot framing, timing – and crucially – screen direction since each student would be filmed independently. 

“Acquiring basic fluency in video and audio production is becoming increasingly essential for musicians,” said Schamberger.

“When I heard we were moving the opera online, I realized I would be able to accomplish two things on my bucket list at once – to be in an opera and to be in a movie,” said undergraduate student Nicholas Lin, who plays Orfeo in the production.

Conductor Alltop played a vital role in stitching together individual parts. He recorded every note and line of the opera at home on harpsichord and chamber organ.

“We started with 107 practice tracks organized in recording folders for the students to rehearse with. But like stages of a rocket, once used, those recordings fell away.” 

When the students submitted their individual vocal recordings, Alltop created the final soundtrack to “Orfeo remote” with a remote ensemble of 22 musicians, including Bienen students and members of San Francisco’s Dark Horse Consort.

More than 1,400 audio recordings, generated by Alltop and the performers, were combined to create a final product that gives the illusion the artists were together for its creation.

A pair of “Orfeo remote” episodes, one for each cast, will be released Fridays at noon CST. Information about the cast, chorus, conductors and orchestra is available on the Bienen School website.

  • Jan. 15, 2021: “A Hippie Wedding”
  • Jan. 22, 2021: “A Horrible Accident”
  • Jan. 29, 2021: “A Trip to Hell”
  • Feb. 5, 2021: “A Second Chance”
  • Feb. 12, 2021: “A Way to Heaven”

“Orfeo remote” is part of the Bienen School’s biennial Evelyn Dunbar Memorial Early Music Festival. 

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