Sara Elisabeth Holmertz

The Otherness of Self

Here the three methods will be entwined in each other. Telling the same story, at the same time, in three different ways. 3532 words melted down into three new stories. They are the result of repeating the story many times in many ways. Entangled in each other they created a strong foundation and made me stronger and gave me even more freedom in the final production.

Act three 

- In which Orfeo descends to the Underworld.




Orfeo left the woods, the light, the sun, the wind, and the birds. 

His goal was the Underworld - Hades - and Euridice. 

We carry the path to our own death in our hearts. Every step we take, from the second we are born, is leading us towards it. But the path to someone else’s death is not for us to walk. Orfeo shouldn’t be able to walk down Euridice’s path. But he sings and plays, and his magical music leads him down, down, down…into a silent nothingness, blind darkness.


Only Hope is by his side now.



And she disappears into the shadows. 

She melts into the Nothingness, a memory, and Orfeo is left alone with nothing.

He cannot follow her now. All the doors are locked. His music has lost its powers.FN


Act five 

- A short act in which Orfeo is back in the forest, now full of bitterness, sadness, and rage.FN

Working on the Libretto - La Favola - by Alessandro Striggio.


3532. That’s the number of words in the original libretto. More or less. These specific words, were written in the beginning of the 17th-century, by the nobleman, and poet: Alessandro Striggio. Elisabeth, the Singer can get away with singing and just about understanding the 3532 words. But Elisabeth the Actor-singer needs to carve out the story, with its characters and drama, word by word,  and then get inside the words. 

In almost all opera productions I’ve taken part in, the director (or myself) has at least once asked me to re-tell some lines in an aria or recitative my character is singing ”in my own words.” For an in-depth understanding of the sentences, gaining ownership of the text (or to understand it in the first place), and/or to make it float more naturally, especially when singing in a language different from my mother tongue, or if the language is archaic and hard to connect to today. Even when we understand the individual words, and sentences, some meaning might be hidden behind double meanings, and associations to gone topicalities. Re-telling the libretto or script (if we’re in a theatre play) in our own words, is a hands-on method to overcome language barriers such as them.

Peter Brook theorises a similar exercise. He writes about when he did it with young actors rehearsing ”Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare. The archaic words by Shakespeare were unnatural for their 20th-century minds and it neither sounded nor felt right. They stumbled over the words and were stiff and uncomfortable. Brook asked them to take away all the words that weren’t crucial and then go back again and read the text as written.

”Once this crude separation had been made, it was then possible to do the reverse: to play the erased passages with full recognition that they had nothing whatsoever to do with normal speech. Then it was possible to explore them in many different ways - turning them into sounds or movements - until the actor saw more and more vividly how a single line of speech can have certain pegs of natural speech round which twist unspoken thoughts and feelings rendered apparent by words of another order.”FN


Using an extended version of this method, I investigated what would happen with my understanding of an entire opera libretto if I re-told it with fewer words, and my own words. In several workshops and presentations in addition to many, many hours in my own space, the words and passages were spoken, mumbled, screamed, whispered… I experimented with slang, descriptive language, short sentences, swear words, dialects…


My aim with this exercise was to create a narrative I could relate to. I wanted to take it personally. I wanted to become the words. Without the music, I had to be very clear with my intentions with the words I chose to say. 

2. ”Orfevs”

a performance created together with jazz pianist Andreas Stensland Løwe. Performed at Norwegian Academy of music, 5/12-2017.

Inspired by the works of Danish musician and storyteller Poul Høxbro, actor Roger Westberg and the Swedish music- and storyteller ensemble Musikteater Unna. Storytelling turned out to be crucial to my research, and this 2017 project marked a turning point for L’Orfeo, in which storytelling shifted from method to goal.

We will come back to Poul Høxbro in chapter 8,  how I made storytelling into opera in chapter 4 (where we'll also meet Roger Westberg again), as well as in 8. (Yes, there are many chapters. Bear with me.)


Andreas and I had already worked together on several occasions, as you will see in the next chapter - the Music,  when the idea of this performance within the project was born. The idea was to free me from the music and tell the story (the same Ovid/Virgil-version of L’Orfeo that Striggio uses in L’Orfeo) in my own words, in a way we could recognize from the opera. 

The thought of removing the music at this stage (quite early in the process) was intimidating for me, so I decided that even if I wouldn’t sing, I wanted fragments of the original music with me, as something to hold on to.

Andreas with his open musical mind and electronic devices created a musical soundscape that resembles Monteverdi, but only just. It was still terrifying, but I felt much safer having at least one familiar element with me.

(We performed this twice. 21/9-2017 and 4/12-2017. The recording is from the latter.)


Act two 

- In which Orfeo's happiness turns to misery 



Orfeo is dancing with his friends. Those who once carried his grief is now singing his joy.


Euridice sees me, and I exist! Euridice sees me, and I live.FN




You died? You were my life, and now you are dead?  

I keep on living?

Breathing? No. If my music is truly magical, I will do what no-one has never before: 

I will go to the kingdom where you are, and I will get you back! 

If I can’t, I will stay there forever.

The most significant difference between L’Orfeo by Monteverdi and, let’s say, Agrippina by G.F Handel, written roughly 100 years after L’Orfeo FN, is that while the text and words play an essential role in both, the 18th-century audience certainly desired melody and music, but most of all, they desired virtuosic singing. Through Bel Canto, opera developed from "Favola in musica” to an impressive, coloratura flavoured melody world with only the very grandest of emotions. No matter how wonderful that is (oh, and it is!), I can’t use that in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. Should I chose to do that (which many do) there would, in my opinion, be too much of the singer (melody and voice) and too little of the actor (text). My starting point in the L’Orfeo process consequently had to be the libretto - the words and how they resound in me as words. Not the ”Dadaistic Sound Poetry” that e.g. Øystein Elle writes about FN- but the semantic meaning of the word and the narrative in the pure text. 

In his own words, Monteverdi declares that he ”Let(s) the word be the master of music, not its slaveFN. The text dictates first the rhythm and then the melody. Because 17th-century opera recitatives are so close to the spoken melody they automatically give us a heightened speech: recitar cantando -the speciality of actor-singers like Anna Renzi.FN 

Obviously it is not enough to do only what is written. We need intention and direction. In my opinion, only a broader understanding and interpretation (perhaps even a personal one) of the text will truly convey meaning to a modern audience.

Hearts beating with oxytocin, dopamine, adrenaline…

They were Everything, and they were Nothing. 

But, someone has to leave, she, because someone always has to go, she. 


1. A translation of the libretto:

The libretto of L’Orfeo in my own words, very freely based on the Libretto/Favola by Alessandro Striggio (inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses; and Virgil’s Georgics.FN)

In the footnotes you’ll find a standard English translation of the selected parts, made by Gilbert Blin. His quite literal translation is there only as a comparison to my very personal version of the libretto.

My interpretation of the text is as free as my interpretation of the music. I have tried to      read between the lines and made the story relevant to me and to my research project.

(You will find my whole translation of the libretto in Appendix.)



But, a shadow falls over the forest, a shadow of a young woman. We can sense her pale cheeks and black eyes. It is Silvia, Euridice’s friend. Why is she coming all by her self?FN



Ahi…Ah cruel….Ah bitter…. Cruel fate, bitter heaven, ah unjust stars… Cruel, cruel, cruel.

Orfeo, I have to say what I do not what to say. I am going to murder your happiness with my words. 


Your beautiful Euridice…


…your wife, 


is dead.


Chapter 2 - The Libretto

Words Words words


  • what are they about? What’s inside them? Behind them? Beyond them?


In this chapter, I will present three different methods in which I have worked on the libretto and the story - La Favola. Three versions of removing the words from the music and starting to find the Actor in Actor-Singer.

(How I worked on the music will be discussed in the next chapter)


Act One - In the forest. 

- In which we hear about Orfeo's happiness, after having been unhappy. He has met Euridice. They have met, fallen in love, and are now getting married.FN



At first, Orfeo didn't see or feel anything but his own abandonment. 

He was heavy with grief, as was everyone who heard his singing. 

When Orfeo was happy, his songs were full of joy. Everyone was full of joy.

When he was unhappy, his voice was tears that also filled our hearts. 

Everyone cried. Even the mountains cried. 


Euridice did not hear his sad songs. 

She was dancing with the trees, as the trees were her sisters (she was a tree). 

She was the happiness Orfeo missed in his own heart.

They fell in love - they became Love.


Orfeo believes it is over. Have his magical powers abandoned him?

No, Caronte is affected. The eyes always on guard, the heart that won’t stop beating, the vigilant mind, are starting let go. 

The old man who hasn’t slept in a thousand years sleeps.


Orfeo understands that the sleep of Caronte is of a magical kind, and he will quickly wake up if the music stops. So Orfeo climbs into the boat, takes the rod and sings: 

”Give me back my love, you gods of Hell.”FN


Orfeo was no longer a half-god – He was God.FN

Now, all they had to do was to go up, up, up. Just don’t turn around. 


While they are walking, Orpheus sings. He praises his lyre and his music

He praises love.

But he suddenly doubts Euridice’s presence. Is she really there?

How can he trust that she has not been taken by one of Plutons guards?FN

The panic is overwhelming. 

Without her, he is no one. 





Act four 

- In which Orfeo pleads to the King and Queen of the Underworld - Plutone and Proserpina.



She was a nymph, dancing barefoot with the winds. 

He saw her, he wanted her, he took her. 

And here, in the Underworld, she is The Queen. 

He, the son of Kronos and Rhea, King of Hades.


She hears Orfeo. His song echoes through the stone pillars, echoes through her heart. 

She can’t bear it. She begs her master to help.



My lord, please help the young couple. Let her see the sun again (even if I will not) 

I promise to stay in your bed.FN


From another storytellilng experiment with "everyday things"

1. FN

S. And then what? Was ”going away from the libretto” your only method of learning the text? Seems counterintuitive.

E. After, before, and during these experiments, I learned the text the ”normal” way - Word by word. Sentence by sentence. I spoke the text rhythmically (with a steady beat in my right foot), added more and more pitch to it - going from speaking to singing in a tempo that allowed me to understand why Monteverdi wrote the notes he did (he follows the natural melody of the phrases).

Prior to making my own version of the translation, I aspired to know the literal meaning of every word as it’s written by Alessandro Striggio. After that, they have been washed in the dry cleaning of my own mind and this is what has come out. I had understood the language and made it mine. Or,  ”to interpret language means: to make language”. as Rebecka Ahvenniemi (whom we'll meet again in chapter 6.) says.FN

S. Didn’t you ever think about singing it in Swedish? 

E. Of course! I remember singing L’Incoroanzione di Poppea in danish in 2011FN and how playful it made the performance to sing in a language so close to my mother tongue. Relevant! Direct! It was so easy and natural to do the Recitar Cantando. So, yes, the thought of translating the libretto into a singable version in Swedish has struck me.FN But, this is a skill and a craft I don’t possess and would be a project all by itself.FN 

S. What, exactly did these exercises do to the text, words, libretto, story when you went back to the original and added music?

E. Coming back to Striggio’s libretto after this, I had a closer, almost intimate relation to the connection between the music and words. Since the words had become a more natural part of my own vocabulary, I was more ruthless when singing them and could mold them into nearly anything - they meant something to me

S. Are you not worried that you entangled your own prejudice and 21st-century beliefs in the interpretation? When I look at it and listen to it, it sounds a lot like you: Elisabeth.

E. Yes, my own prejudice… I will come back to that later (in chapter 6). I messed that up. When the music wasn’t part of my process I took a lot of liberty in the interpretations - I forgot the 17th-century instructions that lie implicit in the music and relied more on the words and how we hear them today. E.g. Proserpina, sounds almost resigned when you only hear the words, but with the music added, she’s playing with her ”Lord” in a sensual manner.


A few notes on the ending of the Opera. I’ve chosen to end the story when Euridice A few notes on the ending of the Opera: I’ve chosen to end the story as Euridice disappears into the shadows of Hades once more, but in the Mantuan premiere in 1607, Orfeo was beaten to death by a gang of furious Bacchantes (-his moaning and loathing of all women who aren’t Euridice had got on their nerves). Sadly we we only have the libretto today, and no music for this brutal termination. of Orfeo. The remaining version is from 1609, and here Striggio and Montverdi (in a Hollywood-manner) changed the final act and a Deus Ex Machina in form of Apollo (Orfeo’s father) saves the day by giving Orfeo eternal life.FN

I took the artistic liberty and end the whole thing before the extra ”god descending on a cloud”-complexity. (There is also a super elaborate duet between Orfeo and Apollo at this point, which I didn’t have the heart to submerge into some experimental exercise. Most reasonable to cut before that.)



2. FN

Orfeo - la favola

3. ”The adventures of Orpheus”

Performed in my own home with me as sole performer and my potted plants as audience. 20/12-2019

Puppetry, inspired by the TV-shows from the 70s and 80s with actor and children’s program presenter Staffan Westerberg - famous for the controversial and creative shows where he used socks, spoons, fabrics, etc to create worlds and images beyond their concrete appearance- and by The British group ”Forced Entertainment” and their project ”Table top Shakespeare”. They also use every day things and supplies in performances of Shakespeare plays. This creates ”a gently comic re-casting of them via objects from the kitchen cabinet and grocery store shelves – as well as a celebration of their power as stories, and the act of storytelling and theatre itself”

It was fascinating how normal things, such as a salt beaker, a glass, or a candlestick (things that Forced Entertainment could have used), helped me take away some of the pressure I felt in this particular phase of the project. it went from ”a big performance!” to ”just things” and ”just words” and ”just an old story”. Making the story as short as I did (eight minutes in all) forced me to ”cut to the chase” and tell the simplest version I could.

(Entire versions of Orfevs and The adventures of Orpheus as Appendix)



And Orfeo is all alone.


No, Caronte is there. The Ferryman is a man with the eternity on his shoulders and adamant darkness in his eyes. He hasn’t slept for thousands of years. Always on guard. FN


The sweetness of seeing you. And the bitterness.

It was your love that made you lose me. And I lost my life.FN



So, you are trying to charm my heart with your airs and your tears, you poor singer, but compassion does not reside in my soul.FN


Where I decided to end the opera... "Orpheus and Eurydice"painting by C. G. Kratzenstein-Stub, 1793-1860.