While I worked on the characters and their roles (see chapter 5) for months (years!) I had been certain I knew who they were. I understood them, even if I didn’t always like them. Actually, if I am honest I didn’t like them at all: Orfeo was pompous, Euridice childish, Proserpina submissive, Messagiera self-pitying, Caronte a grumpy old man and Plutone a misogynist psychopath! There, character work done!
But, Michael Chekov asks us to be careful when we work on characters. He says: " …try to penetrate their thinking without imposing upon them your modern points of view, moral concepts, social principles, or anything else that is of a personal matter or opinion. Try to understand them through their way of living and the circumstance of their lives. Reject the dogmatic and misleading notion that the human personality never changes but remains the same at all times and in all ages. (I once heard a prominent actor say, ”Hamlet was just a guy like myself”! In an instant he had betrayed that inner laziness which failed to enter more thoroughly into Hamlet’s personality, and his lack of interest in anything beyond the limits of his own psychology.FN
I had done exactly that: imposed my modern views, my moral concepts and social principles on them. They were pictures of me, ”guys like myself”. I had ”betrayed the inner laziness.” I had even seen them as women today even if Susan McClary already had warned me not to be ”inclined to believe in the immutability of gender”FN. I did it all wrong! What I thought I had understood about them had only been reflections of myself and of my preconceptions.
So, I had to start again. Reflect them in a new light and treat them better.
In chapter 5, I discussed my ambiguity towards portraying male figures on stage - how I found them almost too comfortable and ”easy”- and how the female figures were much harder to find. One would think that I, a woman, wouldn’t have so much trouble with them. They are like me! But no! They aren’t!
How could I change this? How could I make them more like ”Beyoncé," in the opera by Rebecka Ahvenniemi presented in chapter 6. She who lives her entire life in the male gaze, and has learned how to move her body, and voice according to the expectations. ”Beyonce” knows this might be problematic, but she is "more than you made me, more than the sum of your fantasies, yeah.”
I wanted to use this power, making Proserpina and Euridice as problematic as Beyoncé, and as comfortable to sing as Orfeo and Plutone.
I decided that I would tell the story of Euridice and Proserpina. By giving them the prerogative of the story, providing them with new words to say, new music to sing, and an environment where they could be…more, I hoped to be able to view them with a clearer set of eyes, not only with the male coloured gaze I’d had.
From the start of this project, I knew that I somehow would be commenting with a contemporary voice, on Monteverdi’s opera in my final production. I wasn’t sure how. A completely new opera reflecting the music Monteverdi? The original idea had been to commission an opera, or music theatre, by Norwegian composer Henrik Hellstenius, but the applications were not accepted and there were no money for it. This had put me in a precarious situation - I wasn’t even sure I could land my artistic research project - but maybe this was a blessing in disguise? It wasn’t a new opera I should make. No, I had to take the consequence on how I have formed and seen the characters through my eyes and vision. I had to let myself be seen and interpreted through someone else eyes!
I contacted the film artist Wolfgang Lehmann, who agreed to make a film with me. Lehmann is a German film artist, residing in Stockholm. He has worked with music, musicians and staged performances on several occasions.FN
Our aesthetics are quite different. Where I strive for ”down to earth” and a simpleness. Wolfgang is more ethereal and abstract. Even so, his double set of eyes - his own and his camera - would hopefully provide new insight, not only in the characters, but in myself.
I knew I was taking a risk by inviting another artist to do such an essential part of my work. I also suspected that my research would be deeply influenced by his aesthetics and tastes. All the same I was hoping to find some of the same friction I sometimes get from co-musicians, when we move in the same direction, but playing with different timing.
The filming itself took place in Oslo at the beginning of September 2019. The settings were the 12th-century cellar at Oslo Ladegård, The Ekeberg Park, and by the bowery banks of the Alna River. It was all very easy and simple: I stood still, lay on the ground, embraced a tree (as you do) while Wolfgang filmed me. In the hours we were out we didn’t talk much, we just did our thing. I didn’t act as either Proserpina or Euridice, but my thoughts were of course with them. I let the surroundings, the trees, the river and the old walls and vaults, do their magic. I just tried to be present and to trust that Wolfgang saw things I did not.
Wolfgang went home, I sent him the sound material (I will come back to that) and let him do his job - his magic. The choice to let him make the decisions regarding the film itself was a conscious one. It was necessary for me to make myself as vulnerable as possible, because I had considered myself too safe and had come to comfortable conclusions that only stopped my process.
In the days and weeks that followed I returned to these sessions in my mind. The black water in the steady flowing Alna River made me think of Styx (although, I don’t believe the river in Oslo is as terrifying and intimidating as the one separating life from death), which in turn gave Proserpina a grandness I hadn’t imagined before. I had seen her as a damaged woman in an abusive marriage, but here she was a strong and fierce queen!
And the memory of bark on my body and in my hands gave me a physical connection to the Tree Nymph Euridice! A woman, wise and strong, with roots far below the living world. Ann Wroe, in the beautiful book ”Orpheus and Euridice A graphic-poetic exploration,” writes: ”It does not matter what kind of tree Euridice is./ trees go where humans can’t. They are rooted, and the roots work way down through the earth/Look again at Euridice the tree. Her name, itself mysterious, probably means ’wisdom’ or ’wide ruling’, magnificent and silent as the boughs or the oak. To go down into the earth is also to seek for knowledge./In the earliest version of the myth Orpheus is simply a shaman and she is Wisdom, far closer to powerful Persephone than the helpless, frightened, empty-headed girl we have come to know since.”FN
Neither Euridice nor Proserpina was the victims my own prejudices had turned them into. Indeed they were ”more than you made of me, oh, fantasies yeah” as ”Beyoncé” would have said.FN