»Orlando« © Michael Pöhn / Wiener Staatsoper, Hair: Julien d'Ys
»Orlando« © Michael Pöhn / Wiener Staatsoper, Hair: Julien d'Ys

From Street Theater to Modern Opera

Tucked away in a little Viennese cafe, actor Massimo Rizzo spoke with skug about his experience, from a performer’s perspective, in what he considers is a historic event, the Premiere of »Orlando« by Olga Neuwirth, currently running at the Vienna State Opera.

Actor and musician Massimo Rizzo, born in Cocumola (Apulia), Italy, has lived in Austria since 1998. After attending the acting school »Teatro Arsenale« in Milan, the »Pantomime School Etienne Decrox« in Paris and the famous »Clown School Colombaioni« in Rome, he has been a freelance actor in numerous stage performances as well as presenter of acting workshops throughout Europe. This is the second time that he has performed in the Vienna State Opera. He is excited about his involvement in what he considers is a historic moment in Vienna’s famous operatic tradition. When he first took a »silent« part as the butler of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, he was thrilled to participate in this well-known opera. So it was with sheer delight that he accepted the invitation by the assistant director to audition, once again for a modest comic part in »Orlando«. During his audition, he was asked to sing in a »natural« style, highlighting his street-theatre origins.

»Sophisticated composition and general entertainment«
Before the rehearsals began, Massimo read Wolfe’s novel in his mother-tongue, Italian, and is currently working through the original English version since the opera is also sung in English. He considers it important to know the story from an actor’s point of view. However, as an audience member, one can always enjoy the spectacular event with an open mind and encounter the epic story, as it unfolds on stage, for the first time. While »Orlando« is an elegant and entertaining opera with many traditional elements, it also carries with it a significant contemporary message about gender equality and discrimination. Massimo thinks that most of the audience will already be familiar with Olga Neuwirth’s work. Regarding the general audience, Massimo thinks that it is important to seek the »golden middle« between sophisticated composition and general entertainment so that a younger, modern generation is attracted to this opera as well as other future productions. He adds that »not all young people are modern!« To him modern means »thinking forward«.

»Orlando« © Michael Pöhn / Wiener Staatsoper, Hair: Julien d’Ys

There are many aspects that Massimo considers new about »Orlando«. He is convinced that Neuwirth’s composition sends a loud and clear message into the music world as well as the world at large. On the subject of gender fluidity, he muses whether or not this is really new. Mixed genders, ambiguity of styles, and androgyny are now not only part of urban culture but in the main-stream society as well. Additionally, people have cross-dressed throughout history. Clothes worn by men have been adapted to be worn by women and vice versa. Massimo thinks the message is that gender and sexuality are about having individual needs met and the freedom to choose how they are met within our contemporary society. Some aspects are indeed challenging to certain groups of society today. Perhaps a blend of nature and nurture, questions Massimo.

»Increasing interest and acceptance for the new sounds«
Regarding both the music and drama of the production, Massimo is aware of how complicated the process has been. He sees this as a new approach to incorporating the numerous singers, multiple choirs (including a large children’s choir), orchestra, on and off-stage ensembles, electronic music, videos, costume changes, and stagecraft. Massimo agrees that there are great expectations for the performers. Neuwirth is the first woman to pierce the traditional core of the male-dominated Vienna State Opera. This is as groundbreaking as it is preparing the world for a new generation of role models. With more women composers producing large works comes a new approach to other areas of music production. Massimo shows me a photo of the outfit he wears, confirming that the spirit of gender fluidity is flowing throughout the entire production from eclectic and inclusive music through to the flamboyant and sometimes outlandishly androgynous costumes.

»Orlando« © Michael Pöhn / Wiener Staatsoper, Hair: Julien d’Ys

Massimo has noticed that the musicians have an immensely important role in this opera. The orchestra is required to be flexible in order to meet the challenging contemporary style. Neuwirth’s fresh approach to composition encourages freedom. Meanwhile, the conductor appeared to offer a significant amount of encouragement to many of the more traditional musicians who may have been initially somewhat reticent. However, Massimo noticed a difference as the opera’s numerous rehearsals continued, and all rose to the musical challenge. Perhaps there is increasing interest and acceptance for the new sounds? Massimo also watched as Neuwirth, sitting closely by the conductor during rehearsals with the orchestra, meticulously adjusted and corrected sections as they progressed through the work. From his point of view, Neuwirth presented a confident and clear idea to the musicians. Perhaps she wants now what people in the future will consider »normal«?

»Singers act and actors sing«
When it comes to the responsibilities of the singers, Massimo says he and the rest of the cast were given a reasonable amount of freedom. As an example of the flexibility of the production in the preparation stages, he first was only present in two scenes. When the director discovered that Massimo had such a wonderful comic stage presence that enhanced the dramatic aspect of the opera, he asked him to be in two further scenes. From Massimo’s perspective, there is a significant influence of music and street theater in »Orlando«. All performers are asked to augment their expertise with skills of which they are less familiar without sacrificing the quality of their performance. Singers act and actors sing. Personally, Massimo brings his extensive street theater experience to the formal opera house milieu. Overall, Neuwirth seems to be seeking out a certain vulnerability within the performers to create a dynamic, and extraordinary performance.

»Orlando« © Michael Pöhn / Wiener Staatsoper, Hair: Julien d’Ys

One of the most exciting aspects of Massimo’s experience in »Orlando« throughout the rehearsal stage was that he was impressed with the way in which performers engaged in deep conversation with one another. Talking to each other is one of the most important ways to open minds and dissolve the stereotypes that disadvantage and hurt so many people. Finally, Massimo is proud to play a little part of this shape-shifting historic cultural event. »Orlando« breaks rules made by men and frees what is not fixed. Opera and street theater have more in common than is first revealed. In the words of the fifth century Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus he quotes: »Everything flows.«



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