Today’s performance owes its existence to a discovery I made whilst rifling through my many hundreds of pieces of sheet music in search of something enticing for the Paddock Singers to have a go at.  Having quite forgotten I even owned such a piece, I was delighted to stumble across a dog-eared copy of something called “Scenes from “Orpheus”, Arranged for Female Choirs and Schools and edited by W Gillies Whittaker”.  It was an Oxford University Press publication from 1928 incorporating nine “scenes” from the full opera, as well as providing some entertaining suggestions on how to stage a performance (“Furies and Demons dance grimly and fantastically.”…. is one of my favourite directions for Act 2, for example…. Though no doubt the choir are relieved I’ve not suggested they do this….).

This was not an opera I knew (apart from Orfeo’s famous aria, Che faro senza Euridice? ), as my operatic experience has largely involved singing the music of mainly late 19th and 20th/21st century composers (I’ve sung a lot of dying heroine roles…. Tosca, Butterfly, Violetta, Mimi…).  I was absolutely thrilled to discover how much more extraordinarily beautiful, dramatic, uplifting music it contains.  It has stood the test of time like very few other operas from its era and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know it so thoroughly during this rehearsal process.

So, my choice was made, and I duly went about arranging for the choir to receive their music, in time to start rehearsing early in 2018. 

The challenges began once I started exploring the orchestral music and discovered that Gluck wrote no fewer than three versions of this opera, in two different languages, incorporating changes in key, instrumentation, lengths of individual arias, choruses or instrumental pieces, and even in the actual music itself.   In addition to this, Hector Berlioz (famous for his Symphonie Fantastique) also created his own incarnation of the score by combining the key scheme from the first (Italian) edition with new music from the subsequent French editions, and – radically – arranging for the role of Orfeo to be sung for the first time by a woman (a woman!), rather than a castrato or high tenor. 

The Gillies Whittaker vocal score which I used with the choir was my starting point for the orchestral parts, and had I been able to simply hire the corresponding orchestral parts I would have avoided the hours of detective work and musical transcription which followed.  Such a score was not to be found, however, and this has resulted in my using multiple different orchestral scores – both actual (courtesy of Glyndebourne, who lent me a Barenreiter edition), and virtual (there are many obscure on-line editions), plus my original GW vocal score and also a Schirmer vocal score.   I have also transcribed or transposed music for woodwind and brass to make as full use of my small but select orchestra as I can (for example, I have no bassoonist today, so have allocated a good deal of the music Gluck wrote for it to the clarinettist).

So, a lot of work has gone into today’s performance behind the scenes…. Even more than usual!  The music is so wonderful, and it has been a thoroughly invigorating challenge to pull everything together.  I hope you enjoy the show!

Ruth Kerr - June 2018


Fiona Monson