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NYC Opera presents NY premiere of Telemann’s “Orpheus” at El Museo del Barrio

Widely renowned for resurrecting Handel’s operas in North America, New York City Opera continues its exploration of the Baroque by presenting the New York premiere of Georg Philipp Telemann’s 1726 opera Orpheus May 12-20 at the intimate Teatro del Museo del Barrio in East Harlem. Rediscovered only in the late 20th century, the score showcases Telemann’s progressive spirit and vivid imagination. The tri-lingual libretto featuring texts drawn from operas by Handel and Lully turns the traditional Orpheus myth on its head, focusing on the character Orasia, Queen of Thrace, whose jealousy brings about the destruction of Orpheus and Eurydice. NYC Opera favorite Joélle Harvey and debut artist Daniel Teadt portray the ill-fated lovers, who become the obsession of the vengeful queen, sung by Jennifer Rowley in her company debut. Inventive director Rebecca Taichman, known for her intelligent renderings of Shakespeare’s plays, also makes her NYC Opera debut with this new production. Gary Thor Wedow, for many years NYC Opera’s renowned chorus master and a much-acclaimed Baroque specialist, will conduct.
New York City Opera has long been recognized as the top presenter of Baroque works in New York –Time Out New York described it as “New York’s premier Baroque opera company.” NYC Opera’s mission of bringing Baroque opera to the city dates back to 1966 with a production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare that starred Beverly Sills in a career-priming performance. With the arrival of Paul Kellogg as general and artistic director in 1996, NYC Opera embarked on a major Handel cycle, with ten of his operas staged to date. These musically and theatrically acclaimed productions have brought the glories of the Baroque alive for new generations of music lovers through the inspired work of top directors, singers and conductors. Under current general manager and artistic director George Steel, NYC Opera is proud to continue this tradition with the New York premiere of Telemann’s Orpheus.
One of the first of many 18th-century works written about Orpheus, history’s most famous musician, Telemann’s opera premiered in 1726 in Hamburg but quickly disappeared into obscurity. Overshadowed by his contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach, Telemann received little serious scholarly inquiry until the renaissance of Baroque music in the 1970s and ’80s. In 1978, a complete manuscript of Orpheus was discovered; some 20 years later, an acclaimed recording conducted by René Jacobs thrust the opera into the limelight after nearly three centuries of obscurity. Since then, the opera has received several world-class productions, including a North American premiere at Wolf Trap in 2006.
Steel has said Telemann’s Orpheus may well be “his masterpiece. Telemann ran the people’s opera at the Theatre of the Bergers, also called the Gansemarkt (‘Goosemarket’) in Hamburg. Telemann was writing for a big, popular audience, so the opera is much more approachable and less formal and austere than Handel can be. There’s a lot more textual variety – there are duets, quartets, songs, not just da capo after da capo. It’s just a more fun kind of show.” Reflecting Steel’s emphasis on having NYC Opera’s productions matched to the most appropriate venues, Orpheus will be presented in El Teatro, an intimate (just under 600 seats) theater housed in El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem.
Telemann took the libretto for his opera not from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as did Monteverdi, Gluck and Haydn, but chose Michel du Boullay’s tragedy Orphée, first set to music by Lully in 1690. Du Boullay maintains the basic skeleton of the story in which Orpheus travels to the underworld to persuade the gods through his singing to return Eurydice to life, but he raises dramatic impetus through a new character: Orasia, the jealous Queen of Thrace in love with Orpheus. Whereas Eurydice’s death is an unfortunate accident and a passive motivation in most retellings of the myth, here Orasia’s jealousy acts as powerful catalyst: She calls upon the Furies to send an adder to bite and kill Eurydice. The myth’s traditional praise of marital fidelity and the power of music now shares the stage with the corruption of power and self-destruction through jealousy. When Orpheus spurns Orasia’s advances, the jealous queen retaliates by sending followers of Bacchus to kill Orpheus. Believing herself triumphant, Orasia sees a vision of Orpheus and Eurydice reunited at last in the underworld. Defeated by her own designs, Orasia kills herself.
Telemann wrote more than 3,000 works, making him one of history’s most prolific composers. His output included operas, passions, cantatas, oratorios, orchestral suites, chamber music and concerti for a wide variety of instruments. He was respected across Europe during his lifetime, and scholars today regard his work as an important link between the Baroque and Classical periods. In the first half of the 18th century, Germany did not have a definable operatic style, with most of its dramatic music limited to sacred subjects performed for liturgical purposes or developed into the musical theater-like singspiel. Telemann was one of Germany’s first composers to explore staged, secular opera in a serious way. If the libretto of his Orpheus is a pastiche of different texts from the works of other composers, including Handel and Lully, then the score is a pastiche of different operatic styles that were studied, mastered and enlivened into drama by Telemann. The bulk of the opera is in German, with an emphasis on instruments and the contrapuntal art, but there are also Italian-style arias and French choral and dance music, a mix that gives the score astonishing variety and spontaneity.
For Orpheus, NYC Opera has brought together a first-class team headed by director Rebecca Taichman— known for her perceptive and imaginative productions of works rooted in classical literature and mythology—making her City Opera debut with a production she promises will be both “magical and romantic.” Having achieved major successes at NYC Opera with his designs for Handel’s Orlando and Flavio, David Zinn will return to oversee both the set and costume design; lighting is by the noted Broadway designer Donald Holder, nominated for eight Tony Awards and winner of the 1998 Tony for his design of The Lion King. Mark Dendy will choreograph the production.
The cast for Orpheus includes fast-rising soprano Jennifer Rowley, who created a sensation with her last-minute debut as Donizetti’s Maria di Rohan at Caramoor in 2010, a performance from which Opera News raved that she “emerged not just unscathed but as a real star.” Rowley will sing the Baroque tour-de-force role of Orasia, and baritone Daniel Teadt and soprano Joélle Harvey will play the lovers, with returning NYC Opera favorite baritone Nicholas Pallesen as Pluto.
Orpheus is the final production in New York City Opera’s 2011-12 season, coming on the heels of a sold-out run of a Christopher Alden production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte that garnered rave reviews. Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times enthused, “Neither veteran opera buffs nor curious newcomers will want to miss this Così,” while Ronni Reich of New Jersey’s Star-Ledger wrote, “It was very satisfying to see such a smart, provocative and well-executed performance.”
El Museo del Barrio
Considered a “hidden gem” among Manhattan theaters, El Teatro del Museo del Barrio is an ideal venue for New York’s first production of Telemann’s Orpheus. Located in East Harlem, the 599-seat theater is recognized as a Landmark Quality Venue – by the Municipal Arts Society and the City of New York Arts Commission – for its art-deco interior and remarkable series of 30-foot murals. Formerly known as the Heckscher Theater, El Teatro was founded in 1924 and intended originally as a children’s theater. The interior is decorated with artwork from Scenes for Children’s Literature, created by Willy Pogany (1882-1955); rendered in oil on canvas, the murals range in size and depict legendary children’s tales including Jack and the Beanstalk, Hansel and Gretel, and Cinderella. The theater, which also includes an orchestra pit and luminous stained-glass ceiling fixtures, was home in the 1930s to many Broadway tryouts, and it was the original location for the Joseph Papp New York Shakespeare Festival. The theater was leased by El Museo del Barrio in 1991 and has since been host to numerous symposia and performing arts series, as well as notable film and photo shoots. El Museo del Barrio is at 1230 Fifth Avenue, between 104th and 105th Streets.
Orpheus cast
Orasia: Jennifer Rowley*
Orpheus: Daniel Teadt*
Eurydice: Joélle Harvey
Cephisa: Meredith Lustig
Ismene: Michelle Areyzaga*
Pluto: Nicholas Pallesen
Eurimedes: Victor Ryan Robertson*
Ascalax: Daryl Freedman*
New York City Opera Orchestra
Orpheus production team
Conductor: Gary Thor Wedow
Director: Rebecca Taichman*
Choreographer: Mark Dendy
Set and Costume Designer: David Zinn
Lighting Designer: Donald Holder
* debut artist
Tickets for Orpheus and other productions in New York City Opera’s 2011-2012 season can be purchased by phone at (212) 870-5600 or online at
Orpheus performance dates
Saturday, May 12, 7:30pm
Tuesday, May 15, 7:30pm
Thursday, May 17, 7:30pm
Sunday, May 20, 1:30pm
El Museo del Barrio
1230 Fifth Avenue, between 104th and 105th Streets
Running time: 3 hours. Performed in German, French, and Italian with English supertitles.
Orpheus is made possible with the generous support of Michael and Mary Gellert and Joan Granlund. Additional support is provided by the Charles and Mildred Schnurmacher Foundation.
NYCO subscriptions and tickets
Subscriptions and single tickets for New York City Opera’s 2011-2012 season can be purchased by phone at (212) 870-5600 or online at

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