Arts and Culture

This story about opera focuses not on what’s happening on stage, but rather what’s happening below, in the orchestra pit.

Kentucky Opera’s production of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s “Orfeo,” an opera about love, loss and second chances running at the Brown Theatre in downtown Louisville Friday and Sunday, is a historically informed performance. And the 28 instrumentalists in the pit are playing period instruments.

But violinist Sarah Cranor explained that historically informed performance is “more than equipment.”

“It’s a mindset… a sense of immersing ourselves in what it might have sounded like then,” Cranor said.

It’s like reciting a poem in another language, she continued.

“You would want to learn the accentuation of that language, maybe the connotation of the words, obviously, the meaning of the poem, and then make it as faithful as possible so that a native speaker would understand it,” Cranor said.

Cranor plays with Bourbon Baroque, a Louisville ensemble focused on music of the 17th and 18th centuries. Gluck debuted his original “Orfeo ed Euridice” in 1762, so this is right up their alley. 

The group is the orchestra for this Kentucky Opera production, which includes choreography and dancing from the Louisville Ballet. 

Stephanie Wolf |

Sarah Cranor, who plays the Baroque violin, in the orchestra pit of the Brown Theatre.

Recreating the sound of the past

If you look at the “Orfeo” sheet music, it will look different from a Romantic opera by Puccini. The pages appear more sparse because there are fewer markings telling the musicians how to phrase a certain passage. But the music is still complex and nuanced. The musicians will use their years of training to make choices about their performance.

Cranor has a doctorate in historical performance, focused on Baroque violin, and a number of her colleagues also have spent much of their academic careers deep in this “mindset” of performance. 

They’re also using instruments, or recreations of instruments, that were around at the time these centuries-old compositions premiered, like the natural horn, a predecessor to the French horn.

James Hampson of Bourbon Baroque, who earned a doctorate in historical performance on the natural horn, said one distinct quality of this instrument is that it has no valves. 

“There’s nothing cutting out the airways, it’s literally just plumbing,” he said.

Hampson has no buttons to push. So he has to rely more on his own physicality to get the sound he wants.

Natural horn player James Hampson rehearses for Kentucky Opera's "Orfeo" at the Brown Theatre in downtown Louisville. Stephanie Wolf |

Natural horn player James Hampson rehearses for Kentucky Opera’s “Orfeo” at the Brown Theatre in downtown Louisville.

In the Brown Theatre orchestra pit this weekend, there will also be instruments that have largely gone out of fashion; the cornetto is an example.

“It comes from a family of wooden instruments… and they’re kind of shaped like a lowercase j,” Hampson said.

There will also be sackbuts – the precursor to the trombone. The bell is smaller, and the mouthpiece shape creates an airier sound – plus Baroque-era oboe, bassoon and harpsichord, to name a few. 

Bourbon Baroque artistic director and violinist Alice Culin-Ellison said how these “physical tools” are used is just as important as having access to them.

“Articulation, bow strokes, phrasing, idiomatic passages in a particular style, all lend themselves to the overall sound of the orchestra,” Culin-Ellison said in an email. “I think this is the effect (and affect!) that we hope to achieve — to take the listener to a time away from now, to hear sounds not familiar to even the most seasoned classical music fan.” 

Instrumentation is just the start 

The performers also hope to capture the original essence of the opera’s words. 

Conductor Judith Yan studied a copy of the libretto – an opera’s text – published in the early 1800s. 

“I read about [Ranieri de’] Calzabigi, and I knew he was very, very specific about what he wanted, how he wanted it,” she said of the librettist.

In that early copy, Yan discovered different punctuation, or phrasing.

“It really changes your interpretation of how you are going to sing that particular line,” she said.

Yan also read through correspondence between Gluck and Calzabigi, and said the extra free time she had due to the pandemic gave her an “unexpected luxury to be able to obsessively look at every note and every word.”

Not everyone in the music community is all in on historically informed performance, or this notion of trying to recapture the composer and librettist’s original intent. Critics have said it can rob artistic agency from future generations of performers

But Yan believes this new “Orfeo” interpretation in Louisville, which is actually an old one, sounds more natural, and more current. 

“I have heard productions where it’s with, you know, bigger orchestra or larger string sections or different playing techniques, and somehow working on this was, it just felt like it was written yesterday,” she said.

Conductor Judith Yan peers down at the "Orfeo" score during a rehearsal at the Brown Theatre on Feb. 5, 2022.Stephanie Wolf |

Conductor Judith Yan peers down at the “Orfeo” score during a rehearsal at the Brown Theatre on Feb. 5, 2022.

Soprano Flora Hawk, who plays the departed Eurydice, or Euridice in Italian, said the opera’s music is haunting and beautiful. 

“You get lost in it,” Hawk said.

She noted something else.

“Singing-wise, we’re doing it the original way, but the way we’re presenting it is more modern,” she said.

In this “Orfeo,” the two lovers are both women, and the sets and costumes have a contemporary vibe. 

She thinks that’s how you keep these centuries-old operas fresh, and relatable; kind of like productions of Shakespearean plays that stay true to the text, but set the works in modern realities. 

“Okay, we can’t change the music, because the music is so beautiful and they didn’t write it to be changed, but we can change how it’s presented,” Hawk said.

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.