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Opera: There and Back Again

Renegade Opera’s "Orfeo in Underland" chronicles a tragic and transcendent journey to the afterlife.

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Renegade Opera’s Orfeo in Underland begins before it begins. When you walk into the courtyard at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Portland, the performers are already in character. They mill about, speaking in hushed voices and saying, “Thank you for being here,” and “Thank you for coming for Orfeo.” Eventually, you realize that you are a guest at a funeral. 

It’s a deeply disorienting way to start—and it perfectly primes you for the surreal wonders to come. Orfeo in Underland, which was directed by Joellen Sweeney, is about letting go of things you’ve lost, but it’s also about letting go of perceptions of what opera should be. At once timeless and of its time, it expands your heart and mind with every note, telling a story of grief and love that is as honest as it is hopeful.

Orfeo (Claire McCahan) and the towering Blessed Spirit (designed by Arcadia Trueheart). Photo: Tom Lupton

Orfeo in Underland is an adaptation of C.W. Gluck’s 1762 opera Orfeo ed Euridice (itself a riff on the myth of Orpheus), but it makes many departures. While Orfeo was male in the older opera, in Underland the character is played by Claire McCahan, an indomitable mezzo soprano whose voice has the force of a tornado.

The opera (with music arranged and directed by Danielle Jagelski) begins with Orfeo mourning the death of her wife, Euridice (Madeleine Tran). “My misery shows on every leaf/I hear them whisper to me,” she sings. From the first moment you see her, McCahan communicates the granite-like solidity of Orfeo. Her submergence in sadness is almost stubborn—she clings to it because it’s the only way of clinging to Euridice.

Orfeo ((Claire McCahan) and Euridice (Madeleine Tran); costumes by Ophir El-Boher. Photo: Tom Lupton

Or is it? Another possibility emerges when Amore, the god of love (Madeline Ross, Renegade’s executive director) offers Orfeo a deal—she can retrieve Euridice from the afterlife, but cannot look at her on the journey home. “How tiny the torment/How great the reward,” Amore perkily sings, making the agreement sound simpler than it is.

As Orfeo pursues Euridice, we witness remarkable sights, including an army of Furies, who wear Green Goblin-style masks designed by Elliot Menard on their foreheads and hands. The Furies are as funny as they are frightening, which is the point. Orfeo in Underland takes loss seriously, but it has an impish spirit, reminding us that even dire emotional pain can exist alongside the witty and the weird.

Euridice doesn’t appear until the final act, which reworks the conclusions of both the myth of Orpheus (which ended in tragedy) and Orfeo ed Euridice (which wrapped it with forced optimism). Orfeo has to confront the depth of her grief when she is told, “The world is now too dangerous/And too beautiful/For anything but love,” a benediction adapted from a poem given as a gift at Burning Man in 2015 (Ross discovered it during her research).

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With those words, Orfeo in Underland exposes its soul. It accepts anguish as a part of life, but recognizes the need to look beyond it—the need to believe in the possibility of loving again, even if you can’t immediately see or feel it. That belief is echoed in the finale of the opera, which asks audience members to place flowers on a wreath, a communal act of faith that allows you to not just watch Orfeo, but to be there for her.

Because it is being performed outside in the middle of downtown Portland, Orfeo in Underland risks being at the mercy of traffic noise. Yet as the story was sung in the preview performance I attended, I was never fully aware of anything beyond the production. Orfeo in Underland absorbed me, and while I watched and listened, the world felt a little less dangerous and seemed to be overflowing with beauty and love.

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  • Orfeo in Underland will be performed 7:30 Saturday and Sunday, July 31 and August 1 (Friday, July 30’s performance is sold out), at First Presbyterian Church, 1200 S.W. Alder St, Portland. Ticket and scheduling information: https://www.renegadeopera.org/2021-orfeo-in-underland

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bennett Campbell Ferguson is a Portland-based arts journalist. In addition to writing for Oregon Arts Watch, he writes about plays and movies for Willamette Week and is the editor in chief of the blog and podcast T.H.O. Movie Reviews. He first tried his hand at journalism when he was 13 years old and decided to start reviewing science fiction and fantasy movies – a hobby that, over the course of a decade, expanded into a passion for writing about the arts to engage, entertain, and, above, spark conversation. Bennett is also a graduate of Portland State University (where he studied film) and the University of Oregon (where he studied journalism).

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